Art in the Age of Emergence

by Michael J. Pearce

Michael J. Pearce is an art professor who experienced a light bulb moment when he attended a talk in the philosophy department on the topic of emergence by guest speaker Philip Clayton. “Emergence, which describes the characteristics of forms that come out of complex systems, could apply especially well to how we experience art, how we understand aesthetics in relation to our evolving mind, and how we understand the creative process of making representational art… I suddenly realized that considering the relationship between emergence and consciousness could lead to a description of what distinguishes art objects from other things as we perceive them through our senses. Emergence allows us to define art!”

This book presents an interesting framework for thinking about art, although it is written in a dense academic style.

“Emergence fills the void left by the collapse of postmodernism because it offers the potential for a convincing new idealism that has its foundation in scientific investigation, making room for spirituality… and presenting a way to understand how they meet the consciousness of the beholder.” Pearce doesn’t hold back on his dissatisfaction with postmodernism. “We don’t need to dwell much longer on the failings of postmodernity, because enough time has been spent polishing the brass on that sinking ship, which served well to identify the period of disorganization at the end of an era, but not to identify the characteristics of what follow it.”

“Art is better explained by looking at how the mind works than by looking at the products of mind. That’s why quite a lot of this book is about consciousness, because of the direct relationship between it and the making of art objects.”

“Consciousness evolves through emergent experiences, felt in their strongest manifestations as moments of revelation, or epiphany, or strong feelings of completion that we feel when we hear something or see something that seems to affirm our being… We have an enormous amount of such experiences when we are children… I’m calling them ‘emergent experiences’ because of their clear relationship to our experiences of the qualities that emerge from complexity.”

“Understanding complexity and emergence helps to explain what is happening when we have that wonderful experience of beautiful things which makes us feel uplifted, removed from daily life and in spiritual harmony with something greater than ourselves. Such experiences of beauty are wide-eyed, open-mouthed, child-like moments of wonder… The emergent experience is the moment of affirmation, of fulfillment, of a categorical generalization made in the brain, when we recognize a confirmation of our conceptual thought processes.”

“Emergence can help us to get to grips with qualities that are greater than the sum of their parts… Water is made of oxygen and hydrogen, but neither of those two elements is wet. Wetness is an emergent quality of water… Like wetness, the emergent experience of beauty is a quality that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Neuroscientist Semir Zeki considers art-making to be the equivalent of the neurologic process of seeing, which is a function of the brain… We only comprehend reality through our sensory perception of it, which means that it is entirely mediated and changed by the transference of information as sensory input to consciousness… What we describe as reality is actually a complex semiotic version of the actual thing—this stands for that.”

“The value we place on old master works, and the extravagant protective measures we go to in order to ensure their safe preservation is directly connected to our neurological association of skill, beauty, and value. We preserve these things because they are elements of our collective cultural mind. Because material works of art are less fragile in the face of time than human consciousness, works of art are the enduring record of the truth we perceive as individuals—such shared experiences are fundamental to art-making.”

“I suspect that our current revival of interest in highly skilled representational art is a reaction against the artificiality of the commercial, smooth imagery that dominated the computer screens and televisions during the last fifty years.” The author adds that original art feeds “a growing hunger for authenticity” in an era dominated by mass production.

So what is art? Pearce answers this question is chapter seven. But before arriving at a definition, he addresses some other artists’ views on the subject.

Marcel Duchamp claimed that everything is art. Pearce disagrees. “If everything is art, nothing is art.” Pearce asserts that art can have no function other than “to provide the potential for emergent experiences for other humans.” Other things might be exemplary designs and might provide emergent experiences, but they are not art. Thus, Duchamp’s urinal and Monzoni’s cans of shit are not art.

“Works of art are things that are deliberately crafted as manifestations of the artist’s consciousness in reality, specifically for the purpose of providing other people with an affirmation of the categories formed in their consciousness, and for no other purpose.”

“Odd Nerdrum has apportioned the word ‘kitsch’ to describe art that makes an appeal to emotion… I’m not presently inclined to use ‘kitsch’ to describe what artists do when ‘art’ describes it perfectly well.” I agree with the author. The word kitsch connotes something cheap and tacky. In German, there is an even more derogatory connotation, i.e. trash. It is a poor word choice.

And now the definition of art: “I cannot find a better explanation of what art is than this: art is an expression of mind in material, made solely for the purpose of providing the potential for emergent experience for another’s mind.”

Of course, different artworks will resonate with different people. “Popular art is simply that which provides the emergent experience for a large number of people… Culture is the collective sharing of concepts made by individuals shaping reality into sensible forms… for the purpose of providing emergent experiences.”

“The usefulness of art for providing emergent experiences completes [Roger] Scruton’s efforts to find a harmonious relationship between art and utility, and eliminated Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic description of art as something absolutely useless, because the role of art as the provider of emergent experience is profoundly useful.”

The author concludes by writing, “Now I will return to my studio to paint, confident that I know why I do it.”

Michael J. Pearce is a refreshingly honest and intelligent voice in a field where people often kneel in reverence to bullshit.

Pearce, Michael J. Art in the Age of Emergence. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. Buy from

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