Inside and outside the box: Can an artwork have cognitive value?
Cognitive value and qualia
In order to address the question, we need to define cognitive value. I will borrow Dominic Lopes’ definition as something that facilitatesknowledge and “helps to explain an important fact.” In this essay I wish to argue that a different type of knowledge can emerge from sensory experience or knowledge of qualia which is not accessible through propositional knowledge (or knowledge of facts). I want to explore this question in relation to two conceptual artworks, Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree and Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its own Making (Box). Both works set out to communicate complex philosophical notions:An Oak Tree examines the idea of transubstantiation, whilst Morris’s Box presents us with an object capable of introspection.
Unpacking the box: Introduction to the work – The Box vs An Oak Tree
Morris’s Box is a physical object accompanied by the sound of the object being created. The physical manifestation of the work is a proclamation of its ontological existence, the sounds emitting from it denote a form of consciousness and a sense of coming into being. The work therefore transcends its material properties and no longer functions as an art object, but as a piece through which we can begin to question the essence of identity and origin.
An Oak Tree’s meaning is elicited from the title of the work which is crucial to our understanding of the metamorphosed glass of water. Outside a gallery context, the glass would be an unlikely candidate for philosophical introspection, but once ascribed a name, the work’s resonance undergoes a transformation giving way to a two-layer meaning. David Davies summed this up neatly: “artworks come into existence because something is done in a context where this doing counts as doing something else.”  In this sense the work plays out a visual metaphor and appeals to our belief system. It is asking us to experience the meaning of the work and draws on the multiplicity of seeing.
Both works aim to explain an important fact, but could this be considered a facilitation of knowledge? I would argue that only Morris’s Box succeeds in facilitating knowledge. The experiential encounter of the Box synthesises a new type of understanding - we are visually confronted with the notion of the object’s ontology and identity. The interplay of material and immaterial properties are communicated to our senses offering an introspective experience and engaging our cognitive faculties. The sounds of the creative making process give rise to an awareness of a different sensation; it brings about the awareness of oneself and of one’s consciousness in a Hegelian sense. The material box is presented as the thesis, the ephemeral sounds make up the anti-thesis and the final synthesis culminates in an experiential encounter where seeing becomes not just visceral but cognitive. In this way the interaction between material and immaterial bring about self-consciousness or Spirit. This experience of an object gives way to a new kind of understanding and “what-it-is-like knowledge through exemplification of complex and rich properties” which can only be grasped through active visual engagement with the work. It also offers a visual prompt to accessing ideas immediately through the senses, so once a concept is understood, such as the Cartesian propositional statement ‘I think, therefore I am’, we can access that concept again and again just by contemplating the work in front of us.
Conceptual art is discourse dependent
Critics like Tom Wolfe argue that art cannot be fully understood without discourse and is by and large mediated by language; by themselves the artworks are mute and unable to speak for themselves. So what can be said of Morris’s Box? Can one grasp its meaning purely by engaging with the work using visual and aural senses and understand its meaning in the absence of a title? I would argue yes. The sound coming from the box has no linguistic content and functions purely as a sound. The piece appeals, at first, only to our perceptual faculties: the simplicity of the wooden box allows our brain to connect the sawing sound to the box’s construction. In this way, the artist is also playing on the assumption that our mental faculties will tie together the two events (the necessary connection of cause and effect), after all, one is coming from the other and our instinctive response is to link the two events together rather than to second guess.
This appeal to the senses resonates with the viewer and allows for the communication of the ideas of identity and also for solipsistic concerns to transpire. Analogously, I could explain the notion of self-reflexivity in a propositional statement such as the cogito, but I can reap cognitive value from the Boxpurely through my encounter with the qualia of the work and access the same understanding if not something more from the piece in front of me than I could glean from just a linguistic proposition.
Subjectivity and perspective
I would argue that a conceptual work’s gravitas rests on the strength of underlying proposition behind the work, not just the use of a clever sensory interplay. An Oak Tree is a conceptually ambitious piece; however, its detachment and physical impossibility predicate its lack of cognitive value. Although the work makes us consider transubstantiation, this supernatural notion becomes so removed from the object in front of us, that the rift between meaning and object becomes too great and the work errs on triviality, for why do we have to imagine the glass of water to be an oak tree rather than an apple (the text accompanying An Oak Tree does not provide a convincing enough response to this). Ostensibly, An Oak Tree could be a deeply subjective work: a religious viewer who encounters the transubstantiation of wine into blood and bread into flesh may infer greater meaning from the work than an atheist. If this is the case, then this would suggest that a work’s meaning is grounded in perspective and subsequently the subjectivity of the viewer.
