The Puzzle of Transparency

In Experience and Experiment in Art, Alva Noё (2000) argues that experience is more complex than it seems. Reflection on art can aid in our understanding of perceptual consciousness, and be a “tool of phenomenological investigation” (p. 123). Reflection on specific kinds of art may help us solve the puzzle of the transparency of perception. The puzzle of transparency is this: in art (and experience in general) we have a tendency to see through our own perceptions (to not reflect on our perceptions themselves) to the objects of our experience in the outside world. When we attempt to reflect on our window to the world (perceptions), we look through it and end up reflecting on the world itself. When we try to reflect on our seeing, we end up describing what we are seeing, rather than the experience of seeing. Experience is transparent to our descriptions and reflections (we instead reflect on and describe the experienced).

So, to solve the problem, we need to think of perceptual experience as a temporally extended process, and we need to look at the activities of this process (what we do as we experience our environment). Instead of describing the window, we describe the window’s actions. Noё sees the sculpture of Richard Serra (particularly his Running Arcs) as exemplifying this idea: the sculpture allows for active meta-perception (perception of the act of perceiving). The work causes us to reflect on our experiences with them and on our own perceptions by making us feel off-balanced, intimidated, like the piece is a whole with its environment–things that highlight the nature of our perceptions rather than just the objects themselves. It allows us to perceive our situated activity of perceiving, the act of exploring our world. Serra’s work, as what Noё terms “experiential art”, brings us into contact with our own act of perceiving: the window’s transparency and the act of mediating that which lies beyond.

Noё, Alva. (2000). Experience and experiment in art. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(8-9), 123-135.


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