How art and philosophy make us human

They serve as a liberating force, offering a path to a more inspired and aesthetically fulfilling life, says philosopher Alva Noe in The Entanglement.  

Published : Jan 30, 2024 22:30 IST - 9 MINS READ

The Gwion Gwion rock paintings, dated at over 17,000 years, found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been .[35]Taking the location of Paleolithic art at the origins of human life, Alva Noe says Paleolithic art is not “a product of history, but one of its conditions.”  

The Gwion Gwion rock paintings, dated at over 17,000 years, found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been .[35]Taking the location of Paleolithic art at the origins of human life, Alva Noe says Paleolithic art is not “a product of history, but one of its conditions.”  

“You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.”Lawrence Ferlinghetti“I am signaling you through the flames”

The study of art is underpinned by the question of value, with life-enriching beliefs and ideas articulated by artists and philosophers that infuse civilisation with renewed energy and enhance the understanding of the world and of ourselves. However, the artist’s work arises from a well-defined function determined both by his/her ideology and his/her times. Indeed, art is at the heart of philosophy and the fusion of the two with a range of subjects can help us better understand what makes us human.

The Entanglement: How art and philosophy make us what we are
Alva Noe
Princeton University Press
Pages: 271
Price: $27.95

In his book The Entanglement, the eminent philosopher Alva Noe elaborates on his idea of “entanglement” of art and life. The interdisciplinary approach facilitates not only the growth of public awareness of the social forces reflected in creations of cultural value but also enhances our understanding of what we are. “Art”, wrote R.G. Collingwood almost 100 years ago, is “the primary and fundamental activity of the mind”. Noe takes the clue from Collingwood and dexterously elaborates it. Taking Paleolithic art’s location at the origins of human life, he says it is not “a product of history, but one of its conditions.”

Philosophy enables us to understand ourselves, while art confers on us aesthetic pleasure, a kind of “release from the states that have pinned us”. This transformative impact helps in determining “ourselves anew, individually and as an ensemble”. For a comprehensive understanding of this idea, philosophy becomes the agent to tackle this vital issue of human nature, thereby liberating us in ways which persist as culturally normal.

Understandably, art and philosophy are rooted in a number of aspects of experience appropriate to the creator’s religious and cultural affiliations within a social context in which each one of us experiences the impact of the aesthetic. In addition to this rich experiential framework, the personal and social history, geographical location, and the prevailing politics of the time are relevant to grasp the truly meaningful and essential cross-currents that have a direct bearing on the production of knowledge and of “what we are”. 

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Noe argues for a negotiation with the march of history, foregrounding the making, and the function, of art as the consequence of cultural patterns and trends in cultural politics and everyday existence. Though it is problematic to make an unbiased distinction between thought and feeling as the amalgamation of words and music, colour and movement, it nonetheless ends up broadening human experience in a way, when words fail. Art enriches thought and action and imbues it with a subtle and fuller meaning that, both in a spontaneous response or a contemplative approach to art, gives us aesthetic pleasure and emerges as the creative impulse. Thus begins the process of defining who and what we are.

This relationship of life with art and philosophy cannot be underestimated in the deeper study of human nature and creative thinking. Without it, our lives would be barren and restricted. For a complete understanding of W.H. Auden’s poetry, for example, a familiarity with jazz and its rhythms makes not only reading aloud an exhilarating experience but also throws a powerful light on the history of African displacement and alienation with the backdrop expressed so movingly through the jarring and shuddering tones emanating from rusted and poorly tuned barrel organs (often termed as barrel music) left behind by the wealthy landed aristocracy of the American South. This extrapolation apparently takes the listener to the heart of early 20th-century racism, evoking emotions far more deeply than a speech by a Black leader or a novel by Toni Morrison. Similarly, Richard Wagner exemplifies German nationalism through the opera that underscores the soaring passion for his land.

Clearly, any discussion on art or music must entail the question of its value in human existence. We are, therefore, always attempting to re-visit our beginnings and our history by going to art, music, or painting to trace the paths which have had a deeper function in our thinking, our world view, our very mental make-up. Life is indeed ever-changing through the transformative experience of art and philosophy.

Simply put, the argument of this book is: “Our lives are structured by organization. Art is a practice for bringing our organization into view; in doing this, art reorganizes us.” Art, therefore, retrieves the requisite material from life and remodifies or reconstructs life by supplying the resources. Our lives are permeated with the aesthetic. As maintained by Alva Noe, it can be surmised that “human nature is an aesthetic phenomenon, and art—our most direct and authentic way of engaging with the aesthetic—is the truest way of understanding ourselves.”

