In an age of conspiracies, here is a striking example, preposterous as it may sound. Highly intelligent robots—general artificial intelligence—surround us, undetected but fundamentally in charge, and human beings are just following instructions that they receive from these elusive entities. Or, a little less preposterously, imagine that the world is alive with consciousness and intelligence, and human thought reflects these processes.

Does it sound like something out of The Matrix? The science fiction classic is not science fiction but a parable of something very real—namely, cinema itself. When you enter the dark room of a movie theater, a radical transformation takes place. You become the screen, and the mind that perceives, thinks, and connects ideas is fully contained in the celluloid roll, or the digital file. In a movie, everything has already been perceived in exactly the sequence that it is intended to be perceived; in the dark room, those images leave the hidden mind of the celluloid and get projected onto your mind—they get force-fed into your mind and the minds of the other viewers, where the images and ideas properly unfold. Cinema is a seeing robot. All that happens in the dark room is the projection of the implicit code onto a human screen.

One can interpret the trajectory of modern art as an effort to create such thinking objects. Sometimes it seems that what we want from art are artworks that exist without a beholder or spectator. Objective meanings, independent of personal interpretations. Something you can understand by reading the exhibition prospectus. In fact, it makes much more sense to consider things from the opposite perspective: how art forms—whether paintings, sculptures, or, even more obviously, films—have slowly assimilated human consciousness, so that they start to breathe and look alive.

When Hegel argued that artistic objects are material things that have received the baptism of the spiritual, he meant to reflect on the strange fact that a work of art, being a product of the mind, continues to belong to the world of the mind, even as it migrates into stone, wood, or canvas. In these strange hybrids, we can expect to find all the certainty of matter and all the life of perception. With works of art, what we see already tells us how it is to be seen—the objects before us already include the ways in which they are to be experienced. It is part of the work of art to see the world in a certain…

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