Cognition and Art – Philosophy of Reality - Photography and Perception

The Role of Cognition in Art

Are we passive observers or are our minds shaping our perceptions in real-time?  

The series of photographs above captures the sun descending behind a tree.


I believe that our experiences of the physical world are not objective. The very means of our experiencing the world are subjective. For example,  although the subject is identical in all of the photographs above, the manipulation of light input through the lens of the camera creates strikingly different images.  As a series, these images imply that we can experience the same subjects in the physical world in different ways, supporting my philosophical position that cognition is subjective. 

Defining Cognition

Shades of Sunset 1

Cognition can be understood as the fundamental relationship between human beings and the physical world.  It is the inner workings of our brains and our sensory system, detecting and deciphering the multitude of input signals that constitute our environment. Cognition mediates our ‘perceptions’ of reality. In the image above, our standard perception feels very natural and we can recognize a descending sun partially glowing through a tree branch. In this example, the subject of our cognition seems unambiguous and clearly defined. However, I believe that this view is one-dimensional and that there are, in fact, multiple valid representations of this reality.

The Individual and the Physical World

Shades of Sunset 2

There are essentially two subjects involved in this exchange of sensory input that is understood as cognition. Firstly, there is the individual and secondly there is the physical world as we know it.  There are complex physical interactions between these two subjects and, as a result, our experiences are produced.  Are these experiences objective? In other words, can our experiences be understood independently of our human faculties of perception? This question is complex and the truthful answer has troubled intellectuals since antiquity. My view, based on my studies of philosophy, psychology and the life sciences, is that cognition is not objective, it is in fact subjective. 

Cognition Is Subjective

It is clear from empirical evidence in the life sciences and the physical sciences that cognition is subjective. The interaction between observer and reality is subjective in the sense that it is uniquely determined by our faculties - our species-specific ‘apparatus’ which receives and processes information from the outside world. This built-in bias can be observed at all levels of cognition. It can be observed at the rod and cone level, where we receive light, arguably the first point of visual contact with the external world. It can also be observed within the development of the brain structures and neural networks that ultimately determine our thoughts and behavior. This bias can even be observed at the conscious level of experience.  If this position is true, if cognition is truly subjective, then there is a deep epistemological tension between our perceptions of reality and the real world itself. I believe that the artist plays a critical role in exploring this tension. 

The Role
of the Artist

This truth about cognition, that it is in fact subjective, implies that empirical data, as we understand it, is often one-dimensional. If this is true, then what are the other dimensions and how can they be conceptualized? It is here that the role of the artist intervenes between the two subjects (the individual and the physical world) as a third subject. The artist can function as an intermediary ‘agent’ and intervene. During this process of intervention the artist creates works of art with the target of developing different directions of thought and expression. The hope is that this pursuit furthers our collective understanding of reality. In this sense, art form functions as a progressive medium of social influence and can be understood through three dynamics.

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Art Dynamics

The aim of the artist is to evolve our understanding and/or experience of the two base subjects: the individual and the physical world.

In this pursuit, the artist has a focus on three parallel dynamics. The first is the individual and the external world.   The second dynamic is the artist and the artwork.   The third is the artwork and the audience.

Within each of these three parallel dynamics there are two categories that should be differentiated: the raw experience and the 'interpretation' of that experience.

These three parallel dynamics overlap and interact in a complex set of relationships which exist as a substructure of society. They define the basic relationship between an artist and the physical world. Since each dynamic contains both the raw experience and the interpretation of that experience, there is always some unresolved tension between reality and 'interpretation' of that reality. Art plays a central role in the diffusion of that tension.

Why Create Art?

Art helps to clarify our relationship with reality and re-examine our interpretation of reality. I believe in its ability to counterbalance conventional thinking and challenge paradigmatic thought.  Social will can be expressed effectively through culture and art. Expanding the dialogue can raise social awareness and further collective activism towards a progressive, enlightened future.