A&O – ART and Aesthetics notes









ART is hard–maybe impossible–to define

(what isn’t?)


I live by leaps of faith.  There is no bridge from an objective reality before me to my beliefs about its past causes and future consequences … every day subsistence and development is by means of these continual leaps of faith, made at every level of organization from perception to evolution.  All my experiences are distinctive configurations of recursive functions–building upon and incorporating all those that came before–and are deeply involved with my conscious and non-conscious feelings and knowledge.  





“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diaryLooked at, it vanishes.” ‘The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.’   

This resonates with our course epigraph (“always becoming, never is“) and William James’ view of  the present moment: “Where is it, this present?  It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”  


These ideas are also connected to one of the great balancing act of human cognition: The balance (some might say tension) between sapience (thought) and sentience (feeling).




… like all great human enterprises–represents and is represented by distinctive combinations of cognitive functions bound in common cause by selective attention.  Before conscious awareness, internal and external, congenital and acquired, attention is the adaptive function that selects some stimuli over others, transmits stimuli to perception and perceptions to conceptions.


Within and between levels of organization from cells to social systems, information of potential adaptive importance is transmitted.  Diffusion, cell-signalling, the electrochemical communications between neurons, all transmit information, and at every level it is transformed as accommodated to the medium, the modality, by means of which it is transmitted to enable the organism’s coping mechanisms.






Discussed in the context of integrative biology, “ART” refers to both a PROCESS and a PRODUCT: something we do and the outcome of those actions.   It reflects the manner in which a diversity of COGNITIVE PROCESSES are coordinated.  

In other terms, ART meets biological needs–including the needs “to know and to be known”).  It can also be understood as

  • EXPRESSIVE (the “creating of art” … acting on one’s self or environment; meeting the need to create as a means of communicating within and between individuals. It involves actions (or their suppression) and projecting or representing the state of the artist. 
  • RECEPTIVE (the perception and “appreciation of art”…attending to one’s self or environment; meeting the “recipient’s” needs) is interpretive in that SELECTIVE ATTENTION is involved.  This is moderated by the recipient’s priorities and what is “allowed” through to deeper levels of assimilation or accommodation.)
  • MEDIUM (“TRANSMISSIVE”?)(the physical substance that enables the transfer of information–the means by COMMUNICATION in which EXPRESSION is RECEIVED.    [how do artists choose their medium? See how 22 artists relate to their chosen media HERE]

And, as you would expect there is a lot of INTERACTIVITY with the processes and the products is always in play as they are fine-tuned by feedback loops to increase effectiveness. (This can be related to PLAY)


WHAT CAN ART REPRESENT?  To frame a conversation, we can argue that art represents anything/everything that can be perceived–and anything/everything that the artist has every perceived. RECALLING that perception is an interaction between internal and external stimuli: That is: ALL STIMULI ARE PERCEIVED IN LIGHT OF PREVIOUS INTERNALIZED EXPERIENCE. These experiences may be conscious or nonconscious, distant in time or proximate, and  represent perceptions co-constituted of specific stimuli that get more-or-less attention. 

So, THE WORK OF ART–the ARTIFACT of a creative experience–will represent in varying proportion the mind of the artist and the stimuli perceived. (compare calculated and spontaneous art. cool, ultra-objective art and outsider art or art of the insane)  

As the great Romantic Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, “Now Art, used collectively for painting, sculpture, architecture and music,  is the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man.  It is,  therefore, the power of humanizing nature, of infusing the thoughts and  passions of man into everything which is the object of his contemplation”   (Coleridge, On Poesy or Art, 1818). [In science we seek to liberate (as much as may be possible) ourselves of the biases and prejudices of our communities and tribes and culture. Is art different? –often art seeks to characterize the culture itself]

  • Said clearly by Emile Zola,[i] “Art is a fragment of nature seen through a temperament.” Fifty years later, Joseph Wood Krutch emphasized that art “Even when it is most determinedly realistic, … is conceived in accordance with the laws and limitations of the human mind…..even the most desperately `naturalistic’ art…is, at its most literal, nature passed through a human mind….”  (Krutch, 1932) [bold emphasis mine]

SUBJECT MATTER of ART?  Everything!  But then even that temperament itself!   One’s SELF?  The nature of the means of creating and how the artist’s state of mind and intentions are manifest–the process and product (artifact)   (OK, the transmitter (expressive dimension), the medium, and the receiver (receptive dimension)– but the proportions can vary and often the dimension itself is at the center of the artist’s concern.    

