10:23 Challenge 1984 Aesthetics Alastair Reynolds Alban Berg Albert Uderzo Alexander Nehamas Antikythera Arrugas Art Asterios Polyp Asterix Babylon 5 Bernd and Hilla Becher Bible Bill Viola Brad DeLong Bruce Sterling Buddhism Carl Sagan Center for Inquiry Charles and Ray Eames Charles Burns Charles Yu Cheryl Morgan Chris Mooney Chris Ware Círculo Escéptico Clarkesworld Comics Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Cristóbal Vila Cyberpunk Dan Nadel Darick Robertson Dario Robleto Darryl Cunningham David Mazzucchelli David O'Reilly Dmitri Shostakovich Ed Docx Einstein on the Beach Engaget Eric Brown Errol Morris Etérea Studios Fantasy Fractals Frank Stockton Frankenstein Free Will Gary Wolfe Greece Hans Rosling Hergé Hiraki Sawa Hiroshi Sugimoto Humor Ian Bertram Iliad Jaq Chartier Jason Yungbluth Jennifer Bartlett John Baldessari John Martz John Scalzi John Sculley Jorge Luis Borges Jose Pérez Joseph Lambert Joyce Carol Oates Jules Feiffer Julia Galef Karl Stevens Kasimir Malevich Ken Dahl Komar & Melamid Language Lord of the Rings Luis Alfonso Gámez Macintosh Marcel Duchamp Margaret Atwood Mary Shelley Massimo Pigliucci Math Maurizio Cattelan Michael Benson MoCCA Modern Times Museums Nancy Fulda Nancy Kress Neil Gaiman Neil Tyson NK Jemisin NYRSF Optical Illusion Orson Scott Card Paco Roca Pascal Girard Paul Hornschemeier Paul Kurtz Pepo Pérez Phil Moriarty Philip Glass Philosophy physics Plato Podcast Post-modernism Quay Brothers Rage Comics Ray Bradbury Realism Religion Rene Goscinny Richard Dawkins Richard Feynman Robert Rauschenberg Robert Wilson Roger Ebert Sam Sykes Samuel R. Delany Science Science Fiction Sean Carroll Secular Buddhist Association Shaun Tan Sixty Simbols Skepticism SMBC Star Wars Statistics Steampunk Steve Jobs Steven Pinker subBlue Tara Donovan Tatiana Plakhova The New Yorker Theodore Sturgeon Tim Minchin Timothy Callahan Tintin Tom Gauld Tomas Saraceno Transmetropolitan Ursula K. Le Guin Video Vija Celmins Warren Ellis Watchmen Wikileaks Will Eisner William Gibson Wine Writing X'ed Out XKCD
Friday
Dec062013

Interpreting quantum physics correctly

There is so much misinterpretation of quantum physics in the popular press, that it's refreshing to hear an actual physicist clarify some of the basic issues. Here Prof. Phil Moriarty of the University of Nottingham confronts a particularly egregious case.

Sixty Symbols is a very good web series on science, which I would highly recommend.

Wednesday
Nov132013

The Beauty of Mathematics

Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz

Wednesday
Jun192013

XKCD on the Pace of Modern Life

My only quibble with this piece is that he could have found many more, many earlier quotes on similar topics. E.g.,

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless
beyond words.

When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of
elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of
restraint.
-- Hesiod
Wednesday
Jun122013

Art and Emotion

I've dealt with some issues surrounding aesthetics here in the past, and my approach has at least partially been biological and socio-cultural: asking what external reasons there are for the granting of aesthetic merit to certain artworks as opposed to others.

However another approach is also valuable: asking what internal reasons there might be for artistic approval and disapproval. One central, internalist topic has to do with emotional response. Speaking very roughly, an artwork that elicits a strong emotional reaction, or perhaps a strong emotional reaction with certain characteristics, is seen as superior to one that, as the saying goes, "leaves us cold". Now, of course one worthwhile way to go here is to begin to ask, "What sorts of emotional responses are the right ones?" And perhaps we can come up with some initial, rough criteria: in order to be a particularly good work of art, the emotion shouldn't include strong antipathy towards the work. Now, a sly, budding art critic may disagree with such a claim: perhaps reactions of distaste, disgust, dislike, and so on are examples that "épater la bourgeoisie", and as such, perhaps we should be suspicious of such strong antipathic emotional responses. But nevertheless I think most of us would agree that there is some scope of strong dislike that includes artworks that really are worthless by any reasonable aesthetic merit. That said, it doesn't really matter for what follows whether we make such a move or not.

Second, we may say that in order to be the right sort of emotional response, the emotion must be somehow complex. After all, a simple horror, humor, or romance film, a propaganda piece, or even pornography can elicit very strong emotions without having any real aesthetic merit. One typical response of the self-styled sophisticate is to claim to be unmoved in the presence of such works, of course. Although I am highly dubious of such poses, nevertheless it also doesn't really matter for what follows whether we accept them or not.

