Must art be boring?

“You know me—I’m acting dumb
You know the scene—very humdrum
Boredom, boredom, boredom”
The Buzzcocks, “Boredom”

The world is awash in boring art. It’s tempting to chalk this up to the operation of Sturgeon’s Law, but in his recent book Strange Tools, Alva Noë makes the provocative claim that art and boredom are intrinsically linked. “Art,” he claims, “is boring on purpose. Or rather, it confronts you with a situation that makes boredom a natural, a spontaneous response” (p. 116). Moreover, “[a]rt is valuable only in direct proportion to the degree to which it can, or might, bore us” (p. 114).

What’s at issue here is not art that explicitly tries to bore the audience, like Warhol’s unendurable films, compositions by Erik Satie, many of Beckett’s plays, or Kenny Goldsmith’s uncreative writings. Those works evoke the experience of boredom in order to probe and dissect it. Boring us is a success, so long as it also spurs interesting reflections on the state itself.

Art, such as Walter Sickert’s “Ennui,” can also take boredom as its theme without intentionally evoking it, although this is a less stable line to walk. In fiction this is exemplified by Pessoa, though David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, notably The Pale King, is probably the most discussed contemporary example. Wallace wants to illuminate that repellently vacant experience, even espouse it as a peculiar state of grace, but only from a safe distance outside.

Most of the time, boring art is a failure. The artist fails to engage us, or we fail to rouse ourselves to the demands of engagement. But for Noë, it’s inherent to art-making that it leads, inexorably, to the possibility of this sort of missed connection. This risk is part of art’s value and purpose. Striking as these claims are, I think they’re wrong both about the function of art and the character of everyday boredom itself. Continue reading

Neglecting description in theories of consciousness

Description’s an element, like air or water.
Charles Wright, “Black Zodiac”

An adequate theory of consciousness requires being able to describe it. This isn’t a grand metaphysical point, just an obvious fact about writing. Theories exist in discourse, and to bring mental phenomena like conscious experience into contact with theory, they too have to be described. How they are described makes all the difference to how they are theorized. So it is worth reflecting on the descriptions of experience that philosophers habitually turn to.

Many of these descriptions are embedded in the brief vignettes that are a staple of contemporary philosophical writing. Some of these belong to the unfortunately named genre of “thought experiments,” but they can include illustrations of how conceptual distinctions operate, accounts of facts to be explained, veiled attempts at persuasion, and more. Here I am interested in the role of description in these vignettes. I suggest that the conventions of philosophical description narrow the range of admissible facts and thereby make many phenomena invisible to our theorizing.

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