  • The nature of perception?  VISUAL ART that sought to represent more than the sensations and perceptions of the moment emerged about the time of FUTURISM as artists found ways of “fusing of the past and the present, and the representation of different views of the subject pictured at the same time (multiple perspective, or  simultaneity[9] –double exposures and cinema –TIME!  (see the A&O notes on Time and Space)
  • STATE of MIND?  if art can represent the artists state of mind, even cognitive competencies, can it be used to diagnose dysfunctions? can paleolithic art inform us of the mind of our distant ancestors, even the evolution of mind?
  • REALITY? IDEOLOGY?  Do we want to preserve something that affects us in perpetuity–immortalize–turn ephemeral reality into an eternal myth?   Do we want to communicate–critically or or promoting–the ideology that informs our perceptions? Propaganda? (e.g., http://www.openbibart.fr/item/display/10068/949180 )(read an excerpt from George Orwell’s (1908) “All Art is Propaganda” (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98010494) and other corroborating commentators

One of the primal functions of what can emerge as “art” may be communications between levels of organization within one’s conconsciousness.  Expressions of art are, as the author Ursula Le Guin said of words, “…events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” (Communication? look further )

NATURE?  FEELINGS?  The state of mind of the artist, either communicating their truth or representing feelings by evoking them from within themselves as a Stanislavskian thespian might. (Stanislavski? Read about “The Method.”)

  • Is what actors that utilize “the method” do really different from what any committed artist does? Evoking what is within, even if it involves first internalizing it? Immersing one’s self in the subject, even “becoming one with the subject.”   




The emphasis on the feelings of an artist (the “antennae of the race,”Ezra Pound called them) came to be broadly appreciated in the Romantic time– arguably, beginning in 1800 when (for example) Wordsworth,  speaking of poets, characterized art as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” …. when art is viewed as “the expression or uttering forth of feeling’ “(as John Stuart Mill put it in his essays on poetry of 1833, cited by Abrams 1953:48) … certain questions and notions follow.”  We must ask, “how one’s work yields insight into the creator’s psyche … and “Whether it is genuine, spontaneous, sincere .… a projection of artist’s state of mind (TS Eliot’s “objective correlative” (1933) …  By characterizing art as the “externalization  of a psychic state” … “the “focus of critical attention [has moved] from audience or work of art to the psyche of the artist who created it.”  (Federico Fellini said , “all art is autobiographical, the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”)  “Freud’s approach, pathography*, may be seen as emerging from this larger context rather than as an isolated phenomenon. (Spitz 1985:26).   

[i]. From my 1988 paper, “Art, Science, Arete”:  Emile Zola (writing of art) termed “fragments of nature seen through a temperament.” (Emile Zola (1886), “Proudhon et Courbet,” In Mes Haines (Paris: Bibliotheque- Charpentier, 1923). Originally published in 1886. “Une oeuvre d’art est un coin de la creation vu a travers un temperament” (p.25).   Zola later changed `creation’ to `nature’.     Zola quotes Claude Bernard in The Experimental Novel near the end of Part I: “The appearance of the experimental idea,” he says further on, “is entirely spontaneous and its nature absolutely individual, depending upon the mind in which it originates; it is a particular sentiment, a quid proprium, which constitutes the originality, the invention, and the genius of each one.” 

This view recalls Longfellow’s “Art is the . . . revelation of nature, speaking through man” (Hyperion, 1839).  It was then reinvigorated by Joseph Wood Krutch (Experience and Art, N.Y.:  Collier Books, 1962


Questions of INTENTION arise because many aesthetically interesting products are INCIDENTAL to some other action an individual is motivated to express. 

We tend to refer to deliberate acts or objects that aim to provide information to another individual as WORKS OF ART, while aesthetically interesting phenomena that or unintended or incidental are ARTIFACTS.   Since peoples motives and the usefulness of their actions are not always apparent, even to the person doing it, the lines between ART and ARTIFACT are not easily determined.      

