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Art as Philosophical Practice

Weschler in Conversation with Alva NoĆ«, from the Strange Pilgrims catalog, Austin Contemporary  | Friday, Oct 02, 2015

Art as Philosophical Practice

As part of the catalog for "Strange Pilgrims," a show of phenomenolgically pitched, experiential art at the Austin Contemporary in the fall of 2015, Weschler and UC Berkeley philosopher of mind Alva Nöe held a conversation on the notion of art as a philosophical practice, and philosophy as an aesthetical one.

Following is the edited transcript of the interview between that took place on July 12, 2014, at the invitation of the curator Heather Pesanti.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: This is a conversation about a show that is going to take place in September 2015 in Austin dealing with experiential art—which is to say art that is immersive, participatory, kinetic. The show is titled Strange Pilgrims, which I thought was uncanny, Alva, because you are in the midst of writing a book called Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, in which one of your main themes is the way the true job of art is philosophical, whereas philosophy’s profound task is aesthetical. Still and all, it occurred to me that there’s a paradox about the philosophical nature of writing or talking or for that matter reading about experiential art, which, as in our case, one may not have actually been able to experience.

ALVA NOË: The idea that you might or might not be able to talk about experiential art in the absence of the experience comes up in the work of [Robert] Irwin and in your engagement with his work. It’s somehow this idea that we corrupt the thing with our words, but paradoxically, as both you and he show, there is an inescapability of the impulse to articulate.

WESCHLER: The title of the book of mine you’re referring to is Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees—as if to truly see, you just have to dispense with words  altogether.

NOË: Yes, there is an opposition between immediate engagement, flow, conscious- ness, in-touchedness with the world around us, on the one hand, and thoughtfulness, reflection, rigor, intellect, self-awareness, and analysis, on the other hand. And yet I think it’s one of the scourges of intellectual culture that we still live inside that opposition. Dancers and creative artists are completely trapped inside this dichotomy: they like to think that they are body workers—which of course, they are—but don’t often realize that work with their bodies couldn’t happen if not for conversation and verbalized gesture and response. Even the idea that language is disembodied and dancing is truly embodied is misleading—rather, it’s all fragile and interwoven, and you can’t have the one without the other. Here I’m thinking again of Irwin’s work, as opposed to the conventional work of art, which is framed and presented in an art space, affording a special kind of reflection, with a caption, a wall text, and a catalogue, and a docent leading people around.

WESCHLER: Even if the caption is, “You are now entering a space for experience.”

NOË: Exactly. Part of the study of consciousness attempts to use philosophy and neuroscience to explain art. But art is not a phenomenon for us to study; it’s a mode of investigating questions that aims at some kind of understanding. The choreographer William Forsythe says that ideas can be very emotional, or hot. And where does philosophy begin? It starts from puzzlement, a hot state of being. It’s not an anti-experiential state; it’s an emotional state, as well as an intellectual one.

WESCHLER: You wake up in a state of freefall, like Spider-Man flying through the world. And he sends out strings, grappling hooks, literally to get his bearings.

NOË: That’s a beautiful image. They are the bearings, but you don’t control where the grappling hook lands. And your successful grappling doesn’t give a real map or an overview of where you are, except in a practical sense, in that it anchors you in your environment and secures your place.

WESCHLER: Irwin had an installation at the Whitney [Museum of American Art] in 1977, which was recently reprised, where he cast that incredible Scrim veil [Scrim veil—Black rectangle—Natural light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York] across the middle of the otherwise empty gallery on the fourth floor. In the experi- ence, the elevator doors opened and the viewer entered a state of disorienting freef- all. Irwin has always said he likes to catch the viewer up into a self-aware state, to get you to perceive yourself perceiving. But I too would argue that at such moments you are using words in your head; despite what Irwin says, you are verbally grappling in the midst of your perceptual freefall. If nothing else, you perceive yourself saying, “What the hell is this?” Or in the Whitney show’s case, “What in heaven’s name . . . ?”

