What makes a piece of art worthwhile? What makes it good?
Is this simply a subjective matter of opinion? Or is there anything more we can point to?
If there were alien life forms on other planets, would they find the same things beautiful that we do? Would they find the same things artistically worthwhile? Or would they view our artistic taste as incomprehensible or worthless?
These are some of the questions that come up when we consider aesthetics.
There is little question that there are similarities in the way humans see beauty. Europeans love Japanese prints, Chinese youth pine after the iPhone. Human physical attractiveness follows certain set patterns, such as the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio for women, or male facial symmetry. While some of this is doubtless culturally imposed, much of it is due to our ability to ferret out underlying biological characteristics such as fertility and partner suitability. After all, humans are animals, and animals (particularly females, who have the burden of gestating the young) are notoriously picky about mate choice.
Aesthetic sense in the animal kingdom extends from visible and auditory factors such as the peacock's plumage, the bird's song or the lion's roar, the gorilla's size or the seal's ownership of the beach, to the intricate hanging nests made by weaverbirds or the extraordinary collections of bowerbirds.
It also extends to location. Animals have an instinctive sense of the best placement of home: one that is relatively safe and secure from predation, close to sources of food and water, with a good view of the surrounding territory.
The artists Komar & Melamid conducted surveys in countries around the world, asking people what they wanted most to see in a painting. The result was their People's Choice series of "Most Wanted" paintings. While there were local, cultural, discrepancies, the overall results of their polling reveal, in philosopher Denis Dutton's words, "serious empirical evidence for a natural, evolved universal aesthetic preferences." Viz., people tend to like open landscapes with a view out over water, much as non-human animals prefer territory with a view, close to sources of water. Americans like to add a president in there as well, somewhere.
Our aesthetic preferences extend to taste and smell, senses that enable us to find foods that provide sustenance and avoid those that may cause illness. It's practically a truism that people enjoy the taste of fatty, sugary and salty food, and tend to avoid foods that are perceived as bitter. (Bitter is one indication of spoilage).
One "post-modern" response to all this, of course, might be termed expressly anti-aesthetic: what is beautiful is suspect. Studies of universal taste reveal nothing more than narrow cultural brainwashing and therefore a universal lack of sophistication. And who can argue with that, when presented with Komar & Melamid's Most Wanteds? They're awful, looking like Hallmark Cards or cast-offs from any flea market in the country. But that's the point, isn't it? Any artistic subject that is universally appreciated is likely to be the sort of thing one find's everywhere.
Or, perhaps better said, it's the sort of thing one finds everywhere except in the places that have been taught not to appreciate it.
Because ironically it's the anti-aesthetic movement, the movement that views standards of beauty as simply passing cultural constructs, that is the prime example of constructing taste along cultural lines. If we are to give up on universal standards of beauty as our touchstone for artistic excellence, all we have left are passing fads, cooked up for us by today's cultural tastemakers.
Perhaps this is why so much contemporary art mystifies. Perhaps this is why to appreciate it requires detailed knowledge of context and background. It's far from obvious that a pile of detritus on the floor indicates some pungent social reality, or to see why this presentation is more pungent than simply stating the reality outright.
To appreciate such art reveals the extent to which one is culturally in-tune with the moment, the extent to which one has the time, money and interest to teach oneself what it's about, and indeed to teach oneself why it's art.
All art appreciation has an element of status indication, of course. Like the universal aesthetic pointed to above, awareness of status is a part of our evolutionary background. But ironically, by eschewing beauty, much of contemporary art has only managed to privelege status-indication in its place, by making art appreciation more rarified, more élite, more out of touch with anything but art study for its own sake.
And that, I think, is a dead end, at least for art.
The alternative, that all art at least contain some notion of beauty as an essential element, is not itself truly universal at all, of course. It depends upon our vague evolutionary heritage. But that, I am afraid, is the way it must be. For aesthetics apart from evolution is, it seems, no more than numerology.