The question I prefer to get at is more basic: why should it matter that a piece elicit strong emotions? What's so important about emotions? Why should a piece that makes us cry, laugh, or feel terribly emotionally confused be somehow superior to one that does not, or that, say, makes us think of the color blue or feel particularly hungry?

I don't claim to have anything like a full answer to this question. I think it's enough to raise it as an object of genuine concern. However I do have something at least approaching one plausible explanation why emotion might be important in art criticism.

Emotion and Recall

When we think back on the artworks we have seen in our lives, which ones tend to stick out? A simple answer is that it's the ones that caused the deepest emotional impact in us. I'd argue this goes much more for art critics, whose job involves interacting with large numbers of similar pieces on a regular basis. In the fullness of time, they all tend to blend together; the ones that stick out are the ones that caused the deepest emotional impact. (And that may have had other, associated characteristics, like originality, and so on).

It's often said that time is the greatest art critic of all: often the pieces that were beloved by this generation of critics prove forgettable to the next, when seen in a new light. Once again, the operant cause here may at least partially have to do with emotional impact over time. That is particularly so if the emotion of the work became confused with disgust in the first critics who saw it.

At any rate, over time memory comes to the fore in internal determinations of artistic merit: the best pieces are said to be "memorable". Less worthy pieces are, in a word, "forgettable".

Now I think we have the framework to bring the two together: emotion and memory. To put it simply, the artworks that are "forgettable" just tend to be those that "leave us cold". Scientific studies have shown conclusively that we have better and longer recall of emotional events than we do of ones that are not emotion-laden. This, of course, makes evolutionary sense: our emotions are tailored to arise during times that tend to be evolutionarily critical. We are frightened or hate filled when we feel threatened. We are aroused when we sense a potential mate. We feel love surrounding mating, child rearing, and in-group bonding. Humor is a more complex case, however it is also one not typically associated with great artwork. Nevertheless times of emotional arousal are also times it would be good to underline in our long-term memory traces: they likely involve processes it would be useful to come back to at a later date. They may, for the same reason, be seen and encoded as particularly valid or truthful, whether in fact they are or not.

If this is so, then the evolutionarily useful link between emotion and memory plays a crucial role in our aesthetic evaluation. It may not be that there is any particular reason why emotional artworks are aesthetically better than ones that are not, apart from the mere fact that because they elicit strong emotions they are easier to recall at a later date.

I believe similar processes may occur as well with narrative events: they are more easily encoded and hence recalled at a later date. Emotional narratives, therefore, may be particularly well suited to be taken as artistically valuable: thus our Homers, Sophocleses, Shakespeares, Dantes, Cervanteses, Lady Murasakis, and so on.

Some Concerns

Although the creation of aesthetic merit out of evolutionarily attuned memory and other allied causes may be a relatively benign phenomenon, there is still room for concern. Insofar as the mind tends to recall such emotion-laden narratives more easily, and imbue them with a validity they may lack, we may be prone to learning and recalling false lessons. It's all too easy for any of us, from the most humble up to the most powerful, to put ourselves into easily recalled, emotion-laden narratives from history, believing they provide lessons which they may not.

If in fact emotion is an enemy of clear seeing, then relying on emotion to provide us with our most salient data is a recipe for promoting only confusion, falsehood, and ignorance. No doubt this overstates the case to some degree, but once again, perhaps it's enough to raise it as an object of genuine concern.

Tuesday
May282013

All Your Biases ...

... are belong to us:

Hat tip to SMBC.

Wednesday
May222013

Sean Carroll on Naturalism

Here's an excellent Rationally Speaking podcast with physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, and writer Julia Galef on the philosophical question of naturalism. I'm a big fan of Carroll's clarity at getting across physics, having watched a couple of his lecture series on The Great Courses. He's one of those few, rare physicsts at the top of his game who is willing to get into the deeper philosophical issues in a way that is both nuanced and compelling. That's to say, he knows his philosophy.

Carroll's book From Eternity to Here is an intriguing story about the arrow of time. I recall hearing back in grad school how time's arrow could be understood as a matter of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I'm still not quite convinced that the story Carroll tells doesn't smuggle in the arrow of time somewhere: after all, one typically understands the Second Law in terms of entropy increasing into the future. Of course, stated that way, the Second Law assumes an arrow of time, so the most it can do is to explain why the future looks the way it does compared to the past, rather than explaining the arrow per se.

But it's definitely all food for thought.

Monday
Apr082013

Internet Discussions

This couldn't be more accurate:

Hat tip to Massimo Pigliucci.

Tuesday
Feb192013

NASA Videos of the Sun

Worth a little under four minutes of your time: incredible images of our Sun.

Hat tip to my brother, Matt!

Monday
Feb042013

Animated Quimby

There is no better cartoonist/graphic novelist working today than Chris Ware. So, how about a short Chris Ware animation? 

Though Quimby is not one of his most compelling creations, as a modern update of Krazy Kat it's certainly worth a few minutes of your time!

 

 

Monday
Jan282013

Language of Marketing: Art

Here's a good article about the ill effects of post-modernist and post-structuralist verbiage in contemporary art, from The Guardian:

A user's guide to artspeak