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Art, Humans And Their 'Strange Tools'

A visitor takes in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet near Bollene in southern France in March 2015.
Claude Paris
A visitor takes in the life size replica of Grotte Chauvet near Bollene in southern France in March 2015.

Human beings have always been toolmakers. Chisels and scrapers fashioned from fractured stones are associated with our hominid ancestors going back a million years or more.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the machine shop. Sometime between 100,000 and 20,000 years ago, our tools changed radically. Rather than just sharpened rocks, the human tool kit exploded to include bone needles, hooks and arrowheads. It's like a light went off in our ancestors' heads about all things that could be a tool. But that wasn't the only light that switched to "on." Just at the same time as we were vastly expanding our tools, we were also creating our remarkable works of art in the form of cave paintings, sculptures and even instruments for making music.

Tools and art, art and tools. Is there a deeper connection between these domains than just their appearance in human evolution?

The answer, according to my co-blogger Alva Noë, is "yes." And in his book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, he unpacks the connection in provocative new directions.

Now, before we go any further, we need a little disclaimer. What follows can't be an objective review of Alva's book. I clearly like Alva's way of thinking, even if I don't agree with all of his views. But I really got excited as I started digging into his ideas in Strange Tools. Most importantly, I think he's hit a nerve that speaks not only to the meaning of making art, but also to the meaning of human-world-making as a whole.

Tools are central to every aspect of the world we inhabit. In fact, they are so central that, for the most par,t we forget they even exist. We reach for a fork but don't ask, "Hey, what's this weird spiky thing." We get behind the wheel of our cars and don't think, "Wow, a wheel for steering. Why not use a stick like an airplane?" Our tools are simply "given" to us when we reach for them in way that makes them entirely transparent and invisible. The only time they come to the fore in our awareness is when they break.

But without these tools, the entire edifice of human culture and organization would be impossible. And if we broaden the definition of tools to include language and writing, then its clear that culture itself is a kind of tool we have used to define our humanness.

This is where Alva begins in his inquiry about art. For him, art is not just a way to make something pleasant to hear or look at. Taken as a whole, he sees the creation of art as the creation of a strange tool. It's the creation of something allowing us to stand back and look at what we've done with all the other tools, and ask, "What is this?" As he said in a recent interview:

Consider for example Duchamp's famous Fountain, which is nothing more than an upended urinal. As humorous as the piece can be, Duchamp was explicitly attempting to extract this tool from its setting. He was asking us to ask to see it without its usual context.

If Duchamp is too silly for you, consider Alva's perspective on dancing. Human beings are dancers. We just do it whether it's at a wedding or a night on the town or just hanging out by ourselves grooving to Marvin Gaye. Now consider the art of dance with its sets and costumes and choreography. As Alva puts it:

Dancing comes first — and only later to we get dance as an art form. It's in this way that art, for Alva, is a kind of research project. It's an essential feedback loop in being human. That feedback comes by showing "we're always influenced by our own representation of our activities to ourselves."

For me as a scientist, it's this connection that seems so exciting. Science is a process by which we stand back and stop taking the world for granted, or as a given. The ant hill or the atmosphere becomes more than just something "there" and is transformed into something worth consideration on its own. Alva is showing us that every painting, dance and piece of music plays a similar role but now the frame has indeed been shifted. In art, it's our most intimate, lived experience and us as individual world-builders that comes into view. With that view set up for us, we can begin to question it and understand it's dynamics.

I think Alva is right. Art is a tool — and strange one at that. It allows us to let our own strangeness — as strangers in a strange land — be revealed. More than anything else, that is its power and its worth.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank
Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.