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The Pigeon within Us All: A Reply to Three Critics Author(s): Arthur C.

Danto Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 39-44 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics Stable URL: . Accessed: 15/02/2011 09:41
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Symposium: The Historicity of the Eye

Danto, The Pigeon within Us All


Arthur C. Danto

The Pigeon within Us All: A Reply to ThreeCritics

It is a magicshape,a lifeless eidolon.

Marx Wartofsky and I struck up a friendship when we were fellow graduate students at Columbia in the early 1950s. The basis of the friendship, apart from the peculiar chemistry of any personal relationship, was the fact that we both had considerable interest in what Richard Wollheim was felicitously to call "painting as an art."Each of us had some practical experience in painting, but Marx had in addition a philosophical interest in it that I did not especially share. I was, I think, closer than he to the artworld of that time, in which at least the kind of aesthetics on offer at Columbia seemed to have nothing whatever to contribute. It was, moreover, a moment when aesthetics was pretty marginal within philosophy itself. Abstract Expressionism and Analytical Philosophy had little in common in those years except that both were novel and exciting, so I was able to compartmentalize the two interests, which I saw no special reason to bring together. Marx, by contrast, was eager to show that art was far more significant for the mainstream questions of philosophy than would readily have been allowed under prevailing attitudes. For him, aesthetics rightly done would be the queen of cognitive studies, in that the way the world presents itself to perception is in some way inflected by the changing representational strategies of pictorial art: we "see what we paint," to paraphrase what Gombrich wrote in Art and Illusion.2 This was a fairly daring view. Art would have been regarded as one of the symbolic forms recognized in Cassirer's philosophyand a way of worldmaking in the later views of Nelson Goodman, who was much influenced by Cassirer. Both of their philosophies tended to keep art pretty well confined to its own domain, however, so that what went on in it was largely independent of what went on elsewhere in the symbolic array. There

was a somewhat different view of that array in the air, that of Irwin Panofsky, according to which each component of a cultural array expressed a single overarching view of the world-what one might consider the defining form, or the Geist, of a given culture. So the theology, philosophy, architecture, moral codes, costumes, etc. of a given culture all expressed in different modes and media the same outlook and attitude, which Panofsky thought it was the task of a new science-iconology-to identify and differentiate. These cultural homologues would collectively be what I imagine Walter Benjamin had in mind by a perception in the passage that Noel Carroll cites. Each culture had a different "perception" in the sense that people in Byzantium "perceived" the world differently from members of different iconological wholes. "Perceptions" are more or less what we might call outlooks or philosophies: to be a Byzantine was to see the world in ways that can be recovered by attending to the various symbolic forms of Byzantine culture. There was no implication that the sensory system was itself a cultural transform-not, at least, until Panofsky proposed that perspective was a symbolic form. He meant to imply that perspective was a key to Renaissance culture, refracted through that culture's other symbolic forms. But that may have suggested that perspectival vision itself belongs to the cultural array,rather than to the sensory system of normal humans, leaving us to wonder how the Byzantines themselves saw objects receding in space, since they did not, any more than the Chinese, employ "our" perspective in rendering the world pictorially.This would weaken if not obliterate the distinction between "perception" as cultural outlook and perception as an innate precultural mode of relating to the world, of a piece in this respect with the sensory systems of animals. I do not know the extent to which Wartofsky concerned himself with the larger picture I have crudely sketched. That com-