NOË: Sarah Michelson did a dance performance in that same Whitney gallery space a while back called Devotion [Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer], consist- ing in part of bodies spinning in a rigorously repeated motion, over and over, for some ninety minutes, oscillating between an ecstatic whirling dervish spin and a balletic, controlled exercise. One of the effects was that the dancers’ costumes became darkened with sweat over time, contrasting the sweaty labor of hard work with a kind of angelic, graceful display. I thought it was a really marvelous piece—I was practically brimming with emotion, it was so intoxicatingly fantastic. But the friend I was with, a brilliant man and a lover of art, turned to me and said, “This is the most wrist-slittingly dull experience I’ve ever had.” One of the pictures that I built the book Strange Tools around is this idea that every work of art says to you,

“See me, if you can.” At the initial moment, it’s precisely that you can’t see me. I’m out of focus. I’m either too familiar to bother noticing, or I’m too strange to stand out, or I look like everything else. I might just be dancers on the stage moving in no apparent order, or I might be one picture in a gallery that looks like every other picture in the gallery—

WESCHLER: Or a room that doesn’t seem to have anything in it.

NOË: —Or a room that doesn’t seem to have anything in it, or a garden that looks like it’s just a walkway. The choreographer Jonathan Burrows once suggested there’s almost an implicit contract between the artist and the audience whereby there will be some resources made available to allow seeing to happen, such that one comes to see that which one couldn’t see. One moves from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing differently.

Now, that’s an art transformation. Much of the task of a philosophical text is convincing the reader that there’s a problem that needs dealing with in the first place. For example, for all we know, they say, the external world might not exist; it could be just a dream. So you have to spend a lot of time trying to first bring me to the point where that seems to be, at least intellectually, a live possibility, and then try to work your way out of it. And the best philosophers do wonderful jobs leading you into it, though much less wonderful jobs leading you out of it.

The work of art in that sense is like the prop for a little mini Socratic dialogue, giving you something you can’t see, putting you in a situation you realize you can’t see, so that then you are afforded the opportunity to work to try to bring it into focus. In the case of the dance where my friend got nothing out of it—at least at that moment—sometimes you get something much later. Maybe my friend at the Whitney performance thought about it later on and got something more out of it.

WESCHLER: Maybe he will when he reads this.

NOË: Maybe! Back to Irwin, though—he’s not just a free-spirited Southern Califor- nia guy in his convertible listening to music; he’s actually curating an experience for you and giving you certain resources to conceptualize it. In contrast to noisy chaos, he’s giving you simple, sleek scrim and gray light and geometry and spatiality.

WESCHLER: In fact, he’s willing to do both, because at his Central Garden at the Getty, by contrast, he actively entertains the exterior noise and chaos. In all cases, though, he’s asking you simply to attend. It seems to me—to come back to what we started with, art being a philosophical practice—that the command “Only attend” is also what Socrates and Kant were saying. That is a profoundly philosophical posture toward the world. Stop and look at what’s going on here!

NOË: Philosophers like to say that Socrates was, if not the first philosopher, then the founder of our philosophical tradition, and yet he never wrote anything down. We only know what he thinks through the imaginative transcriptions of Plato. So he’s held up as an example of philosophy having roots in a kind of orality. But interest- ingly, these so-called conversations are in fact examples of the interruption—or disruption—of conversation, in that he constantly makes his subjects reflect on their words, on their language, on what they take for granted; he demands that they define their terms.

WESCHLER: When I was in freshman seminar at [University of California at] Santa Cruz led by [literary theorist and critic] Harry Berger, our first reading was Socrates’ The Republic. And on the first day of class, I precociously said, “This is ridiculous and stupid. Socrates says something decidedly dubious and these idiots keep responding, ‘Yes, Socrates, you are right.’ But he’s not right. No wonder he wins every argument.” And Harry looked over at me and he said, “The thing of it is, Ren, you’re a freshman and Plato is a genius. And he’s playing you like a piano.” [laughter] “Why don’t you shut up and listen to the music? Does it occur to you that for Plato, Socrates’ tragedy was that he never found someone worthy to talk to, and that the dialogue is a form, such that when you read it, perhaps you can be the person that he can at last have a conversation with. But first you have to listen.” That was an incred- ibly invaluable lesson for the first week of one’s college education. And it relates to how we can also begin to engage in a philosophical discussion with a piece of art.

NOË: With Socrates, there’s a critique of orality at play. If you think of the role that Homeric poetry played, in terms of passing on cultural lore and knowledge and having encyclopedic wisdom, language itself is taken for granted. It’s memorized in chunks and recited; it’s not made the problem. Socrates rejects poetry, insofar as he rejects mere conversation and orality. Philosophy is trying to write it all down and figure out order in chaos, or rather, what the structures are that are at play in mere conversation. Conversation is not the site of enlightenment; it’s the site of a comforting, unreflective flow, made problematic by philosophy, which does so by interrupting the flow. Now, interrupting the flow is not the enemy of experience; it affords a different kind of experience, but an experience that gives us insight into where we are. And that, it does seem to me, is the same thing that drives art.

