William Seely

William P. Seeley is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bates College. His research interests lie at the intersection of neuroaesthetics, cognitive science, embodied cognition, and philosophy of art. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy with a concentration in cognitive science from CUNY-The Graduate Center, an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University, and a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University. His current research includes studies of the influence of selective attention, expert knowledge, affect, and motor simulation in audience engagement with film, dance, and visual art. His research has been published in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Journal of Vision, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Philosophical Psychology, and Review of Philosophy and Psychology, as well as a number of edited volumes. Prior to moving to Bates College Bill was Lecturer in Yale College and Guest Fellow in Timothy Dwight and Ezra Styles Colleges at Yale University and taught in the Philosophy and Psychology Departments at Franklin & Marshall College. Bill is also a sculptor. His welded steel mobiles and constructions have been exhibited in New York City and at a number of colleges and universities, including a solo exhibition of outdoor works in Ezra Stiles College at Yale University. In his spare time Bill is an avid wilderness canoeist who has paddled many of the rivers that empty into James and Hudson Bay from Quebec and Nunavut, Canada.

Title of Talk: Seeking Salience: A Short Story about Engaging Artworks

Teaser: What is it about art that can be so captivating? How is it that we find value in these often odd and abstract objects and events that we call artworks? I suggest that we start with an observation about ordinary perception. Selectivity is a critical issue in ordinary perception. The environment is replete with sensory information. However, only a small subset of this information is salient to our current behavior at a given time and perceptual systems are limited capacity information processing resources. How do we solve this problem? One suggestion is that minimal sets of diagnostic features are sufficient for basic-level categorization in a fast, feedforward cortical sweep of perceptual processing. Feedback from this quick and dirty basic level categorization judgment can then be used to direct attention and bias further sensory processing to task-salient features of the local environment So, why do we find art so engaging? One thought is that artworks are attentional engines. Artists and consumers are engaged in a collaborative back and forth exchange that has produced a variety of different categories art defined by different media and a wide array of artistic styles. We can think of the stylistic devices that define these different categories of art as formal-compositional strategies for directing a consumer's attention to artistically salient features of a work and holding it there. Categories of art, in turn, encode our knowledge of these stylistic devices as recipes for understanding how to skillfully engage with different kinds of artworks and function as attentional filters that constrain how we perceive and evaluate a work.

Drawing on Phillipe Schyns' diagnostic framework for object recognition, a biased competition theory of attention, and recent research in affective perception by Moshe Bar, Lisa Barrett, and Luiz Pessoa, I propose a framework for how we might model our engagement with artworks in a range of media work as attentional engines.

William Seeley