Entries in Philosophy (13)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many 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.
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.
News is coming out tonight of the death of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) and the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He was a legend in the skeptic, secular and atheist communities. I recall the first time I met him, back in the early 90s after years of reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I have a background in philosophy and he came across to me as the very definition of an avuncular, professorial presence: relentlessly upbeat, always trying to be cheery and helpful.
He was, truth be told, not the clearest or most succinct writer, nor the deepest thinker. And the organizations he founded functioned like Rube Goldberg devices. But he was a master motivator, always willing to look past a problematic present to something greater to come. His aim was to inspire, and at this he was tremendously successful. In so doing he as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone is responsible for the contemporary skeptical movement. It is his pathbreaking work on secularism that made 'new atheism' possible, much as he claimed disillusionment from it upon his retirement.
So let's celebrate the passing of a great man, and hope for a better future.
Scientific skepticism is brave and its aim is noble, but it tends to spoil in the doing. Perhaps it could be more effective with another component: what the Buddhists term "metta". It's usually translated "loving-kindness", but I prefer to call it "universal kindness" since the former has a saccharine taint, and anyhow there are many different sorts of love that are not appropriate to this approach.
The aim of scientific skepticism is ethical: to provide benefit to humanity and the world. It's a position that says it is morally wrong to disseminate falsehoods, particularly those that are in some way harmful to our well-being. So for example, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to various forms of so-called 'alternative medicine' that have been shown to be ineffective when compared to placebo. People who sell such products profit by providing false promises and ineffective care to people who are sick or dying. This is not simply a matter of truth or falsity, as might be the case for example with an incorrect date in the newspaper. This is a matter of moral wrong.
Similarly, the scientific skeptic is firmly opposed to misinforming people about the state of scientific discovery: for example, claiming that global warming is a hoax or that creationism is a scientifically viable theory. These claims can and do have ill effects on the public's ability to tell right from wrong, which itself feeds into our inability to adequately confront global problems. In a world that is ever more ruled by democratic forms of government, such disinformation campaigns can only cause harm, on a massive scale. And when they are done to the benefit of small, wealthy elites they too are examples of clear moral wrong.
So the strategic aim of scientific skepticism is beneficial. It's tactics are another matter. Skepticism is often looked upon as a negative enterprise. It's aim is to criticize, knock down, poke holes, cross-examine and throw out. Many skeptics of all stripes come across as nasty, arrogant know-it-alls. I should know, since I'm one of them. But nastiness in itself, the critical attitude, is a psychological dead-end. Nobody can keep it up for long, except a handful of curmudgeons and a few special people with deep reservoirs of psychological well-being that ground them. For the rest of us, it's frankly difficult to bear the frown, and it causes us psychological harm to do so.
Worst of all, of course, negative tactics are some of the least likely to actually change minds.
Is there any solution? I don't know. However there is one practice that can be found in Theravada Buddhism that might be of some help, at least to re-ground the aim. Because so often when engaging in skeptical pursuits one misses the forest for the trees, or the strategy for the tactics: criticism and put-downs take precedence over actually intending to help others.
The practice of universal kindness is simple, though it's bound to feel alien at first. It involves intending kindness towards all people. This is done progressively, by making regular assertions of one's wish that oneself and others are happy, healthy, safe and free from suffering. For example, one may begin by thinking to oneself, "May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe from harm. May I be free from suffering." The point is to aim towards sincerity as much as one can, and to do the practice as often as one feels comfortable.
One begins with oneself because without kindness towards oneself, true kindness towards others is impossible. One then takes in mind people close to one, and does the practice towards them. (To make it easier to visualize, best to take one person at a time). Then one takes in mind neutral people; for example, people one passes regularly on the way to work, those in the gym or local store. Finally, one takes those to whom one has negative feelings -- perhaps intensely negative feelings. In this way, slowly and over time, one expands the circle of one's feelings of kindness towards the people around one. At the very least one clarifies and sharpens one's goals.
The results are not quick, they are not absolute and they are certainly not magical. If you like, this is an example of Aristotle's notion that in order to be a good person one has to practice being a good person, even if it seems odd to do so. The problem with Aristotle's suggestion is that doing something odd even once is difficult enough. Before we can do it, we must be able to think and to feel it. This sort of Buddhist practice can give us a route towards thinking and feeling, which may itself aid in our doing.
A skeptical program better grounded in open kindness towards others, even those with whom we disagree, may stand a better chance of providing psychological fulfillment for the practitioners and more credible help towards others.
To be free in the ordinary sense is, at base, a matter of being able to do what one wants: I am thirsty. I know there is something to drink in the refrigerator, so I open the refrigerator. This is a freely willed act, as opposed to my being forced to do the same by a man with a gun, or to my being unable to do the same because I am tied down to a chair.
