Philosopher Alva Noe thinks ‘reorganization’ of ourselves the secret to power of artworks

What does an Abstract Expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock tell us about our organization? This is “Number 32” from 1950.
What does an Abstract Expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock tell us about our organization? This is “Number 32” from 1950. Courtesy photo

“Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature” by Alva Noe (Hill and Wang, 304 pages, $28)

What is art?

For millennia, philosophers, critics and artists have tried to answer that question. And there are nearly as many responses as there are thinkers. Unanimity of opinion remains too much to hope for on a topic so hotly debated.

And so the question lives on, with each new generation trying to find the key to the wide gamut of artworks that intrigue, inspire and infuriate us: What makes them all art?

Alva Noe thinks he has an answer. A professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, he defines art as “a manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge.” It is “an opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of achieving our conscious lives.”

More than that, art, he writes, provides “a way to understand our organization and, inevitably, to reorganize ourselves.”

The chief underlying concept in Noe’s provocative philosophy of art is the organization of human life. As organisms, we find much of our life ordered by primitive and basic activities that are spontaneous, involuntary and hidden from view. We are absorbed into such activities; they form our biological and existential natures.

That means, for Noe, “We are lost in schemes of organization of which we are not the author and about which we command no clear understanding.” Our organization lies fundamentally at the “embodiment level,” he writes, not the level of conscious, deliberate action. Thus, it is our nature to acquire second natures, to be driven by habitual activities that gain us access to the world around us.

The role of art is to put these activities on display, exposing the concealed ways they organize us. Then, with the activities uncovered, we may judge them aesthetically and use them to find new ways to reorganize ourselves. “Art sets us free. … It lets us break out of the myriad ways our movement, our thought, our conversation, our perception, our consciousness are organized or held captive.”

In short, art unveils us to ourselves.

Art is philosophy

So far so good, you may be thinking, unless you also happen to be looking for innovative treatments of creativity, expression, meaning, harmony, proportion, beauty, color, poetry, space, et al. Noe’s approach is much too abstract for that. Indeed, he declares that a work of art is philosophy.

Philosophy, in his view, comprises a choreography of ideas, concepts and beliefs that exist only in the organized activity of thought and talk. Taken together, “art and philosophy are practices (not activities) – methods of research – aiming at illuminating the way we find ourselves organized and, so, also, the ways we might reorganize ourselves.”

Noe can make this claim, he says, because human beings “are animals who are never engaged only with the tasks of living but are always, also, concerned with why and how we find ourselves so occupied.”

Even so, art and philosophy seem to be strange tools to investigate ourselves. Just how strange? They are not merely attempts from within an organized activity to make sense of where we find ourselves with it; they aim primarily at the invention of writing. Not writing for representing speech, as Noe describes it, but writing as a tool for thinking about whatever domain we are writing about.

Accordingly, with this eccentric, nearly circular reasoning, Noe has a fairly soft view of technology. “At its root technology is a skillful activity;” he writes, “it is the expression of expertise, intelligence, understanding, thoughtfulness.”

It would be tempting, therefore, to claim that art is a type of technology, a type of aesthetic making. But, Noe argues, art is a useless technology because it “puts into question the values, rules, conventions and assumptions that make the use of technology possible in the first place.”

Getting the picture

Noe’s theories are unconventional, lively and thought-provoking, but far from convincing. His ambiguous use of the term “picture” to refer simultaneously to photographs and paintings is just one example of how he needs to sharpen his thinking. His belief that we are all artists is another.

And his entire framework of organization begs for more concrete examples and less repetition. What, for instance, does a Jackson Pollock painting show us about organization? Or a Samuel Beckett novel? Or a ceramicist throwing a pot?

Still, Noe shines when he tackles the shortsighted claim of neuroscience that our experience of art is limited only to activity in our brains.

Art cannot be reduced to neurobiological or evolutionary biological phenomena, Noe claims, because neuroscience has yet to frame an adequate conception of our biology or consciousness. Hence the importance of artworks cannot simply be their effect on our nervous system.

Instead, as living human beings, we – not our brains – think and feel and decide about the value of art. When we look at a painting it is something we do, not something that happens inside us.

‘Achieving’ a conscious mind

Taking his cue from the 20th-century American philosopher John Dewey, Noe contends that our conscious mind (liberated from unseen organized activities) is “achieved” by a dynamic exchange or holistic transaction with the world around us. The experience of art is something we make happen.

“The world shows up, in experience, not like a picture in your head, but as the playing field or arena for our activity.”

In the end, Noe notes, “Neuroscience is too individualistic, too internalistic, too representationalistic, too idealistic, and too anti-realistic to be a suitable technique for studying art.”

Noe valiantly wants to defend and rescue our humanity from neuroscience; he knows that art has something profound to show or say about the human condition. Something irreducible. Something worth cultivating. Something to marvel at.

So perhaps the most generous way to approach his book is as a starting point for further, more rigorous study. Art and organization are seminal ideas. But even in tandem they leave the question “What is art?” not fully answered. We must bequeath that task to generations to come – once, that is, they get reorganized.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or