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Carolyn Korsmeyer

Of the first seven contributions to this Voices from the Profession column, five address the relation of aesthetics to cognate disciplines. In the first, Peter Kivy reflected upon philosophers of art who engage with a particular genre of art. Denis Dutton urged that aesthetics pursue naturalized approaches by investigating the evolution of aesthetic sensibility. Jinchee Choi considered the faltering conversations between film scholars and philosophers. Alex Neill worried about the isolation of aesthetics from other areas of philosophy. And most recently, Ivan Gaskell argued that aesthetics is by nature both a philosophical enterprise and an interdisciplinary field. The relation of aesthetics to other areas seems to be on many minds, and I too would like to pursue the subject. I begin with some general observations about cross-disciplinary work, and then I consider two particular perspectives that have recently been brought to aesthetics – by and large sequentially as it happens: gender analysis and evolutionary theory. The label interdisciplinary signifies at least two different approaches to research. Most generally, the term signals a call to broaden one’s knowledge and to develop ideas that would emerge less readily from ones home field by itself. When teaching or writing about theories of art, for example, it clearly helps to know something about the fields which provide one with examples – and it is heuristic if unsettling to discover that sometimes what looked to be a convenient grab bag of examples turns out instead to provide counter examples, scuttling ones hypotheses. This first sense of interdisciplinary leads to expanded familiarity with adjacent areas, and while it may be daunting in terms of the amount of knowledge it requires, it is in principle an integrative enterprise. The learning achieved from different fields is relatively amenable to amalgamation into a whole view of an art form, movement, theory, and so forth. An apt metaphor for this model of interdisciplinary work might be a jigsaw puzzle, even though it is never the case that neighboring d isciplines provide pieces that all can be fit together into a comprehensive picture. Nonetheless, there are striking complementarities among the several areas that inform aesthetics, within which one can raise mutually enlightening questions; thereby disciplinary debate is enriched in interdisciplinary conversation.

There is a second type of expanded scholarship that alters more profoundly the type of inquiry one conducts. For purposes of comparison, I call this work transdisciplinary, by which I mean the application of a method of analysis developed for one purpose but applied to another. This sort of scholarship is less an amalgamation of fields than a new approach to the familiar one by means of imported methodology. A well-known example of successful transdisciplinary work is Ernst Gombrich’s theory of the development of pictorial representation that employs Karl Popper’s theories of scientific observation to interpret the history of European painting. Although not everyone agrees with Gombrich’s conclusions, his work clearly manifests a sustained and productive use of ideas born in philosophy of science that yield interesting results when applied to the development of techniques of pictorial illusion.

Both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship share the implicit, ultimate (and interestingly un-postmodern) goal of completeness: the more one knows, the more complete a picture one attains of art, culture, aesthetic value, or whatever topic of interest.Theories can be understood as elaborate answers to questions, and adopting different theoretical methodologies in transdisciplinary work not only expands research, it also shifts the range of questions that one can entertain. This makes it a much more complicated venture, especially if one wishes to retain the ability to answer familiar questions while at the same time asking new ones, the answers to which – ideally – augment solutions to the old. If the metaphor for interdisciplinary work characterized above is a jigsaw puzzle, the model for transdisciplinary scholarship is more like a parking garage. One can traverse different levels, but only by taking a steep ramp between them. Aesthetics is presently full of work that makes use of ideas first developed elsewhere; in addition to the two already mentioned, there is cognitive science and emotion theory in the postanalytic tradition, Lacanian psychoanalysis in continential postmodernism, cultural studies, and several more. Because many of these approaches address incommensurate sets of questions, one ought – in theory – to be able to endorse several of them without inconsistency, for they investigate entirely different domains of inquiry (from entirely separate levels of the parking garage, as it were). But sometimes the planes of conversation appear to collapse, as is the case with feminist gender analysis and applications of Darwin’s ideas to aesthetics. I do not have the space to give a balanced treatment to both, so I shall emphasize the one whose popularity is newer in aesthetics: evolution.

Gender analysis and evolutionary theory could not be more divergent in their methodologies: the former examines text and subtext, image and implication, social context and cultural change. It is somewhat-to-highly disposed to cultural constructivism and pluralism. The latter speculates about the genesis of human morphology and mentality, looking to prehistory for data to ground speculation. It is somewhat-to-highly disposed to biologism and assertions about universal human nature. Darwin’s partisans examine persistent patterns of aesthetic preference and find traces of nature working as it did millennia ago when our perceptual systems emerged. Gender analysis examines relatively recent artifacts and locates the lineaments of contingent cultural power.