40 ponent in the cultural array that concerned him was representational art. But he did not hesitate, as I read him, to assimilate the sensory and in particular the visual system as a further part of the culture, making us, so to speak, cultural through and through, most particularly in so far as we are cognitive beings. In this he went further on the question of perspective than Panofsky did. The history of art explained the history of cognition. But that assumes, which I denied in my essay, that cognition, at least at the primitive level of what we might think of as our animal perceptions, has a history. I do not believe it does. It is somewhat misleading, even so, to characterize Marx Wartofsky, as Noel Carroll does, as the target of my paper. What was distinctive about Marx's view was his effort to assimilate the sensory-or at least the visual-system into culture, to the point where we are cultural beings to the core. In fairness, Panofsky equivocated on this question, which contributes to the somewhat out-of-focus character of Die Perspective als 'symbolische Form.' Marx was, as I read him, unequivocal on the matter. But, as Carroll observes, post-structuralist humanistic disciplines did not hesitate to regard the sensory system as every bit as plastic as we ourselves are, so far as it is true that we are what our culture makes us-and it is exciting to think of the sensory system as just another social construct like gender or what poststructuralists refer to as The Body. Carroll is right in saying that the plasticity of the senses has become orthodoxy in the humanities and in cultural studies, and that was my target, much as it is for Noel Carroll himself. Marx was more the occasion of my paper than its target. I had been invited to deliver the first Marx Wartofsky Memorial Lecture at the Graduate Center of CUNY in 1997, and while almost any topic would have been suitable, given Marx's polymathic intelligence and overall curiosity, I felt that his theory of historical epistemology, in which our ways of perceiving the world derive from our ways of representing the world pictorially, was the thought by which he would want most widely to be known. But since his idea has become almost coextensive with the way

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism the humanities are taught and practiced today, my arrierepensee was that by addressing his claims, I was in fact confronting a large and important sector of contemporary culture to which I am, temperamentally and philosophically, opposed. Earlier that year, for example, I had participated in a colloquium in Vienna, organized by the art historian Gottfried Boehm on the theme of der Geschichtlichkeit des Auges. I discovered that the belief that the eye is historical appeared so accepted by the other participants that the only thing left to do was illustrate it as a new paradigm for theoretical art history. I, by contrast, could not believe that the visual system was as plastic as at least an extreme statement of the eye's historicality implied. I was convinced, as I still am, that however various the beliefs with reference to which the visual world is interpreted from one culture to the next, there must be an impenetrable core of perceptual processing so universally distributed that we all live in the same world, visually speaking-in much the same way that we must all metabolize protein for energy, whatever may be the differences among national diets. From the perspective of metabolism, we are siblings under the skin, assuming that we are normal. And similarly, in my view, from the perspective of perception. Whatever differences between Byzantine culture and our own, it seems altogether unlikely that the Byzantines saw one another as flat, paper-thin effulgences, the way they represented human beings in their murals at Ravenna. It would be equally difficult to imagine that Tlingit huntsmen saw their forests as filled with bilaterally symmetrical two-dimensional bears of the kind we see in their paintings. I tried, in "Seeing and Showing," to give reasons for doubting that Giotto could have seen the world the way he showed it. It may be true, as Gombrich suggests, that showing the world the way we see it was not Giotto's program. But I have no doubt that Giotto and his contemporaries saw the world-trees, sky, mountains-precisely the way we do. There are pictorial notations too conventionalized to be taken as uninflected transcriptions of visual reality, and this is true of Giotto as well as the Tlingit. Had Giotto been given,

Symposium: The Historicity of the Eye

Danto, The Pigeon within Us All


by courtesy of some Spirit of Future Representations, a photograph of some trees of the kind he shows in The Entry into Jerusalem in Padua, he would immediately have seen how conventionalized his marvelous pictures are. He would, as I shall argue shortly, have recognized that his tree is not an eidolon of a real tree the way the tree in the photograph is. So Marx's view that "modes of our visual cognition change with changes in those of our pictorial representation" would itself be limited, and the limits would be imposed by the implasticities of the sensory system. In a number of places, I have used an alleged pictorial competence of certain animals to support the claim that seeing pictures, and seeing what pictures show, come pretty much to the same thing. And since animals themselves have no culture, culture can play no role in either process. Mark Rollins and Whitney Davis each raise questions about pictorial competence in animals, so this is a good moment to consider the relevance of this capacity, unsuspected until quite recent times. Its discovery was an artifact of the apparatus designed to test the conceptual powers of pigeons. The birds were required to sort out pictures according to category-pictures of trees, of bodies of water, and of a single individual, as she or he appears in different contexts and wearing different clothing. Let us say that the pigeons learned to recognize treeness, in the sense that they quickly enough learned to differentiate whatever exemplified treeness from whatever did not. Tree-exemplifiers (forgive me!) may have differed considerably from one another, and it was also possible for non-tree-exemplifiers to look like treeexemplifiers. Pigeons, whose visual acuity and powers of rote memory exceed ours by a considerable degree, nevertheless did about as well as we would have done, given these obstacles. The experiments made use of slides: whenever the pigeon was shown a slide showing a treeness-exemplifier, it pecked one button. Whenever it was shown a nonexemplifier it pecked another. It got a reward of food whenever it was right, and very quickly mastered a set of training-slides in the time-honored way of classical learning theory.