WESCHLER: Thinking about Plato’s critique of poetry, I want to read you two poems. The first is by Eamon Grennan. His book Still Life with Waterfall has a poem in it called “Detail.” Grennan writes a lot about birds. He says:

I was watching a robin fly after a finch—the smaller
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase—when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their own business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

And then the same poem in a different register, this time by Seamus Heaney, his “Postscript,” the last poem in his book The Spirit Level.

And some time make the time to drive out west Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind And the light are working off each other So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white, Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads  Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Here again, this notion of suddenly finding yourself in freefall, and the poet’s job being to replicate that moment.

NOË: The line “useless to think you’ll park and capture it more thoroughly” could be the motto of the entire history of art and philosophy. The idea that we are lost or in freefall, as you say; where we don’t know our way around, as Wittgenstein said; we have not made it into the clearing, as Heidegger might’ve said; and we try to stop and figure it out or make sense of it or capture it more thoroughly.

WESCHLER: And by extension, I would argue that a successful work of immersive art, experiential art, would be one that occasions the freefall. It provokes in us a moment of our heart being blown open. There was a lot of praxis that went into making that thing possible. The poet, the artist, the musician, the dancer, through a great deal of effort and experience, have learned practices that allow that to happen. For that matter, let me read you something I wrote about David Hockney. As you know, in my work, I go back and forth between Irwin and Hockney, who never talk to each other and who you would think had nothing to say to say to each other. And yet there’s this:

“The thing is,” as David Hockney recently commented, “most people most of the time are pretty blind. They move through the world scanning, so as to make sure they don’t bump into anything, but not really looking. Driving can get to be like that. You’re only aware tangentially, negatively, making sure there are no untoward things happening. Minutes can go by, and suddenly you realize that you almost haven’t seen . . . the passing scene. Whereas looking, by contrast, is a very positive act. You’ve got to set out to do it.”

That was him talking. Now this is me, because in that sense, we’re talking about three very different activities. There’s gazing or scanning, in Hockney’s formulation, there’s looking, and then there’s seeing. R. B. Onians, in his book The Origins of European Thought, has a wonderful section where he talks about the way that the ancient

Greeks thought of seeing as analogous to breathing. The world flows in through the pupil, but attention, likewise, pours out. Gazing or scanning, then, is what is going on when we are only passively receiving, at best monitoring; the dial is turned way down low. And looking is what happens when we engage intentionality. Gazing, that is, but now with an outer-directed focus. While seeing is what happens when looking, in turn, engages the mind, when what is looked at gets experienced. Hence the phrase, “Oh, I see!” A feedback loop develops. And that’s the feedback loop that bothers Irwin, by the way. Because when you see in the terms that I just described, you’re suddenly thinking about what you’re seeing. At which point, exasperated, he says, “Shut up. Don’t do that, just see.”

NOË: The feedback is inescapable and we need to make peace with it. And looking, contemplating, gazing, seeing are even more rarified than we’ve acknowledged. One of the ideas that the late Anne Hollander explored with stunning brilliance is the concept that pictures provide the standards by which we measure nonpicto- rial episodes of seeing. She wrote, “The picture is the standard by which the direct awareness is assessed.” For example, she uses that sentence when she’s describing what people do when they look at themselves in their own bedroom mirror. They crop their body—shoulders, face—into a portrait. Plato once wrongly said that it’s easy to make a picture; you just hold up a mirror and there you have a picture of the surrounding world. It’s wrong because pictures are not mere reflections; we make pictures; we don’t stumble on them, the way we just come upon reflections. But what Hollander brings to light is the idea that in a more and very profound sense, Plato could be right, because perhaps we use mirror reflections on the model of pictures, meaning that we understand our self and our own appearances as defined by pic- tures. On a superficial level, this could mean that a picture-based ideology shapes our body image. On a more profound level, it could mean that our concern with the way we look—and for Hollander, the way we dress—is a concern with art, because the art loops back and shapes this concern. In primordial times, pictures, dress, and language arrived at the party at the same time. My friend [the art historian] Alex Nagel pointed out that one of the things that’s fascinating to the art historian is being aware that when you look at the images of the Lascaux caves, you see not only images of a certain ancient origin but pictures superimposed across thousands of years. They are libraries, catalogues, or even museums of works of art superimposed one on top of the other.