Human nature is indeed complex and no discipline of human knowledge can precisely define our individual selves. Human nature is so deeply protean or evasive that biology or any cognitive science does not have the competence to tell us exactly what we are. On the other hand, art and philosophy are deeply liberatory disciplines that allow human nature to break out of the common mould or the social straitjacketing that has an overpowering influence on our being. Thus, under the impact of art and philosophy, we become inspired to not live in codified social or political systems, but always ready, in the words of Huckleberry Finn, “to light out for territory ahead”. Conventions and habits are continuously discarded or dismantled.

Ways of seeing

Noe’s major concern is with the difference that he sees between organised and reorganised activities. When you look at a piece of art or a picture you either look at it critically, or in the words of Anne Hollander, as “an act of thoughtful inspection [that] we get from pictures”. Thus, all trends in couture and fashion reflect how we see ourselves when we dress up; we dress to make a picture of ourselves. Noe terms this as either “wild seeing” or “aesthetic seeing”. There is a certain amount of “an openness to our world” when looking with a “contemplation of the world”, without any “deliberative acts of looking and inspecting” (pages 51-52). Aesthetic seeing, in contrast, “is something more like the entertainment of thoughts about what one is looking at”.

Humans are different from the animal world; a dog, for instance, is incapable of disengaging itself and sees the picture as a picture whereas humans are capable of reflecting on it. “Wild seeing”, therefore, is an organised act with respect to varying responses to social norms and practices. Aesthetic seeing, on the other hand, is a reorganised activity. On one side is a choreographed act and on the other is a spontaneous act with complete freedom from any design on the audience or following any rules of art. It is like the dance of a child or the tapping of fingers on the table rhythmically.

“Art becomes the sine qua non for the understanding of the world and ourselves. Its significance is often lost among the single-minded disciples of science, but it must be clear to us that we do not understand ourselves if we do not appreciate art.”

Noe states: “Dance is organized activity; choreographed dance is reorganized activity provoked by reflection on the former.” Rhythmic movement in a dance of any kind is a body movement organised to display various rhythms. This is a natural form of dancing that we all do. But when the dancer joins with a choreographer, and they collectively reflect on the movement, and reorganise it for its final staging before an audience, it becomes art. As Noe puts it, “Choreography casts light on one of the ways we are organized” (page 14). Dance, on the other hand, is in its natural form when a child starts swaying and twirling, an action that is different from the dance of an artist who reflects on the art of dance and its movements with the help of a choreographer.

The fact that the dance of a child, though different from the artistic activity, provides us delight, becomes in itself an aesthetic act. Consequently, in the world of art, life begins to change or get reorganised so that “art makes life new. We become something different in an art world.” Noe is of the opinion that “our world has always been an art world”.

Art, as a result, becomes the sine qua non for the understanding of the world and ourselves. Its significance is often lost among the single-minded disciples of science, but it must be clear to us that we do not understand ourselves if we do not appreciate art.

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Noe regards humans as an “aesthetic phenomena” and therefore, to fully grasp our true selves, we need to “undertake an aesthetic investigation of the self we are.” His aim is to underscore the “aesthetic attitude that art sustains”. He intends to go beyond the science of nature to the notion of the intuitive or the emotional self by moving outside the mere physical existence where customs and habits and biology shape us. He would like humans to realise that the “unfreedom” that we live in, allowing the cultural impact to define ourselves and reach a state of freedom. This could “seem fanciful and romantic, unscientific, even ridiculous, to hold that art and philosophy have no power to unshackle us, not from the reality of organisation altogether, but from the precise habitual modes of being that make us up in a straitjacketed environment.

It is a well-known fact that human nature and behaviour are, to a great extent, impacted by the ideological state apparatus, the culture industry, and the operation of religious nationalism. In a world overwhelmed by the unbridled forces of neoliberalism, sectarian violence and majoritarian dominance, the manufacturing of consent and the stereotypical construction of behaviour and values end up in a subservient environment conducive to a complete control over the polity. In such an Orwellian world, Alva Noe has introduced his thesis that is bound to generate enough debate on the antidote supplied by art and philosophy that “makes us what we are”, a state where the people, surrounded by music, art, sculpture, poetry become creative enough to break out of the codified social organisation into a more liberated and an inspirationally fulfilling life infused with the aesthetic.

Shelley Walia has taught cultural theory at Panjab University.

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