Incidental (collateral or “unintended”) consequences are of great interest in EVOLUTIONARY theory because it is often the raw material from which other adaptive functions become significant. (see A&O notes on Ritualization)

  • In these notes you will learn that even the most extraordinary outward expressions of one’s inner state may have had their evolutionary origins in very humble reflexes, such as many that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system.   For example, an animal’s autonomic nervous system may respond to a stressor by contracting surface muscles that might protect it from trauma (to conserve energy or minimize blood loss in the event of a wound) or the pilomotor muscles at the base of hairs or feathers in warm-blooded animals that help them conserve or dissipate body heat. 
    • A  mild example most of us have experienced is frisson (goose-bumps); or feather-fluffing in birds engaged in courtship: IF the resulting change in appearance provides an advantage (say in chasing off predators or attracting mates) it may become more prominent in subsequent generations.  Behold! the peacock’s tail !  (This is an example of the same systems serving multiple functions–that is, pleiotropy, invoked to characterize the multi-tasking of genes).

The processes involve PRODUCTION and PERCEPTION of aesthetic phenomena–actions or objects that potentially transmit information of biological interest.  These correspond to EXPRESSIVE  or RECEPTIVE aesthetics, to borrow terms from the clinic.  




“…aesthetic experience  relies on a distributed neural architecture, a set of brain areas involved in emotion, perception, imagery, memory, and language,’’ and that it ‘‘emerges from networked interactions, the workings of intricately connected and coordinated brain systems that, together, form a flexible architecture enabling us to develop new arts and to see the world around us differently.”         (Hartley (2015)[i]


In Mark Johnson’s (2007) book, The Meaning of the Body

Aesthetics is properly an investigation of everything that goes into human meaning-making, and its traditional focus on the arts stems primarily from the fact that arts are exemplary cases of consummated meaning. However, any adequate aesthetics of cognition must range far beyond the arts proper to explore how meaning is possible for creatures with our types of bodies, environments, and cultural institutions and practices.  [Mark Johnson here wants to open us up to the “bodily depths of human meaning-making [that works] through our visceral connection to our world.”]

Johnson uses “the term “meaning” in its broadest and most profound sense…. not just a matter of concepts and propositions, but also reaches down into the images, sensorimotor schemas, feelings, qualities, and emotions that constitute our meaningful encounter with our world. Any adequate account of meaning must be built around the aesthetic dimensions that give our experience its distinctive character and significance. A philosophy capable of making a difference for how people ought to live must be grounded on how we make sense of things.  What we need, in short, is an aesthetics of human understanding. This is a big, sweeping task, but one well worth the journey for anyone who cares about what it means to be human.”  (from Mark Johnson’s (2007) The Meaning of the Body (Univ Chi Press, Preface xi-xii) 


NOW, Read about STIMULI and COGNITIVE PROCESSES engaged when stimuli perceived as ART are RECEIVED: the DEEP ETHOLOGY of RECEPTIVE ART


[i] Lucy Hartley (2015) Review of  Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience by G. Gabrielle Starr. (Cambridge,MA:MIT Press, 2013. p xv)    Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 4 (May 2015), pp. E280-E283 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/679474  Accessed: 12-07-2017 14:33 UTC   [saved at C:\Users\Greenberg\Dropbox\NEW NOTES\A&O\A&O – review of FEELING BEAUTY .docx ]



   Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 4 (May 2015), pp. E280-E283 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/679474  Accessed: 12-07-2017 14:33 UTC   [saved at C:\Users\Greenberg\Dropbox\NEW NOTES\A&O\A&O – review of FEELING BEAUTY .docx ]



Communication–transfer of information–occurs both within and between LEVELS OF ORGANIZATION that can be described both within and between individuals.. That is, from cells to civilizations, there is a constant flow of energy that (arguably) serves to satisfy BIOLOGICAL NEEDS.   The level of organization we emphasize is that of the INDIVIDUAL, flanked by ORGANS that enable behavior at a “lower” level and COMMUNITY in which actions are potentially relevant to other individuals as we pursue the interlocked needs to “know and be known.”

With respect to communication within an individual…

“Know thyself!”