WESCHLER: I always thought of it more like cinema. The artist—as in the aborigi- nal caves in Australia—found the cave, and it was a nice, warm place, with a fire. In the evenings, he would move his torch around in various ways along the wall, making it flicker and move, and it became a movie. Later on, another artist would come, add new characters and pictograms, and do the same. It was Scorsese looking at Renoir, and so forth.

NOË: And that in turn is related to contemporary image making. When I go to museums, I like to take photos on my phone of the images I’m looking at for later reference. Once, at a museum in Vienna, I took a picture of a Dürer painting that’s a portrait of a merchant with long blond hair and a beret. Also in the image, because of the way light streamed in from a window next to the painting, was my reflection in the glass, standing, holding the phone. Later my young son, scrolling through images in my cell phone, came upon this picture and said, “What’s this?” I said, “Well, you tell me. It’s a picture, but what is it of ?” And he said, “Well, it looks like a picture of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.” [Weschler laughs] And I was amazed. It struck me not only odd that he might’ve thought that I was African American but that he didn’t recognize his own father.

WESCHLER: So what do you take from that?

NOË: The takeaway was that what it was missing was the rhetorical setting in which the picture’s communicative act made sense. Optically, the picture was perfectly intact; it was a good likeness of me and a good likeness of the Dürer painting. But by having removed the caption, or the setting in which an image like that has any intelligible function, my son couldn’t perceive what it was. If the surroundings are removed, things lose their proximity and become something strange. They become just an object, something you might look at.

WESCHLER: In your terms, a strange tool.

NOË: That’s the source of the strange tool idea. My hypothesis is that by depriving the photographic image of its natural rhetorical or communicative setting, one can become blind to its mere representational content. That’s what happens in art. It creates the opportunity for a moment of revelation and for reorganizing ourselves, for readjusting our position in the environment, for figuring out what we were taking for granted and what is presupposed by everything that we normally do.

WESCHLER: Is another way of putting this that art takes us all back to being nine years old? It allows us to have the vertiginous sensation of not knowing what the hell is going on, the way we were when we were kids?

NOË: I don’t think that is the point. It seems to me that, to use a slightly jargony- sounding phrase, we’re always already embedded in those narratives. We’re never so young as to be before the framing.

WESCHLER: By the way, in this context of children, in your manuscript you have a wonderful phenomenology of breastfeeding. And it seems to me that apropos of a show on experiential art and what is immersive and what is participatory and what is kinetic, that it might be fun to hear you on the subject of breastfeeding in this context. And we should say that you are the father of three children, and quite recently of a young daughter, so you’ve obviously been thinking about this.

NOË: Yes, I have witnessed it. The interesting thing about human beings is that, alone among the mammals, we’re bad at breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a sort of battleground. Other mammals latch on and they suck until they’re full, or until something prevents them from continuing. But not so humans: we get distracted, we fall asleep, we take an interest in chewing on the breast, rather than sucking from it, so that the mother or the feeder is always in a position of having to kind of help it happen or bring the baby back to the task at hand. Thus, it has been suggested that we feed that way for some other reasons—perhaps, for the opportunity for a conversation or a dialogue.

WESCHLER: A protoconversation.

NOË: A protoconversation. Exactly. Or maybe we should say that adult conversation is a kind of sophisticated breastfeeding! Breastfeeding exhibits a very interesting structure. On the one hand, it’s natural and basic and primitive and spontaneous. At the same time, it has an exquisite cognitive sophistication. So baby suckles, mom attends, baby stops suckling, mama jiggles baby, baby notices that mama’s grabbing its attention, mama redirects baby’s attention back to suckling, baby resumes suck- ling, falls asleep, mama jiggles. It also has a kind of interesting temporal structure involving action and reaction. It’s sort of a dance that unfolds and takes place.

WESCHLER: It’s both primordial and sophisticated. And immersive. And participa- tory. All those words we’re associating here with experiential art for this exhibition. Where do philosophy and art fit into that discussion?

NOË: If you think of breastfeeding as a mode of lived organization that characterizes our being in the world, it turns out that that’s true all over. Everywhere you look in our lives, you have an embeddedness in these organizing, temporally, spatially structured but nonauthored situations in which we find ourselves, as if our lives are just these complex nesting patterns of organization and organized activity.

