Art as the Antithesis of Design

From the footnotes of an upcoming piece examining predictive processing and Alva Nöe’s 2015 work on aesthetics, Strange Tools:

Nöe makes [his] argument through exclusion: art practices which are not interrogative, which do not challenge existing structures and practices are not, technically speaking, art. Pop songs, to Nöe, aren’t musical art, they’re a first-level human practice (or “organized activity”) called “song-making.” Choreography can be art, but “dancing” as practiced by amateurs and many professionals is an organized activity.

And from “On the Erotics of Interpretation,” written earlier this week, proving that, despite hesitations, in practice I often end up employing Nöe’s distinction:

A few premises which should have been established at the start of this essay. One is that, as we consume an artwork (as when we exist in the outside world) we are undergoing an ongoing process of interpretive updating, of revis[ing] and refin[ing our existing models of the world]. And, secondly, that what separates art from life is, in part, art’s deliberate illegibility, its lack of immediate answers, its resistance to easy interpretation. (Consider the way that “design,” art’s antithesis, seeks ultimate legibility/navigability.)

As for evidence that this is a widespread, underlying definition in cultural circles: “Art songs” are typically those which deconstruct or challenge the existing structures of pop music. “Art films” display greater degrees of experimentation than non-“art films.” The visual arts — that is, the only creative discipline we linguistically shorten to “art,” singular — have tended toward subversiveness since the 19th century. “Kitsch” is dismissed as “not-art” primarily for its pandering ease.

Ideally, we would have two distinct terms for art-as-subversion (or structural interrogation, or cognitive remodeling) and art-as-design. Perhaps we would call these “art” versus “pop,” or capital-A “Art” versus lowercase “art” — but we don’t, so the uses get conflated and used interchangeably, leading to communication breakdowns. Often, two sides of a debate are caught believing a disagreement over “territory” is occurring, instead of merely a conflict in terms (map).  Thinkers like Nöe, meanwhile, end up — are forced into, arguably — scrabbling over boundaries and definitions.

Some of the more interesting sections of Strange Tools concern themselves with this class border patrolling, especially the border between art and design. (This is the distinction that provoked John Nerst of Everything Studies in “On the Erotics of Interpretation.”) To Nöe, designed structures are largely built to be cognitively “backgrounded” — to be treated as natural, integrated parts of the environment — and over time, with growing familiarity, inevitably become so. They are built to “fit” with the experiencing subject and his immediate environment in order to send legible signals: bad design, crucially, confuses the viewer, while initial confusion is often a feature of good art. Good design plays off existing mental architecture; good art takes the additional step of remodeling it. Good design has predictable effects and responses from its target audience; good art is typically more open-ended, evocative but without any dominant “proper” response. Strange Tools turns repeatedly to the example of the doorknob in distinguishing between art and design, and in illustrating the way that the art-design distinction is reliant on a work’s relation to its cultural context:

A designer of doorknobs makes a simple artifact, but does so with an eye to its mesh with this larger cognitive and anthropological framework. When you walk up to a door, you don’t stop to inspect the doorknob; you just turn it and go right through. Doorknobs don’t puzzle us. They do not puzzle us just to the degree that we are able to take everything that they presuppose—the whole background practice—for granted. If that cultural practice were strange to us, if we didn’t understand the human body or the fact that human beings live in buildings, if we were aliens from another planet, doorknobs would seem very strange and very puzzling indeed.

In this formulation, on the other hand, art is that which makes efforts to foreground certain areas of inquiry against a background of cultural context, which calls into question the very elements of which it’s composed. Like a model or map of the world (or of other artworks), it tunes out elements of “noise” (information in the real world irrelevant to an inquiry at hand) in order to boost signal, the specific area or vector of the territory which it’s examining. It frequently leverages viewers’ cultural contexts in order to draw their attention to the signal’s inherent strangeness or unexpected qualities. In our surprise at seeing something (e.g. a urinal) outside its ordinary context, the world is made temporarily alien to us; we are forced to assess it either in a new nakedness or alongside previously unrecognized qualities.

Time decays not just material but meaning, even for works of initial innovation and foreignness. With a shifting background context, these works become a bit like the doorknob. They either act upon a culture’s aesthetic gestalt, and induce post-hoc harmony between the two, so thoroughly that they become defanged (become all background, like the doorknob to a human), or else they grow so distant that there is no point of reference at all to distinguish their noise from their signal signals (like the doorknob to an extraterrestrial). When this happens, such works cease to function as capital-A Art. From Strange Tools, emphasis added:

Art that is very old—or from a remote culture—sometimes no longer shows up for us as challenging and difficult. This may be because it falls under the category “important art” and is brought to our attention under glass in the art archives. Or it may be that the work is unfamiliar and we don’t get what it is doing. In both cases, the works don’t engage, challenge, or affect us, which is just to say they don’t show up for us as art. Very often we find ourselves admiring old masters, for example, more or less solely for their decorative aspects, or because of their supposed historical significance or monetary value, or perhaps because they exhibit virtuosity in craftsmanship. And so of course it seems implausible that we admire works of this sort because of the way they subvert or undercut or abrogate the authority of what is normally taken for granted. After all, that’s just not what these works do for us, at least most of the time. They have expired. Or stopped being artworks.

 The sentiment has precedents, especially in the Russian formalist concept of defamiliarization. Here’s Viktor Shklovsky writing a century ago:

Each art form travels down the inevitable road from birth to death; from seeing and sensory perception, when every detail in the object is savoured and relished, to mere recognition, when form becomes a dull epigone which our senses register mechanically, a piece of merchandise not visible even to the buyer.

2 Comments

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read anyone use “art song”. I’m less sure about “art film”; the variation (or maybe just a similar phrase) that I’ve heard and read is “arthouse film”.

    Anyways, I really dislike the notion of ‘art as subversion’! I’m inclined to mock it, e.g. “fart film”. Just think of the victims were this to be accepted more widely! Pretty much all art before, what, the 1960’s or the 18th century (or whatever), not only has “expired … stopped being artworks” – they possibly never *were* artworks originally!

    What art by “old masters” was ever, originally, “challenging and difficult”? What of the cave paintings and figurines and pottery made by our distant ancestors? Is it really such a minor thing to simply jettison all of these works as ‘not art’? I refuse to capitulate to this tyrannical retconning of the meaning of such an important foundation of culture itself!

    [I’m writing tongue in cheek. Of course almost no one gives a shit about arguments like this. In fact, I suspect that there’s a delicate degree of subversion that ‘serious artists’ aim to maintain such that there work remains ‘subversive’ as permanently as possible.]

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