Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2018
Alva Noë Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature New York: Hill and Wang, 2015. 304 pp. Hardcover $28.00 (9780809089178)

“What Art Unveils” is the title of an essay by cognitive scientist and philosopher Alva Noë printed in the opinion pages of the New York Times on October 5, 2015, the year his book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature was published. The op-ed states some of the book’s basic arguments: art, for Noë, is a human “making activity,” but a special activity, a “research practice” that “unveils us to ourselves.” Art begins (and design stops) “when we are unable to take the background of our familiar technologies and activities for granted, and when we can no longer take for granted what is, in fact, a precondition of the very natural-seeming intelligibility of such things as doorknobs and pictures, words and sounds.”1 Works of art, thus, are “strange tools.” In the book’s preface he stresses two more animating ideas: “The job of art, its true work, is philosophical,” and “art and philosophy are practices . . . bent on the invention of writing” (xiii).

These are indeed the conceptual pillars of the book, despite its sometimes puzzling texture and often unsystematic style of reasoning, concluding with quite personal, biographical acknowledgments in which Noë tells us about his childhood experiences in a household of artists where the “power to make art” (207) was discussed emphatically and prized extremely high. Each chapter is amplified by extensive notes, also often departing from personal conversations and experience. Throughout the book Noë presents his ideas with reference to previous arguments or thoughts to come, and with examples from everyday life, art history, contemporary art, philosophy, music, sports, film, neurosciences, psychology, and evolutionary biology. Sometimes, it feels like a blog. All this does not make it an easy read, especially for non-philosophers, but nevertheless, it is worth it.

In order to get an idea of the structural link between human nature, the use of technologies, the nature of art as a practice of disclosure and insight, and Noë’s understanding of “writing,” it has to be clear to readers that this is a book by a cognitive scientist and philosopher who for many years now has been investigating the nature of human perception and consciousness. That means, first, art is grounded in human nature: it grows out of a human necessity, and just like Noë’s understanding of perception in his earlier book Action in Perception (2004), it is an active enterprise. But—and here Noë enters new ground—works of art are also “strange tools”: they engage technologies that in part organize human lives, and at the same time denude them of their ordinary function. Art thus loops back into our living environment and our organized, habitual activities. It is rooted in life and at the same time is a reflective and epistemic practice in its own right, investigative and potentially autonomous. With this, the book touches one of the crucial questions implicit or explicit in every art theory, namely, whether and how art is intertwined with life. It is one of the basic and inspiring ideas of the book that it situates art beyond the dichotomy of function and autonomy.

While Noë relates art to biology, the latter is not a concept taken for granted, but must in turn be framed. Consequently, he elaborates his position in stark contrast to others trying to explain art through evolutionary biology (Ellen Dissanayake) or neuroscience (Semir Zeki, V. S. Ramachandran, Margaret Livingstone). Apart from not saying “something substantial about art” (61), mainstream neurobiology stands in opposition to Noë’s understanding of an “embodied, environmentally and socially situated human animal that thinks and feels and decides and is conscious” (95). Accordingly, Strange Tools basic biological concept is organization: “to be alive is to be organized” (6). This does not mean that aesthetic experience is not important. On the contrary, John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934) is one main point of departure, with its critique of an aesthetics that extracts artworks from lived experience.

Nevertheless, Noë’s emphasis on “making,” on practice instead of interpretation, is not rooted in pragmatism but in the so-called “enactivist approach to cognition.”2 Enactivism holds that “the human mind is active, that its workings can be understood only in relation to the living body, and that the exercise of distinctively intellectual skills such as calculation or representation is not its fundamental role” (216). Noë is also part of an intellectual community that since the early 1990s has developed an approach to human cognition, mentality, and human experience that is often abbreviated as 4EA (embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, affective). This approach does away with a representationalist understanding of cognition and instead places emphasis on its function in bodily interactions with the world. Noë’s interest in art as a reflective practice within lived experience, its relation to skillful activities and habitual actions, is rooted in this context. The 4EA approach, which values, in addition to Dewey, Martin Heidegger’s relational approach to human cognition, has in recent years informed literary and cultural studies, linguistics, and art history. One prominent instance is the Collegium for the Advanced Study of Picture Act and Embodiment at Humboldt University, Berlin, founded in 2008 by Horst Bredekamp and John Michael Krois, where Noë was a research fellow. Ecological, anthropological, and comparative approaches within art history that challenge the discipline’s academic parameters are also akin to 4EA (one thinks, in addition to Bredekamp, of Noë’s Berkeley colleague Whitney Davis).