It is important to stress that the pictures in question were photographs. Pigeons in fact had difficulties with line drawings, say, of Charlie Brown. And they had difficulty as well with cultural objects, like automobiles, even in photographs. In a sense, it was the way they saw the world that determined the style and content of the pictures to which they were responsive. The pictures that worked for them were photographic images of objects that belong to The World of the Pigeon, which only partially overlaps Our World. The photographs made it greatly more convenient for the experimenters than had they carried pigeons around on field trips, so to speak, to see actual sites and real objects. Differences in experimental convenience to one side, the implication is that pigeons perceived the slides much as they perceived the world. This, of course, depended upon the fact that the pictures were photographs of actual sites the pigeons could have perceived instead. Rollins is perfectly correct, in the case of pigeons, that "pictorial competence is simply perceptual competence applied to pictures."3That means, as I see it, that the fact that what pigeons are given to work with are pictures plays no role in their perception. They do not perceive that they are pictures, and I am far from certain that pigeons could form the concept of picture as such. Rather, they perceive that which is invariant between photographs and visual reality-a capability we would not have known about in their case before the advent of photography. It is this visual invariant that I had in mind in introducing, a few lines back, the obsolete term eidolon. In ancient optics, an object emits eidolons-or "phantoms"-of itself that are intercepted by the eye.4 Eidolon theory was worked out long before the invention of photography, but its sponsors would have found confirmation of their views in the thought that the camera is a device designed to intercept eidolons-"to snatch from the very air a picture formed by the forces of nature.''5 I am not inclined to rehabilitate the whole of eidolon theory, but we can use the term itself to our advantage by saying that it is eidolons of a tree-exemplifier to which the pigeon responds, invariantly as to whether

42 perceiving a tree or a picture of one. The object of the pigeon's competence is the eidolon. Conventionalized pictorial notations are not eidolonic, which is why the pigeon has difficulty working with them at the level of perception. We have a very good idea of what the World of the Pigeon looks like to pigeons. It looks just like its photographs so far as the pigeon is able to work with them. When we find photographs the pigeon cannot cope with-of chairs or automobiles, say-we have to imagine that there is nothing in the world as the pigeon sees it that has the appropriate eidolon. The original purpose of the experiments was to train pigeons to recognize differences in the world outside their boxes, having learned to mark those differences by using photographs within the box. Since we see what the pigeon sees, it is hard to believe that changes in art history can account for our way of seeing since it can have played no role in the way pigeons see. I take it that this is what Rollins concedes when he goes on to suggest that pictorio-perceptual competence "is, so to speak, the pigeon within us all, a phylogenetically primitive capacity that we require in order to interpret pictures, but one that plays no real role in interpretation itself."6 It is the "pigeon within us all" that I wanted to say is immune to the effects of changes in pictorial representation, or to cultural changes in general: this "primitive capacity" would be there whether there were pictures or not. I shall now argue, rather against Rollins's criticism, that this gives us a concept of modularity, and we really do need this concept in order to draw the distinction between mere visualia and works of visual art. We require it mainly to account for the difference between the "pigeon within" and the rest of what we are. Whatever properties a tree might have, I shall only be interested in those transmitted through eidolons, viz., those arrested on the surfaces.of photographs. The minimal visual experience of trees, for example, will consist of all and only what we would see in an eidolon of the tree. In the case of pigeons, the minimal visual experience may be the only visual experience they have. In us, however, the minimal visual experience is only the