WESCHLER: As you know, I have trouble with that word “organized,” in that con- text, a word that for me is so tied up with the NSA and technology and IBM and the Harvard Business School these days that it has lost its original meaning. But you want to take it back to its origin, its originary meaning and derivation, as in such cognates as “organism” and “organic.”

NOË: But that’s an interesting question in its own right, to discuss that term “organi- zation,” its meaning, and how central the notion of organization is for biology itself. Kant says that we haven’t yet discovered the Newton of the grass blade. So we’ve got Newton, who gives us these mathematical resources to discover the material, the physical; but we don’t have the laws of the organic, or of the living organism—which defies that kind of reduction. Kant, interestingly, seems to want to have it both ways. He seems to think that we can only understand life in terms of what he called teleol- ogy or purposiveness, whereas we don’t need those kinds of notions to understand the material or the world as physics describes it. But he seems to have thought that might be our limitation. An intelligence greater than ours, he thought, might be able to grasp life in nonteleological terms. But for us, and so for a human biology of the human, it always comes back to organization and self-organization. Back to dancing: dancing is spontaneous and rhythmic and physical and biological. It’s also a suite of paying attention and listening and interpreting the music or the gesture of another. It involves incredible interpersonal subtlety to be able to be a dancer. People don’t choreograph their dances; they get into the flow and let the dance happen. Dances clearly serve all sorts of anthropological and sociological functions of cohesion and celebration and mourning and cultural identity building. Like breastfeeding, danc- ing can be pleasurable, and both operate as pervasive modalities of organization.

WESCHLER: There seem to be three different characters here. There is the dancer dancing, there’s the choreographer staging the dancing, and there’s the audience.

And it seems to me that distinction does have relevance to a show of experiential art, where we will walk into a room and there’s going to be stuff, and the person who made the stuff, and us. But here there’s a fourth entity as well: the curator of the show, which is like there’s the curator of the Joyce Theater in New York, who brings in different dancers and so forth. And I would ask, in the Yeatsian way, how can we tell the dancer from the dance?

NOË: The good artist plays with all of these terms at the same time. It’s no longer traditional or straightforward, where you have a performance on the stage separated from the audience. Today the audience is always in dialogue with the performance. Do you want to be close, so you can see the sweat on the dancers’ brows? Or do you want to sit in the back, so you can see the geometry? All of those are live parts of the art. And that’s been amplified tenfold recently, where there’s not even a stage or a proscenium or a clear distinction between the dancer’s body and the ordinary human one.

WESCHLER: Along these lines, let’s talk about Tino Sehgal’s contribution to the Venice Biennale in 2013. Can you first describe it?

NOË: Like many of Tino’s pieces, it was untitled with no surrounding wall text. It consisted of one, two, or three performers on the floor, in the middle of a huge bustling gallery, moving around. The piece had no clear boundaries—it was not even clear that it was going on. Once you noticed it, what you saw were people using their bodies to generate a kind of percussive music, slightly human-beatboxish, chanting, and meditational in its quality.

WESCHLER: My own experience was first noticing just one performer, in passing, but then, returning, realizing that there were others, but that the one who had been there before was now gone. Then noticing yet another—and beginning to put it together in that way. Oh: something is going on here, but what? Wait: I need to stop and pay attention.

NOË: Historically, performance art was not in the background; it was the center of attention. There’s also a sense in which conventional performance looks out and engages the audience. In Tino’s performance, that doesn’t exist: there’s no eye con- tact between the enactors and the people around them. In that sense, they might not be live performers, but rather machines—or for that matter, a picture hanging on the wall. They are there and you can pay attention or not. The artist is also interested in the ways in which a performance can be a thing, rather than an event—meaning an art object, preserved through documentation, rather than something mysterious and ephemeral. To this end, Tino prohibited recording or documenting the piece, and the performers also policed the audience’s compulsive desire to take pictures. In doing that, they also gave the piece a boundary and a border in the form of a community unfolding in the piece. The artist created an opportunity or a situation in which you couldn’t see. You didn’t even notice the work. People would literally walk into the middle of the situation, on the telephone with their friends, and not even notice that they were disrupting a performance. The piece woke people up.

WESCHLER: My experience was that the work called things into question, that vertigo of unfamiliarity and interrogation. And then the takeaway, as it were, was you went into other parts of the gallery with a new perspective. All of Venice was engaged in a kind of thing like that—if only we had eyes to see.

