Baseball Toaster Aesthetics Blog
What's the Mechanism, Kenneth?
2006-10-23 21:54
by Ken Arneson

The attempt to define art/beauty/taste/aesthetics goes at least as far as Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, and continues to this day. The definition remains elusive.

There's no one theory that causes a large group of people to say, "That's it!" More often, you'll hear people give up, and declare art to be an undefinable mystery.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about this problem in a recent New Yorker essay. He puts the problem into two camps: the David Hume camp (the subjective cannot be defined) and the Lord Kames camp (there must be some sort of logic behind taste):

"Beauty is no quality in things themselves," the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote. "It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty." Hume might as well have said that nobody knows anything.

But Hume had a Scottish counterpart, Lord Kames, and Lord Kames was equally convinced that traits like beauty, sublimity, and grandeur were indeed reducible to a rational system of rules and precepts.

Instinctively, I fall into the Kames camp. There is too much consistency in the way humans appreciate art for there not to be some sort of algorithm at work behind that consistency.

I must admit, however, that I've tried to read several of the more famous works in the history of aesthetics, and every time, I read about three or four pages, and stop. Something just tells me that the approach is wrong, and to read further is just a waste of time.

I think the reason I give up on those theories is that I kinda have a vague vision of what the features of a valid aesthetic theory should look like. When a writer starts going off on abstract tangents that aren't addressing any of those features, I tend to roll my eyes, and move on.

Here's an attempt to capture those features. In my mind, a valid aesthetic theory should be:

  • Consistent With Evolution

    Humans create and appreciate art, pretty much universally. Some animals show some capacity for art, but nowhere near to the extent that humans do. A valid theory of art will explain how we got from Point A (animals with no or limited artistic capabilities) to Point B (fully artistic humans), and why.

  • Consistent With Neuroscience

    Hume was right in one sense: art is a function of the mind. In Hume's day, the mind was an inpenetrable mystery. But with recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain, we can begin to unravel the mystery. We can begin to understand art as a function of not just some incomprehensible entity called "the mind", but as a function of the basic mechanisms of the brain. A valid aesthetic theory will explain the mechanisms of artistic appreciation in the brain, down to a the level of neural networks and brain cells and the chemical reactions inside the human brain.

  • Consistent With The Human Lifespan

    A baby can't appreciate Picasso. A toddler will prefer Teletubbies to Shakespeare. Teenagers tend to like the latest popular music, and senior citizens tend to like the kind of stuff they liked back when they were teenagers.

    Art isn't static. Our tastes change throughout our lifespan in somewhat predictable ways. A valid theory will explain why and how this happens.

  • Consistent With Observed Artistic Phenomena

    Cliché. Obscurity. Critical acclaim. Popularity. Beloved. Controversial. One-hit wonder. Long prolific career. Passing or failing the test of time.

    It's not only the individual who changes over time. The artist and the work of art itself both seem to change over the course of their lifetimes in the marketplace of ideas. We need to explain these phenomena, how they change over time, and why.

  • Able to Make Accurate Predictions

    Gladwell's article shows that we are beginning to be able, with the help of sophisticated computers, to be able to make fairly accurate predictions about how people will react to a given work of art.

    Right now, all we can do is identify certain statistical clusters, and whether a given work of art falls into one cluster or another. We don't yet really know why these works of art cluster in these ways, or how the other bullet points on this list tie into these clusters. A good theory of art will explain these clusters, and relate them to the other elements on this list.

Those are the things I'm looking for. My main purpose for this blog is to record any progress I find in these areas, and to muse about what they mean toward the ultimate goal: a viable theory of aesthetics.

2006-10-30 15:29:17
1.   Jon Weisman
Behind as I am on the New Yorker, I read Gladwell's article today. The big question by the end of the article seemed not to be whether or not a system could predict public appreciation of a work of art (i.e., box office), but assuming one can, how to reconcile that with the desire for great art. The working system does not promise to produce the best movie, but to increase revenue.

And so you're left with the question, how much profit is enough? How much profit is a studio willing to sacrifice for artistic achievement? As interesting as Gladwell's article was, that question was unexplored.

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