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism hard core of extended visual experience. It is embedded in a dense network of beliefs, associations, and attitudes we have acquired in the course of a life. I shall take the idea of a network literally, and speak thus of the extended visual experience as a text. When I see a certain twisted tree, I might think of Chuang Tzu,7 or of the famous painting of an oak by Johan Christian Dahl. Byzantines would have neither Chinese sages nor nineteenth-century Norwegian painters woven into the extended texts of their experience. Since what belongs to the visual text varies with variations in lives, it can hardly itself be primordial or primitive. We can perhaps even imagine two visual texts with nothing in common except the minimal visual experience at the core. That experience I think of as the hors-texte. It would be a tragedy for any of us to lose the textual connections that give the minimal visual experience its meaning, and give us our personal and cultural identities. We would be reduced to our primitive pigeonhood. Parenthetically, I am uncertain that pigeons lack extended visual experience. They, after all, do memorize. They do expect food when they press buttons. Outside the boxes they detect predators. That is the value of the eidolon concept. It excludes whatever is not immediately present to visual perception. The concept of the work of art belongs to extended visual experience. But every work of visual art has an eidolon it might share with things that are not works of art. The minimal visual experience is modular relative to extended visual experience, and it is easiest to make the case through linguistic ascent. We can postulate a minimal visual description of anything visible-a tree once more. A predicate belongs to the minimal visual description in case its application does not depend for its truth on something outside the experience. The ramified shape of the tree, for example, would be part of the minimal visual description of what we see. The relevant predicates would-obviouslybe one-place predicates. If a predicate does depend for its truth on something outside the minimal experience, it belongs to extended visual description. The concept or image of the tree is woven into the evolving

Symposium: The Historicity of the Eye

Danto, The Pigeon within Us All


texts of our cultural life. Trees evoke all sorts of associated imagery when we see them because of the way they have been presented in poetry or painting. Dahl's oak tree was adopted as the symbol of Norway, a testament to its national hardihood. Chuang Tzu's tree is a paradigm to which the wise should aspire. All these associations have reference to things that lie outside the minimal visual experience-to what Rollins calls "the invisible content of visual art."It is also clear that objects in the visual world-oak trees, for example-have the same kind of invisible content that pictures of them do. The minimal description, as it is constituted by one-place predicates, is impenetrable by the surrounding text, since so much of the latter is constituted by what are, in bare logic, relational predicates. The minimal description is modular, then, in the straightforward logical sense that relational predicates cannot be reduced to conjunctions of nonrelational predicates: Rab is never equivalent to any pair of predicates F and G, such that Fa & Gb. The capacity to identify things and pictures of things under extended descriptions is undoubtedly based on a piece of brain physiology. Whatever the physiology, the capacity itself is modular through the fact that relations do not penetrate their terms. We have organs through which we identify things under minimal descriptions. It requires language to identify things under maximal descriptions. So it is not as though I do not need modularity, as Rollins proposes. I need what I am now prepared to call logical modularity. I have no idea of how logical modality is underwritten by brain networks in pigeons or in us. But it suffices my purposes that one can identify a pigeon under a minimal description without being able, to use my example, to identify it as the Holy Spirit, which belongs to an extended description. The pigeon within is not quite the same as the Holy Spirit within. Whether the Holy Spirit is a cultural construct or a part of the real world is a matter for faith to determine. The distinction between extended and minimal visual experience should suffice to explain why Richard Wollheim's objection to my use of indiscernibles-alluded to by

Rollins and Davis-is not really relevant to the issue.8 The point of making them indiscernible under minimal descriptions is fundamental in showing how they are discernible under interpretation-and since interpretations do not penetrate their terms, further looking will get us nowhere.9 The terms we apply through interpretation are invisible so far as the minimal visual experiences are concerned, for they depend on things outside the object looked at. I have found it valuable to imagine works of art that look exactly like nonworks of art in order to make this claim vivid. Joseph Margolis has recently argued that it is a consequence of this practice that we do not perceive works of art.10 That depends on whether we use "perceive" minimally or extendedly. If we say a pigeon perceives a work of art, we are using a concept unavailable to pigeons, since what the pigeon sees we know (however we know) is a work of art. The pigeon perceives something invariant between a work of art and something that looks exactly like a work of art but is not. The capacity to have minimal visual experience derives from the genetic code for the optical system. The rest is Menschenwerk. I must leave Rollins's discussion of resemblance to some other occasion. Meanwhile, I find little to argue with in Whitney Davis's essay, though it strikes me that he is mainly dealing with extended visual experience, which of course is not modular except to the degree that there are cultural modules, which is quite another matter. Davis claims that depicting as such "introduces new causal contexts for-an emergent new ecology-of vision as a long-term biocultural event spread out over many millennia, penetrating or pervading any individual form of life in variable degrees and with variable importance depending on the historical presence of pictures therein."'1 I am uncertain in particular of the role of the prefix "bio-." The best I can make of it in the context of Davis's paper is that pictures are variable parts of variable forms of life-and that forms of life are lived. I see nothing to disagree with in that. Since human beings have actually lived every form of life there has