NOË: If only we had eyes to see. We see so little, and yet there is so much to see. I was really very moved by that piece. It was so sparse, minimal, and lacking in the trappings of virtuosity, either of the dancers or of the Jeff Koons make-a-million- dollar-object sort. And yet it was so rich in love and passion. The dance world has been very isolated from the conceptual sophistication of the visual art world, where conversations like this have been going on for much longer. Tino is so interesting because he brings those worlds together.

WESCHLER: The artist’s restriction on the work being photographed is in sync with Irwin, who for years would not allow his work to be photographed. He said that a photograph would capture everything the work was not about, and nothing that it was about. Which is to say that it would capture an image, and not its presence. With that in mind, I want to put three sentences on the table. First: Jaron Lanier, a great digital practitioner and philosopher, who said, “Reality is that thing which cannot be represented to completion.” By which I think he means that reality is something that no matter how close you come—no matter how many bytes or pixels you have in your computer—you will never reach the real. It’s a Zenovian paradox. Or as with the late medieval number mystic Nicholas of Cusa and his n-sided polygon within a circle paradox: no matter how many sides you add, you aren’t going to get to the circle on the outside. Second sentence: “Making reality real is the job of art.”—Eudora Welty. Manifesting reality is what art does, and what computers or other sorts of regularizing, conventionalizing applications can’t. And the third and final thought: “Art makes nothing happen.”—W. H. Auden. By which I’ve always understood: it isn’t that art doesn’t make anything happen, or that it’s useless; rather, it’s that art makes, capital N, Nothing happen. In the Sartrean sense: nothing and real are tied to each other—such that here again is the vertigo I spoke of earlier, falling into nothingness, and then having to grapple to sort out what’s going on. The great glory of art, in this context, is that it makes things real by bringing us down to nothing and then allowing us to build up again.

NOË: Those are beautiful ideas. It’s interesting that when I was describing Tino’s work, I used a phrase that superficially looks like it’s in contradiction with this when I said that something happened in Tino’s piece, or that Tino made something hap- pen. I was using a phrase from my beloved friend, the dancer and choreographer Nicole Peisl, who is a practitioner of a therapy technique called craniosacral therapy, and there, when they make a protocol after a treatment session, they have a notation, SH, for “Something Happened,” to note when there’s a cluster of events that requires further analysis and consideration. So SH, something happened. I mark a good visit to the art world when SH. But here, something happened doesn’t mean I met somebody or I sold something or I bought something or I learned something—it just means that I let nothing happen. I allowed myself to be disrupted or be open or be in the moment or be in touch or be thoughtful or be aware or be awake.

WESCHLER: It speaks to a concept I write about in The Believer, in a column on visual culture that I have taken to calling “Pillow of Air,” which connotes that moment when a pillow of air gets lodged in your mouth and you realize that you haven’t breathed for ten seconds. Something has just happened, and you are at a loss. The bubble of nothing has come into you.

NOË: Art aims at nothing in different senses. Art doesn’t aim at experiences the way roller-coasters aim at cheap thrills. I am interested in the idea that art aims at a positive nothing. In Strange Tools, this book I’m just finishing up, I have a whole chapter on why art is so boring. One of the unique powers of art is that it affords the opportunity to be bored. To be unengaged, not task-oriented, and disregarding of business as usual—all of which are the natural conditions for boredom. It’s always teetering on this moment of potential boredom—bringing it back to my friend at the Whitney dance, who said, “This is wrist-slittingly dull.” His boredom was, in a sense, something that he earned or achieved by being willing to not check his e-mail and not write notes, and to just try to watch. He let himself be bored. He didn’t perhaps go to the next step, which is to discover that that boredom was an exclusive opportunity. I’m interested in this other kind of boredom, an irritating state of being trapped in the infinite, unstructured now.

WESCHLER: The way I value art, on a day, say, of walking through maybe twenty- five New York galleries, is where I say to myself, Would my life have been the poorer or richer if I had not seen this particular thing? I think about that in the context of people who are going to be going to this upcoming experiential art exhibition and seeing five different installations, each of which could easily get thought of as a waste of time, or suddenly, something that changed their lives.

