Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
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A philosopher makes the case for thinking of works of art as tools for investigating ourselves
In Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë argues that our obsession with works of art has gotten in the way of understanding how art works on us. For Noë, art isn't a phenomenon in need of an explanation but a mode of research, a method of investigating what makes us human--a strange tool. Art isn't just something to look at or listen to--it is a challenge, a dare to try to make sense of what it is all about. Art aims not for satisfaction but for confrontation, intervention, and subversion. Through diverse and provocative examples from the history of art-making, Noë reveals the transformative power of artistic production. By staging a dance, choreographers cast light on the way bodily movement organizes us. Painting goes beyond depiction and representation to call into question the role of pictures in our lives. Accordingly, we cannot reduce art to some natural aesthetic sense or trigger; recent efforts to frame questions of art in terms of neurobiology and evolutionary theory alone are doomed to fail.
By engaging with art, we are able to study ourselves in profoundly novel ways. In fact, art and philosophy have much more in common than we might think. Reframing the conversation around artists and their craft, Strange Tools is a daring and stimulating intervention in contemporary thought.
consummation and not a cessation. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience. * * * The lectures of John Cage were the Charles Eliot Norton lectures given at Harvard in 1988–1989, the year before I arrived there to study philosophy. My fellow graduate student, and dear friend, the philosopher Erin I. Kelly, attended the lectures and my account here is based on her report. Cage published a book based on the
is a kind of seeing that is detached and contemplative. It is a type of visual evaluation. It is never simply a felt response, no matter how strongly felt. What makes it aesthetic is that it stems precisely from a curiosity and disinterestedness about one’s very own inclinations to respond. The aesthetic attitude is thoughtful and inquiring, which doesn’t mean that it is not also strongly felt and passionate. But it does mean that we shouldn’t expect to find examples of aesthetic sensitivity
work and move about, we don’t think about shoes, or experience them; we abide with shoes, we rely on them, we use them. Shoes can be objects of contemplation, but this presupposes that they are also “ready to hand” as gear for living, and being ready to hand is not a matter of contemplation. Insofar as shoes are just used, they are taken for granted, and this distinct way of being there for us, being there as taken for granted, requires, precisely, that we don’t look at and think about them. The
organized in my sense: I have twice sat for artists, and during the sittings I had the opportunity to watch the artists carefully as they rendered me. In both cases I was struck by the activity and dynamism of the portrait-making process. There was nothing detached and contemplative about it. The artists hungrily kept me in view even as they turned to their work surface. Far from being contemplated, it was as if I was sampled, tasted, handled, in the ceaseless and energetic back-and-forth of
themselves as women. The mere questions—male? female? student?—by reminding the students what kind of person they are, determined how well they performed on the test. If biology is the measure of all things, then many of the categories we use to group ourselves into kinds of person—man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, professor, cheerleader—are, in fact, ungrounded. You don’t find them in nature as it is apart from our attitudes and beliefs about that nature. At the same time, what could be