44 been, we can suppose that any human being whatever can in principle have lived any form of life at all, much as any human child can acquire any natural language. What is invariant to forms of life is the primitive cognitive endowment under which we register shapes and colors and whatever finds its way into eidolons. These enable us to enter forms of life and live them-but they are not in any sense modified by the form of life in question. We are modified, of course, but plasticity stops at the core. That is what I meant in saying that the eye is not historical, but we are. After the lecture, I was told by many that had Marx himself been present, he would have had answers to my questions. Marx was never less than a resourceful philosopher, and I know that we would all have benefited immensely from the discussion that never, unfortunately, took place when he was alive. It is accordingly of the greatest value to me that The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism has selected some surrogate respondents. I certainly have not touched everything in their rich critical essays-I could not, for example, deal with Rollins's important discussion of resemblances-though I note that none of them, in whatever way critical of me, particularly rises to Marx's defense. Perhaps that is because the paper did, after all, treat Marx himself as a target more than I intended to. Noel Carroll's last question-why those in the humanities "feel compelled to speak as though perception were utterly plastic"-is the defining question of our cultural moment. I would like this symposium to be part of the history of answering it.
ARTHUR C. DANTO Department of Philosophy Columbia University New York, NY 10027

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

2. "The Artist will therefore tend to see what he paints rather than to paint what he sees." E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 86. One is not surprised to see Gombrich quoting Nietzsche immediately after this remarkable claim. Nietzsche is the founding father of the theory of human plasticity that has become canonical in our age. 3. See "The Invisible Content of Visual Art" above. 4. Eidolon is defined in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as an unsubstantial image or phantom. That sounds almost Shakespearean: "The baseless fabric of this vision . . . an insubstantial pageant faded ..such stuff as dreams are made on" (The Tempest,IV, I). The concept to which it answers goes back to Democritus and the early Atomists and figures importantly in Lucretius. "Replicas or insubstantial shapes of things are thrown off from the surface of objects. These we must denote as an outer skin or film, because each particular floating image wears the aspect and form of the object from whose body it has emanated" (On the Nature of Things, IV). The Oxford English Dictionary cites uses of eidolon in scientific texts in the nineteenth century, but the term has disappeared from the various reference works on the history of philosophy I can easily lay my hands on from where I sit. 5. John Szarkowski, Photography until Now (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), p. 11. 6. See "The Invisible Content of Visual Art" above. 7. "Carpenter Shih went to Ch'i and saw a serrate oak standing by the village shrine. . . . 'It's a worthless tree-there's nothing it can be used for. That's how it got to be that old."' The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1968), pp. 63-64. 8. Richard Wollheim, "Danto's Gallery of Indiscernibles,"Danto and His Critics,ed. Mark Rollons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). 9. This is clearly something that goes entirely against the grain of Wollheim's way of experiencing paintings. "I evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognize that it took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was" (Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art [Princeton University Press, 1987], p. 8). What indiscernible pictures disclose is what we could see at first glance: that they are not relevantly different under minimal visual criteria. The rest belongs to extended perception, which does not meet the eye. 10. See my "Indiscernibility and Perception: A Reply to Joseph Margolis," The British Journal of Aesthetics 39 (1999): 321-329. 11. See "When Pictures Are Present: Arthur Danto and the Historicity of the Eye," above.

1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I, trans. Bayard Taylor (Appleton: Century Crofts, 1946).