Since I am already on record as claiming that gendered conceptual frameworks pervade philosophy, including aesthetics, let me state directly that I am also intrigued by the possibility that evolution provides clues to aesthetic phenomena. Both we and our ways of life came from somewhere, and there is no reason to believe that our affective life – within which I would place aesthetic activity – is utterly discontinuous with that of our forebears. Many biologists reject evolutionary psychology, within which most speculations about aesthetics fall. However, employed with due caution, evolution provides an intriguing tool to investigate whether there might be pancultural aesthetic dispositions; perhaps it can also account for the genesis of what is referred to as first art.” How much further one can speculate is a difficult question. The slow and distant workings of evolution are remote enough that they cannot explain particular objects or events. As Gregory Currie puts it, one must recognize a distinction between the evolution of aesthetic phenomena and evolution within aesthetic practices. Failure to do so can lead to preposterous conclusions, such as Stephen Pinker’s declaration that fine art of the last hundred years is bad because it does not satisfy evolved human visual preferences.

Darwin posited two forces at work in evolution’s leisurely progress: natural selection, aphoristically called the survival of the fittest, and sexual selection, the process by which some individuals are chosen as better mates than others. One can find both invoked in evolutionarily inclined aesthetics, which posits that nature favors those creatures whose behavioral patterns of attraction and aversion dispose them to flourish and reproduce. Some surmise that our tastes in architectural design can be traced to preferences for refuges from predators and perspectives for hunting, for example; liking for circuitous patterns is rooted in the survivability of creatures who are bold and curious, and so forth. Even the whimsical survey of favorite paintings conducted by artists Komar and Malamud several years ago is sometimes taken to indicate an evolved preference for open landscapes with a water supply.

Sexual selection may also be invoked to account for preferences for formal design, Nancy Etcoff analyzes standards of beauty as the residue of choosing mates without heritable deformities. Such speculation suggests that aesthetic responses even to formal properties – such as symmetry and compositional balance – may have roots in the biological drives that shape erotic attraction. The incorporation of sexual selection into theories of the development of perceptual preferences has helped to revive links between human physical beauty and general aesthetic values. This consequence dovetails with elements of feminist theory, for with the infusion of eroticism into aesthetics, some of the investigative tools of feminism and evolutionary theory appear superficially similar. The famous male gaze of second wave feminism, for example, prompted us to be sensitive to covert sexual dimensions in visual artifacts and argued for the dominion of masculine perspectives even in individual subjective aesthetic responses. In a less overtly political way, sexual selection also introduces erotic attraction into aesthetic appeal, beginning with mate choice (on the part of both males and females) and extending to more general objects and works of art. Both these approaches have led to some unlikely claims about the origins of aesthetic preferences and norms of beauty. The reduction of beauty to scopophilic pleasure among theorists of the gaze, for example, extended an illuminating tool for understanding gendered perspectives in visual art far beyond its proper scope. Any theory of beauty has to tangle with nature-culture disputes, and the use of sexual selection as an underlying explanation of aesthetic norms is particularly apt to go astray on this topic. Darwinians, for example, often employ as measures of female attractiveness the narrow jaw and short proportions of the lower face less common in adult males than in women – and also in children. This childish face supposedly broadcasts health and is a signal of reproductive suitability. (It is just this infantilization of norms of appearance, incidentally, that led Simone de Beauvoir to jettison ideals of feminine beauty in The Second Sex.) Some evolution partisans move to surprisingly particular descriptions, often citing as a constant in bodily beauty (male or female, actually, though most studies describe females) such specifics as preferred waist to hip ratios. As it happens, unlike the distance between the eyes or the proportions of jaws, waist to hip ratios are among the most malleable elements of the human body. They are demonstrably governed as much by style trends as by morphology. Even granting the premise that along with perceptual systems, norms of perceptual appreciation might have evolved (two very different claims that are often conflated), when theorists discover that specific fashions are the product of evolution, this perspective vaults several ramps and collides with cultural analysis, as though the parking garage has suddenly lost its third dimension.

I thought of this recently when I heard the script writer David Milch (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Deadwood) address a class of graduating high school seniors. He remarked that time can not possibly have the same meaning to them as it does to their parents and grandparents. He was speaking of the relative ability to imagine the future as well as the past; and although he was referring to the experience of time in a human lifespan, it struck me that if his observation is even somewhat correct, then it should give us special pause about applying evolution to present aesthetic norms. For in discerning trace evidence from early hominids that seems to foreshadow our own aesthetic values, we attempt a leap of imagination over a gulf of time that is virtually – even utterly – unimaginable. And this illustrates dramatically that when engaging in transdisciplinary research, one had better be careful that the questions posed can be answered with the theoretical tools available. I find it thought-provoking that the oldest question in aesthetics, the nature of beauty, resists attempts to reduce it to the terms of any transdisciplinary theorizing.

One piece of a puzzle must replace another, which is either fit elsewhere or discarded. But cars can occupy many parallel levels without displacing one another. As we extend our efforts in the directions that both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods invite, it is important that we retain room for three dimensions – or (remembering the problem of time) even four – in the conclusions that emerge.

2006 © Carolyn Korsmeyer

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