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.


All Your Biases ...

... are belong to us:

Hat tip to SMBC.


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.


Internet Discussions

This couldn't be more accurate:

Hat tip to Massimo Pigliucci.


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!


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!




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


Faces in Peripheral Vision

Here's an eery visual illusion, though it may take you two or three passes to convince yourself that it's real.

It won second prize in the 2012 Illusion of the Year contest. (Who knew?)

Hat tip to Reddit


Animated Factoring Diagrams

Really cool browser program shows an ascending series of numbers organized into factors, up to 10,000.


NB: note that all primes end up as circles, since they cannot be factored.

Hat tip to Steve Gibson


The Quays, Malevich, and Schjeldahl: Further Thoughts on Aesthetics

Two shows are at MoMA, both interesting in their own right: Inventing Abstraction, about the origins of abstract art, and the Quay Brothers, talented animators of neo-gothic films. Comparing the two and reading Peter Schjeldahl's review of the former in a recent issue of the New Yorker raised for me further issues on aesthetics.

Malevich: Painterly massesMany of the pieces in the show on abstraction struck me as surpassingly beautiful. Just to take an example, Kazimir Malevich's Painterly masses in motion. It is intriguing for raising issues of foreground and background in what is, after all, a completely abstracted canvas: there is no reason why the large black object must be 'behind' the colored squares before it, yet that is how our visual system reads this assemblage.

But more than that, the piece, and many other abstract pieces in the show, have an aesthetic grace and power that I find immediately compelling. Where does this aesthetic value come from? I have no doubt that there is some answer we can give neurologically, but whether this answer would be in any way universalizable to all humans, or depend on some robust facts about human evolution, I have my doubts. Of course, seeing shapes as foregrounded and backgrounded is a result of certain selection pressures on our visual system, and so on. But none of these really gets at why this arrangement of shapes and colors is one with aesthetic value, while another is not.

Case in point: in his review of the show, Schjeldahl picks out as "the most beautiful work, for me" a needlepoint tapestry by Sophie Taeuber-Arp that I find attractive but ordinary compared with the masses of great art that surround it. Not only is it not ("for me") the most beautiful work, it is one of the lesser works in the show.

Quay Bros: "They Think They're Alone"On to the Quay Brothers, whose approach is resonant with metaphor, dream, and human emotion. A much more fertile field to find compelling art than among abstracted colors and shapes, one would think. Yet although the brothers' talents are unmistakeable, for me their work is too often leaden and stiff; mannered in the style of silent cinema but pompous and humorless, with a feel of being somehow warmed-over.

Awhile back MoMA had another show by a neo-Gothic filmmaker: Tim Burton, whose Hollywoodized style looked out of place in the cathedral to modernism. At least Burton has a certain sly levity, though, and an ability to draw and delight the crowds. The Quay Brothers are clearly pitched at the elite: although they have worked for advertisers and made pop music videos, that is clearly not their aim.

I don't mean to suggest that Burton makes better artwork than the Quay Brothers; both, in fact, leave me rather cold. My point is rather to suggest that by aiming for the elite, the brothers may have limited their aesthetic appeal generally, without any real concomitant benefit. For me. Whether MoMA's imprimatur will make more of an impact on their posterity than, say, Tim Burton's remains to be seen.

Ethics and Aesthetics

We are left with certain basic questions about contrasting aesthetic value: between one work and another, one artist and another, or between popular and elite forms of art. Is there any way to resolve them?

Well, one way to begin is to contrast these questions with those from that other great realm of value, ethics. There, notwithstanding our exceptions, foibles, and disagreements, there is deep, intercultural accord on certain facts: that one should not murder, should not steal, should not lie. That one should not hurt others, and that one should treat them fairly, as one treats oneself. These go back to the earliest written ethical accounts, worldwide.

There is nothing remotely similar in aesthetics. Why?

I don't have a good answer to that question, however I would like to propose one possibility. The violation of basic ethical principles involves clear harm to others: it is something obvious, and if it is not obvious, it will become so when the other person is involved. They will protest.

With aesthetic principles, there is nobody to protest except a disinterested public. Those who remain unimpressed or nonplussed by a work, yet have the freedom to remove themselves from its presence, have little left to protest. (We will leave aside issues of literal offense, beacuse they touch on issues where aesthetics becomes ethicized). In this regard, of course, the art world has changed quite completely over the last century and a half. "Épater la bourgeoisie" no more; it's been done so many times that they are thoroughly bored by it. 

With nobody left to protest, highly-placed tastemakers are free to muddy the aesthetic waters. Literally anything goes, since whatever aesthetic preferences we may have are all too easily obscured by the imprimatur of a famous critic or curator, telling us that our instincts are base and only they can help raise them to the elite.

Tastemaking seems less a problem with the artists I mention here than with certain others who will remain nameless. Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the Quay Brothers and Tim Burton are very talented, and they deserve recognition. Nevertheless, I think Schjeldahl's decision to pick a relative unknown as "the most beautiful" in a show brimming with great works, as well as the MoMA curatorial decision to pick two contemporary neo-Gothic filmmakers for solo shows, makes the point: for tastemakers to retain an edge, they must always be after the new and different.

Tell Me What You Like

A final word on the "for me" of personal preference: it's often said that the least interesting thing someone can say about a work of art is that they like or dislike it. And perhaps this is true. When one goes to a gallery or museum, of course, that has already been said by the curator before the piece was installed: he or she must decide to install this rather than that. And while nobody would be enlightened by a description card that simply read, "I like this piece", nevertheless such cards often amount to little more than highly pitched rhetorical marketing on behalf of those pieces. ("Here is why you should like this piece.")

Try as one might though, it is difficult to say anything very enlightening, or opinion-changing, about an artwork. One may reveal an obscure subject, or enlighten about a historical context, but apart from that, it's hard to make real gains. The best marketing is done by placement in an elite context of display.

I do love the arts. But my sense is that any real aesthetic merit above and beyond fame-derived fashion may be hopeless, at least as regards anything remotely considered "elite". If so, then all we can ever really do at that level is say what we like, and work to market it.

Or perhaps this is only a feature of fleeting taste in the market of art-for-now (ever more the purview of even the most 'elite' museums), which will come out in the wash of history, all the detritus being left in the bathwater. Perhaps.