Entries in Aesthetics (5)


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.


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.


A Short Sketch About Aesthetics

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.

USA's Most WantedIt 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.


The Role of the "Expert"

I've been talking a bit about aesthetic disagreement. The topic skirts around the central issue, which is whether there is such a thing as aesthetic expertise: that is, whether there really are certain people who have more insight into painting or literature or music or food, and who therefore are better positioned to make normative judgments about it. Whether there are people who can tell us whether or not a particular work of art is good, independent of our own opinions.

We all have our own opinions. Do some opinions matter more than others?

Some people are better at gauging popular opinion, or the spirit of the times. There are writers, filmmakers, and so on, who are good at consistently creating works of immense popularity. But that isn't the same thing as expertise ... or is it?

Isn't the expert the one who tells us that those popular films and books are all garbage? Usually, that's so.

I was at a show yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A greater bastion to expertise in art there probably isn't. But the show I saw, by the contemporary artist John Baldessari, struck me as a complete waste of time. Baldessari comes from the school known as 'conceptual art', which Sol Lewitt defines as art in which:

the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.

This school entirely stems from one work of art: Marcel Duchamp's (in)famous urinal on a pedestal, called "Fountain".

Duchamp's Fountain"Fountain" raised a number of important questions for visual art: could something that was created industrially, a piece of ordinary household goods, indeed a urinal for gosh sakes, become "art" by being put on a pedestal and included in a museum? If it could, then presumably anything could. All one needed to do in order to make something "art" was to put it on a pedestal and introduce it to a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

It's an interesting point. But here's the problem: it leads nowhere. If a urinal on a pedestal is artwork, then so too is a guy in an artless black-and-white video reel saying, "I'm making art" over and over again, as Baldessari does. So too are banal statements and quotes about art painted by sign painters on canvas. So too is anything. And put next to the other works in the Met, this attitude is extraordinarily arrogant.

It's a kind of contempt for the public, something that is not original to Baldessari, or indeed to the conceptualists generally. It's a particularly lazy sort of contempt, though, since what one ends up with is 'art' of thorough artlessness, crashingly boring pieces that appear to have been made in mere seconds, offhandedly, or made by paid professionals like sign painters when presumably the artist would have had the skills to do the same himself if he'd wanted. (I know, I know. The conceptual artist doesn't care about the work itself, so having the sign painter do it is part of the 'concept').

Certainly an expert provides historical and contextual knowledge of a field, if nothing else. Even if one rejects the notion of aesthetic expertise per se, at least one can agree that some people have more experience than you, have read or seen or heard or tasted more and so can put a work in its place in a way that you cannot.

But are there also real experts who can delve into which pieces are more beautiful? Are there really qualified editors who can take dross and turn it golden? If so, how is this done? To what do they look as they work?

Do they simply look at historical precedent? (Baldessari has become famous, so he must be good enough to put in a show at the Met)? Or do they look at something more difficult to define: aesthetic quality? And if so, what is that?

This is the point: if there are real aesthetic experts, their expertise must be in something. There must be aesthetic facts in which they can be expert. But what are those facts? In what do they reside? It's an issue any artist must come to terms with, at least obliquely. For if there are no such facts, then there can be no true experts, either. Then all expertise is simply good marketing passing itself off as knowledge, a pedestal in an expensive building, and Duchamp was right.


Chacun à son goût

I was at a tasting of Spanish wines last night: twelve wines, blind, six each from the 2004 and 2005 vintages. The specifics don't matter, and although doing them blind was good training for the pros, it is also the best way to discover what one really prefers. Doing them blind removes the label from the equation.

We were twelve or thirteen, many of whom are wine professionals: importers, buyers, writers, and so on. The diversity of opinion was extraordinary.

One aim of tasting is end up with a ranking. The wine I chose as my favorite was the least favorite of many, and the overall least favorite of the group. (It was a wine with faults, which one could look at as pretty or not, as the case may be). The wine that was the group's favorite was the second least favorite of one or two. We were all over the place, and it wasn't a matter of lack of familiarity with the region.

And this was so for virtually every wine in the tasting. There were some willing to sing its praises, others to point out its demerits. On none of the wines were we in agreement.

It's a good lesson. Aesthetics is a matter of taste. While it's fun to argue aesthetic merits (a pastime I enjoy), this usually involves arguing faults as well. And there's something to be said for the position that the more kinds of art you appreciate, the more filled with beauty your life will be.

Though having truly catholic taste (in the old sense of the word) does perhaps reduce one's appreciation for aesthetic argle bargle ...