Given this background, it comes as no surprise that Noë starts his first chapter (“Getting Organized”) with an intimate and interactional scenario—breastfeeding—as a central subject of Western art, rooted in Christian thinking yet basic to “our mammalian biology” and the “first opportunity for nurturing love” (3). All this is followed by two propositions: breastfeeding is “a key to understanding the very nature of art” (3), and due to the subject’s frequency, a proof of art’s distinctive concern with its own nature, with its self-reflexivity. Art historians may be reminded of Ellen Dissanayake’s Art and Intimacy (2000), which proposes that the rhythms and modes of humans responding to each other give rise to the arts. But art comes in only as a second step for Noë. The arts “seek to bring out and exhibit, to disclose and to illuminate, aspects of the way we find ourselves organized” (16): choreography engages with dancing, pop music puts personal style on display, painting reflects picture making or visuality, and so on. In this sense art is like philosophy—with the difference that the latter shows thought organized in a particular way, and art does the same with making activities. This is nothing new for readers sensitive to art’s self-reflective potential, or to concepts like Arthur Danto’s “aboutness.” But Noë goes further: art as a “research practice” loops down and up. The arts not only emerge from first-level activities but also “change the ways we are organized” (226).

So, what does this mean for a work of art? Here, Noë’s strange tool theory sets in. A work of art requires technology, yet denudes it from its function—it is “a perverted technology” (98). This argument is more complex than it seems. Tools, on the one hand, can be very commonplace: hammers, computers, doorknobs, language, and pictures are the hubs of organized activities (19). They have specific functions (problem solving, framing new problems, communication): they are embedded within a “whole form of life” (100) and within technologies. At the same time, technologies, for Noë, are fundamental to human nature: they shape our lives and make us what we are. In this sense we are “Designers by Nature” (chapter 3). To illuminate this entanglement of biology and technology, he speculates on the moment when “modern Homo sapiens” came on the scene: “About fifty to seventy-five thousand years ago, there appears to have been an explosive revolution in our tool-using capacities. We now find remnants of highly refined tools with specialized functions, even tools for making tools. At this same period we began wearing clothes and using graphical technologies (the famous cave paintings). And this is probably when we began talking as we do now” (21). The explanation of this “extraordinary burst of creative energy” (21) is demographic: evidence of trade between isolated bands argues for new forms of social organization. Crucially for Noë, the graphical means were and are ways to “think about the world and our problems,” they are modes of “writing” (41). In this sense, technologies are “evolving patterns of organization,” structuring and transcending human activities. In this second understanding, we think with tools (22). The work of art is thus a thinking, a reflective tool: art contributes, as philosophy does, to the invention of “writing.”

Art in Strange Tools, in line with the 4EA approach, interlaces reflective, conceptual activities with palpable, manual ones. In this sense, it is also a direct follow-up to Noë’s earlier book Varieties of Presence (2012), which focuses on our different ways of experiencing, of thinking and perceiving the world in terms of varieties and continuities instead of categorical differences. Presence, understood as availability of and access to the world, is something actively achieved. Though its basic subject matter is not art, that book already emphasizes art’s (and philosophy’s) role in enabling us to “remake ourselves and enact new skills and new understandings” (154)—and indeed, it is the varied forms of understanding, knowledge, and skillful engagement that make the difference in Varieties of Presence. Yet, when it comes to Strange Tools, there are few detailed descriptions of the dynamic interweaving, the resonances and dissonances of actions within “organized activities,” or of specific aesthetic experiences and art practices in different geographical and historical settings. Instead, prominence is given to pictures as tools or as models, and to a critique of Plato’s conception of art as mere mirroring. Within this context, there is no deep reflection on another tradition (still present in the Renaissance), techné, which emphasizes skill and its relation to knowledge—techné is mentioned only once, rather parenthetically, as the Greek root of technology (24). Given the fact that Noë takes up the notion of art as a mode of knowing how (for example, when he proposes pop music as an art of style), a stronger emphasis on this connection could have been illuminating.

Also, despite its praxiological approach, “art” as a Western category is not challenged in Strange Tools, and this in the face of growing scholarship in global art history, visual and postcolonial studies, social or cultural anthropology that in part uses 4EA approaches to question Western canons. There is no philosophy in the plural here. Consequently, and despite the universal claim of its premises, when it comes to concrete examples, Strange Tools is rooted within contemporary Western phenomena such as dance, performance, music, or installation art; one of the book’s major paradigms is painting, and it does not venture beyond the Middle Ages, unless one counts prehistoric cave paintings. Further, it is not always clear when Noë speaks of “art” as a category and “the arts” as specific historical phenomena.

Nonetheless, Strange Tools is an interesting and indeed inspiring read. It addresses and raises many pivotal questions that could be enlarged in other experimental and historical fields, including contemporary forms such as curating and “art practice as research,” or lend itself to scrutiny of the relation between social and aesthetic practices and works of art, of artifacts and tools, of artisanship and artistic technology in different times and cultures. It is thus an important book, precisely for an art history that in the future will be open to enactive approaches.

1., as of March 27, 2018.

2. See, e.g., Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World, ed. Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, and Christian Tewes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017); Shaun Gallagher, Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Philosopher Dan Hutto is one of the most radical thinkers pursuing a nonrepresentational understanding of enactive and embodied cognition.

Tanja Klemm
Lecturer, Art History, University of Konstanz