With respect to communication between individuals…

As has been said of painting, 

“…painting, that is to say the material thing called painting [is] no more than the pretext, than the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator.” (Read Delacroix’s comment on painting and a few connections his idea implies, including brain-to-brain communications. )

And of poetry, 

I believe poetry is also a bridge between solitudes. At its best, it transports us — through the nonlinear and irresistible persuasion of music and metaphor — into a state of receptive empathy, the closest thing we can get to truly understanding what it’s like to see the world as someone else does, to live inside another’s skin.” (excerpted from How poetry can help us say the unsayable” by Elizabeth Austen in the Seattle Times May 10, 2015)

[Of course there is much more to “saying the unsayable”–pay attention to the play of all your senses when reading or listening: there is no sensory modality that cannot affect the perceived meaning of words.  Reading? Pay attention to the typography, phasing and cadence. The intrusion of intervening aspects of verbal sensing and expression.  Do you subvocalize? [Diary note: after a few minutes of reading Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel I find myself verbalizing softly. recalled needing to move or pretending I’m the conductor when listening to certain music] 

Are you Listening? As with all modes of expression and reception, pay attention to tone of voice, as with music, every nuance of auditory communication.  The curious phenomenon of proportions of vowels to consonants… rhyming… listen to masterpieces of rhetoric (e.g. Martin Luther King (1963)  Henry V, St Crispin’s Day]

The countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo said, “the first time I stood on stage and felt an audience completely motionless and silent, I realized that art has the ability to communicate complex emotions and ideas.  That deep communication with an audience is what made me want to be an artist.” (allarts.org/everywhere)

ART, from objective perspectives, emphasizes The nature and circumstances of the origin, transmission, and reception of information.  At its best, the expression of a individual’s unique sensitivity (“the antennae f the race”) [vi], engaging their creativity, powers of  “expression” and representation.[vii].. and also powers of “reception” Since artistsare their own critics first.    As a field, art emphasizes intuition and the sensual, and is subject to all those weaknesses of one’s perceptions–that is, senses are notoriously vulnerable to illusion, confusion, and bias and percepts are often of uncertain origin: that is, corresponding to systematic errors of senses or something of purely internal origin such as imagery imposed on scotoma, visual migraine, or vivid memories evoked by ambiguous stimuli.[viii] Non-conscious knowledge (latent learning, intuition) is highly valued and is often recognized by spontaneity and impulsiveness.  


Reality-testing of stimuli and the percepts they lead are cognitive processes that emphasize CORRESPONDENCE between an idea or contents of one’s mind and an external representation.  COHERENCE is the complementary form of reality-testing in which the validity of one’s ideas or actions is corroborated by how well they “fit in” with other ideas of that individual or the ideas of others.  The validity of an artist’s actions or production may be provided by other people’s applause or silence as representative of their shared but ineffable feelings.


Art emerges from “making a stimulus special” (Dissanayake 1992[ix]) and functions best by identifying and representing the “essence” of a constellation of ideas—a selective attention to a key fragment that evokes a larger phenomenon, a focal idea that can be the attractor for many related ideas—as in ecphory, the “seed” around which a constellation of related ideas forms.[x]  (Quoted from Greenberg et al 2017, The Art and Science of Teaching.) A stimulus is special because of the selective attention of the artist and the selective attention of the observer.  They necessary collaborate in every work of art”  (Adapted from Greenberg et al. 2017)


Can we say that art has meaning? 

Mark Johnson (2007) states that “meaning is more than words and deeper than concepts” (p.1) and “Following Dewey, [he makes the case] that aesthetics must become the basis for any profound understanding of meaning and thought.  Aesthetics is properly an investigation of everything that goes into human meaning-making, and its traditional focus on the arts  stems primarily from the fact that arts are exemplary cases of consummated meaning.” (p.xi)   


At its best, there is a conjunction of MEANING and WONDER  (van der Goor et al., 2017) –Even MEANING and AWE (read A&O notes on The SUBLIME)





To the great artist, everything in nature has character; for the unswerving directness of his observation searches out the hidden meaning of all things.

(Auguste Rodin (1912) Art )









*PATHOGRAPHY can be considered as “the study of the life of an individual or the history of a community with regard to the influence of a particular disease or psychological disorder.  

“pathography is a psychoanalytic approach to the realm of art that depends on detailed knowledge of an artist’s personal life history”