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Let’s Naturalize Aesthetics
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Denis Dutton

In what is for teachers maybe the single most-assigned aesthetics essay, the opening chapter of Art, Clive Bell makes a typically weird and over-the-top remark: “You will notice that people who cannot feel pure aesthetic emotions remember pictures by their subjects; whereas people who can, as often as not, have no idea what the subject of a picture is. They have never noticed the representative element, and so when they discuss pictures they talk about the shapes of forms and the relations and quantities of colours.”

I’ve never come across anyone who in their experience of painting who could remember blue rectangles, green mottled areas, and pinkish brown smudges, but couldn’t recall if they were cars or trees or people. Bell, I suspect, is just trying to shock us into glimpsing the truth of formalism, but he fits right in with the main current in aesthetics for the last two hundred years.

Formalism is a complex set of ideas that validate some of our basic intuitions about art, but systematically deny or exclude others. “Pure” aesthetics, it holds, is all about form and structure. There’s an intuitive appeal to this formalist way of thinking through aesthetics, and our profession has been in its spell at least since Kant.

But there are counter-intuitions, and in aesthetics as elsewhere in philosophy, we can build academic careers out of reconciling such conflicts of intuition, or showing that they are unreal, or why one side is decisively right, the other wrong.

Underneath this all is a question that is seldom seriously asked: Where do the intuitions come from? Here’s an example of the issue. Back in the 1970’s I published a paper on the topic of what is wrong with a forgery. Arthur Koestler and Alfred Lessing had claimed there was nothing wrong with forgeries so long as they were “aesthetically” indistinguishable from originals, or anyway looked as good as originals. To reject the aesthetically excellent forgery, so the Lessing/Koestler position went, was mere snobbery.

My response began by appealing to an imagined experience: the acute sense of deflation and disappointment you’d feel if you learned that a dazzling virtuoso piano recording you’d much admired had in fact been faked, speeded up electronically. From this I built up a general view of art as necessarily involving performance and achievement.

I still think I was right, but my argument contained an embarrassing hole. It depended on a deep and impressive psychological effect – a shock, a sense even of betrayal. But I had no way to explain the existence of this effect. At least one writer, Leonard B. Meyer, had treated the admiration of technique as a contingent cultural construct – as though we could envision a culture where practiced skill was not admired. This seemed implausible. The admiration of high technique, of feats of virtuosity, is a cross-cultural, universal value. It infects not only the arts, but potentially all human activity, e.g., sporting activities everywhere.

There was a time in Anglo-American aesthetics when it was adequate merely to describe an intuition and show how it manifested itself in the language of art and criticism. Today there is a substantial psychological literature that we can apply to ruminations on origins of our intuitions, including the feelings and emotions expressed, aroused, or represented in aesthetic experience. In the case of the admiration of technique, the universality of this phenomenon has as much of an evolutionary basis as the general liking for fatty and sweet foods. Skill-developing, skill-admiring peoples survived better than competitors in the Pleistocene. But beyond natural selection, it is probable that sexual selection has played a major role in the evolution of the admiration of technique, with our ancestors tending to find attractive as mates individuals who could demonstrate a range of manual or intellectual skills.

Many philosophers are reluctant to psychologize values if that means naturalizing them as stable components of an evolved human nature. But why? What’s so much better about using “culture” as the one-size-fits-all explanation for values?

Consider the famous Komar and Melamid experiment to create the favorite paintings for various peoples around the world, derived from poll results. The preference-driven paintings they put together are a hoot (George Washington shares a Hudson River scene with a hippo), but they inadvertently back up independent research on cross-cultural preferences in landscapes and landscape pictures. There is a cross-culturally established list of elements which are desired by human beings in landscapes – water, variegated open areas with climbable trees, large wild or domestic mammals, roads that disappear into an inviting distance (what the evolutionary psychologists call “way-finding” elements), and so forth. Beyond psychological lab tests, these preferred landscape elements show up both in landscape calendars and in the design of private gardens and public parks worldwide. Komar and Melamid back this up, but then so does the history of landscape painting in both Europe and Asia.

Here then is a challenge to aesthetics: why don’t we try a little harder to open ourselves to naturalistic accounts of aesthetic experience that go beyond the legacy of formalism and its “purity”? The issues are fascinating. Why not work with psychologists to understand better cross-cultural preferences in picture content? Are there psychological mechanisms that account for the satisfactions of group singing or of sharing an artistic experience as the member of an audience? Can we identify and statistically analyze recurrent themes and ideas in drama and literature?

Evolutionary psychologists insist that wherever an intense pleasure is found in human life, there is likely some reproductive or survival advantage connected with it. Art has little practical value, but can deliver intense pleasure. Why? Aestheticians, please explain.

A truly naturalized, and therefore Darwinian, account of aesthetic experience would be speculative to some extent, but would especially welcome experimental evidence that might tend to confirm or decisively disprove its hypotheses. It would not stand opposed to accounts of aesthetic experience in terms of unique cultural expression, but would enhance them by placing them in a universal perspective. Scientific linguistics does not reduce the immense variety of human languages to a single impoverished code, and neither would a scientific, naturalized aesthetics reduce art to anything less than the rich, living force that it is.

Bell was dead wrong. Not only are we destined to notice the subject matter of pictures, as a species we are persistently inclined even to prefer some subjects to others. Sophisticated modernists may not like the fact, and neither will the postmodern crew who insist on reducing all to economic, racial, or gender politics. But the natural grounding for aesthetic response is something we as a profession can ill afford to ignore. Much less deny.

Further Reading

G.H. Orians and J.H. Heerwagen discuss “Evolved Responses to Landscapes” in Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind (Oxford University Press, 1992). This collection contains other material on the evolution of responses to the environment. Robert Storey’s Mimesis and the Human Animal (Northwestern University Press, 1996) places literature in a Darwinian context, as does Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (University of Missouri Press, 1995). Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind (Doubleday, 2000) presents a riveting account of sexual selection in the Pleistocene origins of art and culture. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, by Ellen Dissanayake (University of Washington Press, 1995) is a fine general account of art and evolution. Painting by the Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1997) describes experimental aesthetics at its whackiest. Philosophy and Literature published a special issue on Darwinism and literature in April 2001.

2004 © Denis Dutton

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