Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Some Thoughts on Aesthetics.

Recently, Roosh V put up a post on beauty which got me thinking of an article I read recently. But before I get to that, I want to put down a few thoughts on the subject of beauty.

I think one of the problems of the traditional philosophical treatments of beauty is that they tend to see the appreciation of beauty as a rational act.  While I think that this approach may have some validity, I don't think enough consideration is given to unconscious processes that are active in the appreciation of it.  Recent insights in cognitive neuroscience show a continuous interplay between conscious and unconscious processes. For example, with regard to the processing of erotic imagery, there is evidence that the brain is processing stimulus information well before conscious cognition is apparent. My view of the matter is that our minds are pre-wired to respond pleasurably to certain visual stimuli. And I don't just mean in the sexual sense, rather, a wide of pleasures (and noxious sensations) can be stimulated by a glance of the eyes. The point is, that when it comes to aesthetics, pleasures are generated subconsciously but appreciated consciously. 

Now, what I'm interested is in the process of subconscious pleasure generation.

It appears to me that human beings are genetically pre-programmed to respond positivity to certain visual stimuli. Symmetry, for example, is not just appreciated in facial forms but also in buildings and compositions of a variety of kinds. Purity, in terms of colour or form is also appreciated.  Certain types of massing, and ratios of a part to a whole also appear to be universally pleasing. It seems that our visual processing hardware is designed with certain rules in mind. If these rules are violated then a progressive sense of disgust is elicited.

Let's say then that there is some kind of hard wired response that generates pleasure only in certain circumstances. How would we judge an art that positively stimulates that response? Or an art that negatively stimulates it.  I suppose that what I'm trying to suggest is that is an art which synch's with this pre-determined hard wiring "natural" to the human species.

The reason why I bring this up is because I feel that classical art was a type of art that instinctively appealed to humans and modern art is a type of art that doesn't. Which brings me to that article I read about. In 1995 two Russian emigre artists, Kumar and Melamid decided to undertake an interesting art project. What they did was use extensive market research to determine what people in eleven different countries liked when it came to art and what they didn't. Based upon this research they decided to paint pictures which represented this market research data. The project and its details can be found here. There is even a book.

Kumar and Melamid's work needs to be understood as visual representation of market research more than an artistic vision. But what's fascinating about their work is the remarkable consistency of what people like in art. Much like the remarkable consistency in what men like in women and women in men.  From an interview with Melamid by The Nation:
N: But there were some surprising results from this poll, yes?
AM: Actually, what shocked me was that it was not surprising. I thought there would be much more interesting--I mean, much different results. Because my small experience talking about art with the people of Bayonne gave me quite a different impression of what the people want. They couldn't exactly say what they want, but seeing artists working gave them ideas of what was possible. The problem is they don't have examples. Maybe they can't be asked, maybe language doesn't work. I was expecting great discoveries, a real vox populi, a high opening. But I think it was the fault of the poll, not the people. It's the fault of all polls. Maybe people have to be shown. Maybe we have to buy a van and go around the country working on art among people--van art. From Vanguard to Van Art.
N: But weren't you kind of surprised that people, regardless of class or race, an wanted pretty much the same thing?
AM: Yeah, that was another shock, because you remember that initially, the idea was to paint different pictures for people of different incomes, but we realized that there's no difference! The blue color diminishes with income and with education, but still the blue color is the majority in every group. And every group wants these landscapes, with soft curves, people fully clothed. That's what gives a good idea about this society, because it's really a united society. That's why this society is still alive. It's not breaking up like Russia, because in Russia they have several different consensuses. You lose that, so you lose everything.
N: What's interesting about the "most wanted" picture that came out of all of this is that it's very close to the classic nineteenth-century American painting, which is a landscape with people, showing harmony with nature, or the conquest of nature. What do you think that suggests?
AM: I think people want stability, culturally and traditionally. The modern art was a breakup with tradition, which became a new tradition, of course. And it's interesting, on one hand I can say that this society's demandtosupply economics works really well, because you can buy landscapes. Maybe not good landscapes; that's the problem. There's nothing bad in landscapes per se. I don't know if we can imitate it now, but why landscape is lower than Abstract Expressionism? Mostly because landscape painting has been given up on by the elite, and people who want to make fame and money don't make landscapes, they make abstract pictures.
N: Robert Hughes wrote that landscape "is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis are to the American novel," that the quintessential American paintings are landscapes.
AM: So, now we know he was right.
I think it is remarkable that people in China, Kenya and U.S all have a very similar aesthetic preferences despite significant geographic, cultural and genetic differences. What it seems to point to is that our sense of beauty has been implanted into us and it is not as malleable as the blank-slaters and fat acceptors seem to think. It isn't because of cultural conditioning as much as it is biomechanics.

There is no doubt that modern art was one of cultural prongs used to overturn the traditional order of the West. Any conservative pushback is going to have to tackle it and perhaps the line of attack should be less philosophical and more biological. Arguments about beauty are probably best not argued on philosophical lines but along "visual ergonomic" ones. A well designed chair is for the body is what beauty is to the eye. And perhaps our argument against modern art shouldn't be an argument about what is morally right or wrong but about what pleases human nature and what doesn't.