NOË: That’s an exciting issue. I want to bring up Michael Fried’s famous criticism of the sculptor Tony Smith and Minimalist art in his essay “Art and Objecthood.” Smith had described this experience that he’d had with a group of students from Cooper Union where they jumped in a car and drove on the as-yet unopened New Jersey Turnpike. There were no lines painted; there was no artificial lighting. The artist wrote about this in a beautiful description where he articulated how, as he traversed down this ribbon of a deserted man-made structure, there was a feeling of a kind of art that had never been made before. Or rather, that there was the discovery of a kind of experience that no art had ever tried to capture, or an intuitive possibility for an art of experience in and of itself. Fried sees this as a kind of denunciation of art, as if what Smith discovered was that hitherto art had always sought meaning and articulation, semantics and syntax, structure and form. And so as if in embracing the idea of an art that repudiated the frame, Smith was, in a way, calling for the destruc- tion of traditional art in favor of something else that might be perfectly wonderful, like driving on the freeway at night. But for Fried that’s not art. Artists have more lyrical and more constructive involvement and preoccupation.

WESCHLER: In Hilton Kramer’s critique of Irwin’s 1977 Whitney installation, he described it as horribly nihilistic—in exactly the Fried way, meaning Irwin’s work represented the destruction of art. But what Kramer didn’t understand was that for Irwin, granted, the great triumph of Cubism was the collapse, or the marriage, of figure and ground: however, this did not mean that the figure was to be brought down to the level of the ground; rather, the ground needed to be brought up to the level of the figure. I think Tony Smith and Robert Irwin are both making the point, asking what would it be like to experience the world itself, in its vividness, the way we ordinarily just experience the figure in the object of art?

NOË: Exactly. Smith was pointing out that there is actually an opportunity for exactly the kind of transformative revelation that looking at an object hanging on the wall of the gallery can afford you in other situations as well, and that can be the mate- rial of art. And in fact—and this is worth stating, giving Fried’s criticism—Smith’s own works are extremely formal and lyrical, full of ideas and syntax, and are not at all mere presences for you to have experiences when you are confronted with them. Other artists have made similar discoveries. In a book by Sally Banes on the history of the avant-garde in the dance world, she gives a quote from Andy Warhol that captures this same idea of the discovery of a new kind of art. Warhol described driving on the freeway, suddenly noticing the billboards and realizing that these advertising, commonplace elements could be the material of art. Art is always going to be inviting and recycling this kind of thoughtful argument: Is the art before the experience, or is the experience before the art? Does the art afford, realize, or repre- sent experience? And that is the work of art, to explore. This is philosophical work.

WESCHLER: Let’s conclude with one more poem, a fairly famous one, by James Wright, called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly, Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow. Down the ravine behind the empty house, The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon. To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines, The droppings of last year’s horses Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

When I teach this poem in class, I often ask my students whether the poet is boasting or bemoaning with that last line? Is he saying, “God, I should’ve been here all along, or I should’ve been this attentive all along; I’ve wasted my life up till now”? Or, is he rather bragging: “I’ve wasted my life, and wasting one’s life is precisely what one should do with one’s life, and not get dragged down in bourgeois culture and con- sumerism”? The line, “the droppings of last year’s horses,” the horseshit “blaz[ing] up into golden stones,” makes me think the latter is correct, by way of the notion of the gold that is in waste. Or phrased differently, waste is when you’ve processed it. And you are a machine for taking on all this experience and turning it into gold. “I’ve wasted my life.” And it’s in that sense that I sometimes ask, Was this worth my while? When I went to this or that show, did it change my life? To which one might also add, Did it lay waste to my life?

NOË: Which takes us back to art being a philosophical practice. Because one of the things that philosophy asks is what could the value possibly be in philosophy’s unending conversation, in its inability to get beyond confusion. And one suggestion is that things are changed, even as they’re left the same. Our relation to what we our doing and feeling, to our own confusion, changes. We don’t reach a conclusion, to be sure, but we understand the lay of the land differently. Wittgenstein once said that one of the interesting things about philosophical problems is that nothing is hidden. It’s not as though you need to make a discovery to solve them; all you’re doing is taking different glances at what you already know. And that’s striking about art as well. Nothing is hidden in the work of art. There it is. But we change in the face of it. Maybe we get to something like understanding.

WESCHLER: Or phrased differently, when we allow ourselves to be part of the dance, we’re no longer standing still. We are over-standing. We are under- and over- standing. We are in motion. We partake of the dance. And this is an invitation to the dance. How’s that?

NOË: That’s good.

WESCHLER: Okay. [laughter] We’re stopping. That’s the end. That’s all you get of us.