Irrespective of this, I would argue that unlike the Box,An Oak Tree is language dependent. Its title activates our imagination without which we cannot link the glass of water in front of us to anything other than what it is. Other conceptual works too such as Richard Serra’s Boomerang and Morris’s Memory Drawings rely on language, spoken and written, to convey messages about the inner workings of our mind, but unlike An Oak Tree, the language is embedded in the meaning of the work which requires a level of inference rather than a shift in our belief system to interpret the piece.
Conceptual art as a visual game - Does an artwork need to play a visual game to have cognitive value?
I will illustrate this in the following way. Let us consider the Necker cube in figure 1 - there are two ways of seeing the box and once we visually register these two ways of seeing, our eyes start flicking from one perspective to the other, over and over. This provides a revealing insight into how the brain processes visual information, in this instance our conception of the object is ambivalent.
Now let’s take the following diagram in figure 2:
The top row of circles on the diagram on the left look convex, whereas on the image on the right they look concave. All the circles are in fact identical it’s just that the image on the right is upside down. The reason we cannot see that this is the same image is because the brain ‘assumes’ that light is coming from above and perceives the shape according to this assumption.
The point of this example is to demonstrate how conceptual art uses visual games to illicit meaning. Similarly to a language game, it addresses our understanding of our senses and challenges our preconceived notions and basic assumptions about the nature of objects. The cognitive value in conceptual art is precisely this sensory game that occurs when we engage visually and mentally with a work.
Linguistic and visual games
These examples show that we encounter a form of visual scepticism which makes us question the objectivity of our senses. Both Morris and Craig-Martin’s work play on this assumption and the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
An Oak Tree adopts the second type of illusion, or at least attempts to. Even though we are aware that we are meant to be ‘seeing’ an oak tree in front of us, we cannot force our visual faculty to see the glass of water differently.
In Morris’s case, the box is material and immaterial at once, this interaction creates a phenomenological game where we can ‘see’ with our inner eye the self-reflexivity of the work. Similarly to the Necker cube, our mind oscillates between the two understandings: firstly, the artwork which is thinking about itself and secondly, it turns our gaze inwards to ourselves and our own consciousness. The same technique is used in Morris’s Memory Drawings, where the work involves a “game of cross-referencing” and in so doing draws out the self-referential nature of the work.
The visual encounter with the Necker cube plays a similar trick on the senses as a linguistic amphiboly, where the words in a phrase are unambiguous but where ambiguity arises from the way in which the words are combined, creating an illusion of cogency.
I conclude with a quote by Wittgenstein which aptly highlights this visual/sensory split “We find certain things about seeing puzzling, because we do not find the whole business of seeing puzzling enough.” In relation to Morris’s work, it is a remarkable attempt to find an artistic expression of the mind body split through a conceptual artwork which not only gives the work cognitive value, but reveals the complexities of the problem in a way which challenges our subjectivity. The Boxdraws out the multiplicity involved in seeing like the Necker cube and results in a crucial kind of aesthetic experience – we experience the meaning of the work which not only affects us viscerally but engages our intellect via visual rather than linguistic discourse. The meaning of the work is thus bequeathed to the intellect visual stimuli, like a tip of the tongue sensation, rather than mediated by language or linguistic message.
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WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958)
WOLFE, TOM, The Painted Word (New York: Bantam, 1976)
WINKENWEDER, BRIAN, Picturing Texts: Robert Morris’ “Beetle in a Box” In: Investigations: The Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris, (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2015)
MORRIS, ROBERT, AntiForm, (Artforum 1968)
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STANFORD ENCYLOPAEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY
Lopes, D. (2005). Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 51.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. The phenomenal character of an experience is what it is like subjectively to undergo the experience. If you are told to focus your attention upon the phenomenal character of your experience, you will find that in doing so you are aware of certain qualities. These qualities — ones that are accessible to you when you introspect and that together make up the phenomenal character of the experience are sometimes called ‘qualia.’
Davies, D. (2007). Telling Pictures: The Place of Narrative in Late Modern ‘Visual Art’, Philosophy & Conceptual Art. Oxford University Press, 155.
Goldie, P & Schellekens, E. (2007). Philosophy & Conceptual Art. Oxford University Press, 169.
 Modern Art has become completely literary: paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text. Wolfe T. (1976) The Painted Word. New York: Bantam, 4.
 Winkenweder, B. (2015) Picturing Texts: Robert Morris’ ‘Beetle in a Box.’ Lyon: ENS Editions University Press
 Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 212.