A "want", of course, is realized by a state of the brain. The human nervous system has osmoreceptors that detect changes in the osmotic pressure of the blood and other fluids. When they detect decreased volume or increased concentration of salt, they cause us to feel thirsty. The mediators of wants are biophysical. (Or to put it as I've put it before, robots -- at least, robots of sufficient cognitive complexity -- could have wants. And if being free in the ordinary sense is a matter of being able to do what one wants, robots could be just as free as us).
But there is another sense of 'freedom' that comes up, for example, in the famous Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Buddhist Pali Canon. Here we are told that "wants" or "desires" themselves are bonds! How could this be if freedom is, at base, being able to do what one wants?
Here is the relevant passage from the Sutta:
Monks, there are these five strings of sensuality. Which five? Forms cognizable via the eye — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Sounds cognizable via the ear — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Aromas cognizable via the nose — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tastes cognizable via the tongue — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. Tactile sensations cognizable via the body — agreeable, pleasing, charming, endearing, fostering desire, enticing. These are the five strings of sensuality.
And any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will. Just as if a wild deer were to lie bound on a heap of snares: it should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; the hunter can do with it as he will. When the hunter comes, it won't get away as it would like. In the same way, any brahmans or contemplatives tied to these five strings of sensuality — infatuated with them, having totally fallen for them, consuming them without seeing their drawbacks or discerning the escape from them — should be known as having met with misfortune, having met with ruin; Mara can do with them as he will.
The pleasures we get from the senses are like strings that bind us; desires based upon them can tie us down like a deer before the hunter.
But what sort of freedom is this? Surely we are free -- at least, free in the ordinary, everyday sense -- just insofar as we can grasp at whatever desires suit our fancy. Far from binding us in a heap of snares, this pursuit of pleasure is what gives our life whatever expansiveness it has.
This is the kind of Enlightenment freedom alluded to in the US Declaration of Independence: that we possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Our freedom comes not only in liberty from interference, but also in liberty to pursue happiness where we find it. If we want to indulge ourselves by looking at drip paintings, playing the violin or eating gourmet meals, then it is in their pursuit that we find freedom.
But then, wherein lies the snare?
Consider this phrase from the Sutta: "... without seeing their drawbacks". Is it really true that every pursuit of happiness leads to its attainment? Don't many lead to unhappiness?
It's not unusual for the pursuit of pleasure to lapse into dull routine or worse, obsession or compulsion. One buys the object, sees the show, climbs the mountain, drinks the wine, kisses the pretty face, not because it is pleasurable but because it ticks some box that says, "Not done yet." It fits into an empty space in the collector's book. And while filling that space may provide some modest frisson, the feeling cannot last.
Nor are such pursuits to one's benefit: being tied to sensual delights without seeing their drawbacks is a route to disappointment. Although all desires aim at pleasure, many misfire along the way, bringing unhappiness. Often we know this to be the case, we know we do ourselves no good by acting upon the desire, yet we indulge nonetheless. This is a kind of fetter.
A desire that brings unhappiness when acted upon is not the kind of desire that brings true freedom. A desire that brings unhappiness is, in that sense, a kind of fetter or bond that reduces one's true freedom even while providing ordinary freedom.
The "pursuit of happiness" is its own freedom just so long as that pursuit is well-aimed. The obsessive collector who drains his account in the purchase of pretty things, the lothario, the thief, not to mention the alcoholic or addict, all to one extent or another do what they do freely, in the ordinary sense of the word. (The addict or true obsessive less so, since mental illness is its own bind). But they rarely get the happiness they seek. To that extent, they are not truly free.
Here's an excellent blog post out by Sam Sykes, quoting NK Jemisin: "The Chosen Jerk".
Main point: the trope of the Chosen One in much Fantasy and SF is itself corrosive, both because it short-circuits the narrative (by putting all the chips in one character's lap), and because it perpetuates a notion of born superiority.
I've left my own commentary as well in the thread that follows. I think a related problem with the trope is that it requires a Chooser, someone who decides who gets chosen, indeed before any of the relevant actions are taken. It's a kind of predestination to heaven, that suggests others are predestined to less honorable ends.
The problem with this trope is less the determinism it suggests (I have no problem with determinism, so long as it's carefully bounded by the stochastics of quantum mechanics) than with the idea that there's someone out there who knows all our ends and who decides -- who chooses -- naughty and nice, ab initio.
On the other hand, there's less of an issue if the notion of a "Chosen One" is something one lives up to at the end of a life well lived. But then it becomes a kind of literary metaphor rather than a lived reality.