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Attentional Engines: A Perceptual Theory of the Arts

Oxford University Press, January 2020

What is it about art that can be so captivating? How is it that we find value in the often odd and abstract objects and events we call artworks? William P. Seeley proposes that artworks are attentional engines. They are artifacts that have been intentionally designed to direct attention to critical stylistic features that reveal their point, purpose, or meaning. In developing this view, Seeley argues that there is a lot we can learn about the value of art from interdisciplinary research focused on our perceptual engagement with artworks.

Recent breakthroughs in cognitive science and behavioral science can explain how we recognize artworks and how we differentiate them from more quotidian artifacts. Seeley pushes this line of reasoning, showing how cognitive science can help reveal the way artworks function as a unique source of value. He argues that our interactions with artworks draw on a broad base of shared artistic and cultural norms constitutive of different categories of art. Cognitive systems integrate this information into our experience of art, guiding attention and shaping what we perceive.

Seeley proposes a model for understanding the roles memory and attention play in our interactions with artworks. The model is derived from Phillipe G. Schyns’ diagnostic recognition framework and a biased competition theory of selective attention. Diagnostic Recognition is a framework for integrating research on categorization and perceptual recognition. The world of everyday experience is replete with information. Perceptual system are, in contrast, cognitive systems with imited resources. Perception is therefore, by necessity, selective by nature. A diagnostic recognition framework suggests that minimal sets of perceptual features are

sufficient to recognize, and thereby categorize, what we perceive in ordinary contexts. The perception of these diagnostic features unlocks visual routines, cognitive recipes that direct attention and shape the way information relevant to a perceiver’s current goals and interests is encoded in sensory systems  Memory and attention thereby bias perception to what is relevant to everyday behaviors and shape the way we see, hear, experience, and otherwise understand the world around us.

Seeley argues that artworks are tacitly designed to harness these perceptual and cognitive processes. They are attentional engines that harness a shared understanding of categories of art. They are communicative vehicles that direct attention to those aspects of their formal-compositional structure diagnostic for their points, purposes, or meanings. What this entails is that cognitive science can help explain how artworks carry information critical to understanding their content and artistic value.

Attentional Engines explores this interdisciplinary strategy for understanding art. It articulates a cognitivist theory of art grounded in perceptual psychology and neuroscience and demonstrates its application to a range of puzzles in the philosophy of the arts. These include questions about the nature of depiction, the role played by metakinesis in dance appreciation, the nature of musical expression, and the power of movies. The provocative interdisciplinary theories Seeley presents will appeal to scholars, students, and artists interested in aesthetics, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of perception, empirical aesthetics, neuroscience of art, and anyone else with a burning curiosity about how artworks work.

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