In her target article, Jennifer McMahon argues that we understand art not by explicitly interpreting “raw percepts,” but rather by engaging with our implicit tendencies to interpret complex stimuli in terms of culturally-engrained preconceptions and narratives. These attributions of order require a shared conceptual and cultural background, and thus one might worry that in denying access to raw percepts, the view dulls art’s critical edge. Against this worry, McMahon argues that art can continue to create and innovate by inviting us to critically reflect upon the very preconceptions on which our engagement with it necessarily depends. In this commentary, I place these attributions of order in historical and empirical context. In addition, I discuss a lingering, related mystery — the possibility of the occasionally punctuated character of artistic evolution, in which prevailing aesthetic conventions are replaced with almost entirely new ones. I suggest that such radical breaks with the past are possible even given the concept-ladeness of perception, but are only likely to succeed when they tap into a culturally-invariant bedrock of more basic attributions of order.
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