'Strange Tools' a Magnificent Contribution to Cognitive Studies of Art

“Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature” by Alva Noë (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Alfred North Whitehead once called the European philosophical tradition “a series of footnotes to Plato.” In that vein, it could reasonably be said that academic philosophy today is primarily a process of footnoting rather than a process of theorizing. So original contributions like the theory that philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë has set out in “Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature” are somewhat rare. That his thesis should be so compelling is downright extraordinary.

The theory goes something like this: Human life is made up of countless tiny forms of “organization,” which are generally ignored. Art, in Noë’s estimation, “is a practice for bringing our organization into view.” Imagine, for instance, door handles, a technology that organizes and enables a segment of human existence, specifically that part of existence that has to do with opening doors. But door handles are generally not noticed—they fade completely into the background. Now imagine a sculpture of a door handle. Suddenly, the door handle emerges from the background. A sculpture of a door handle displays the technology of the door handle, but more importantly, the door handle remade in art, according to Noë, displays our previously unnoticed methods of organization. “Organization,” as Noë refers to it, is broader than “technology.” Likewise, a choreographer can highlight a particular type of movement or a nature painter can comment upon the way a practiced eye sweeps across a landscape, and these, too, provide artistic insights on organization.

The greatest potential danger to such a theory is that it risks becoming just a theory of modernist art. With its trend towards abstraction rather than representation, its focus on the processes of human perception, and its tendencies to exalt the ordinary and make the extraordinary commonplace, modernism obviously counts as art under Noë’s theory. This perfect fit, however, makes it too easy for him to talk only about art in the last 200 years, ignoring the point that he is not necessarily so interested in less recent artistic traditions—Easter Island statues, for instance, or the portraiture of the Italian Renaissance. This produces the impression that Noë’s theory does not pertain to works which do not fit the criteria for modern or contemporary art.

Frustratingly, Noë himself falls into the trap of this assumption. When he runs through a series of examples of artwork in one chapter (“Philosophical Objects”), not one example is more than 75 years old. Although he is alive to this bias, his explanations for it are unconvincing. Past art, he informs the readers, did largely the same things as art does now, but audiences are no longer able to see how groundbreaking and innovative it was for its time. Although this is true in part, Noë is fitting his theory of art into modernism and not vice versa. This tendency leads him into pretentiousness when he has to address a potential challenge to his theory: that art is often comforting. “[An] invocation of the safe is itself a subversion,” he proclaims at one point, “for it is a defiant decontextualizing of those very values.” Sometimes an invocation of the safe is just that. And Noë’s is an embarrassingly inadequate explanation of the entirety of the artistic tradition. Nevertheless, Noë’s fundamental theory remains outstanding, despite his unfortunate tendency to rely entirely on modernism to support it.

Less original but equally important are Noë’s extended—and brilliant—rebuttals of the purely neuroscientific theories of art. In brief, Noë argues that such reductionist theories suffer from the same incapability to explain art as related attempts by scientists of vision. It is true, certainly, as neurobiologist Semir Zeki has argued, that the human eye can only perceive certain wavelengths, and so painters work with the color spectrum and not ultraviolet light. But this explanation cannot differentiate art from the larger class of things humans can see, and as such is hardly an explanation of the special appeal of art. In the same way, while it is of course true that everything humans perceive and think leaves a trace in the brain, neither the mapping of these traces attempted by Vilayanur Ramachandran nor Gabriel Starr’s analysis of the so-called “aesthetic response” explains art. Mapping traces in the brain, like diagramming the way the human eye perceives light, only explains the mechanism that enables the unexplained process of artistic judgment. And the aesthetic response is as unhelpfully broad a category, neurologically speaking, as things that people can see. Noë responds to neuroscience by advocating a theory in the tradition of Kant and Dewey. Rather than responses, he argues human reactions to art “are more like judgements…shaped by our knowledge and background and experience and the larger culture and shared attitudes and the ongoing dialogue among artists and experts and the rest of us.” Art is a shared project, requiring its audience to judge it through the lens of their experiences.

Unfortunately, the text is not redeemed everywhere from its theoretical shortcomings by a consistent and agreeable style, with Noe’s attempts to make the book more accessible than that of a conventional philosophical text occasionally ineffective. While much of the book is written in a pleasant and engaging tone, some areas remain far too dense for a lay reader. Even the cover summary of the book’s contents is exhausting, and the tendency of the book’s earlier sections to demand readers remember exhaustive lists in order to understand subsequent material is likewise off-putting. Finally, some of the vocabulary used is unnecessarily complex. When combined with his frequent use of slang words like “kid,” it produces a jarring effect.

But Noë must be forgiven these stylistic slips, for his aesthetic theory of organization is magnificent and spectacular. Considering his success in bringing the form of organization that is art to his readers’ attention, one ought by his own standard to count “Strange Tools” as a world-class work of art.