Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Queston of Meta-Aesthetics

Max Borders discusses the nature of art.

In it he argues for a fairly radical subjectivism of artistic judgment. I'm not sure such holds up -- how can one judge what is art at all, let alone judge art? The solution may lie in Wittgenstein's idea of family resemblances -- that whatever it is that makes all of a certain kind of object overlap is what makes it art. Of course, a careful reading of Plato shows that that is all Socrates was ever pointing out to any of the experts he talked to. Such an approach may not answer the question of "what is art?" in a way that completely satisfies -- but then, dissatisfaction is what drives innovation in the first place.


  1. I would argue that we can judge art based on the intersubjective community of which we are members. Each community has its own standards, rules and protocols. But they are not limning some underlying reality of truth and beauty, they are chosen and accepted by individual members of a given community.

  2. Luke Hankins agrees with you I think:

  3. How would what you say take into consideration the universality of particular works of art? This would seem to argue against universality and in favor of the kinds of particularity that give rise to cultural relativism -- keeping in mind that universality does not have to reject the variety of difference we see among works.

    I accept Francis Hutcheson's definition of beauty as having unity in variety, and variety in unity. What creates the underlying unity? If it is all variety, then beauty is impossible. This is the postmodern argument against beauty.

    The universe does not seem to work on variety-only; rather, all that variety is unified. If we bring it back to the exclusively human, I think we will find that each person in fact has practically all the same values as every other person (a few strange outliers don't negate the rule); what differs is how each person ranks those values at any given time.

    Might it be that the arts combine shared values and disparate tastes? This would explain how there can be a unified something called "art" while having a wide variety of such works.

  4. I just gave a similar response in an email. For simplicity's sake, lemme say: "So for example, what if you got something like the 1000 monkeys phenomenon. The 1000 monkeys type at random and make no conscious effort (obviously), but end up producing a agglomeration of letters on paper that we would recognize as an Auden poem. (You used a similar example with computer software.) They might have paint brushes and produce a Renoir. But the design was not of their intention. There was no property inherent in the object or words. It was some agglomeration of molecules and atoms (or symbols) that happened randomly to "inspire" a certain emotional or intellectual response in humans. And those properties are utterly contingent and dependent on the constitution of the human."

    But what changes with human intent? Nothing. Art objects are still agglomerations of atoms. Poems are still agglomerations of symbols. Music is still an agglomeration of vibrations in the air. These objects (or whatever) may be more or less likely to generate certain responses in subjects, but all this has to do with the subject, not the objects. Dan Dennett explains similarly here:


    Now, the near universality is sort of like the near universality of people liking pizza in America. It's a big community to be sure. And, of course, there are all sorts of things that human beings like about pizza -- fat, carbs, etc. But there is nothing inherent about pizza. All the action is in our body/brain's response to pizza. Likewise for aesthetic features of the world. MOna Lisa is a young woman with a symmetrical face, for example. Music can evoke certain emotions in us, but there is nothing inherently beautiful about vibrations in the air. All the action is going on in our experience.

    I've never read the hutchison, but I also like organic unity: unity in diversity. Nozick picks up on this in Philosophical Investigations. But I think it's one of those protocols of a community, not a feature of the world -- which is what "inherent" means. And if it ain't inherent, it's subjective.

  5. I had a very lengthy response involving issues of universal human nature and its relationship to culture, communities, and individuals, relating it to what this means in relation to the arts and to beauty, but I got an error message when I tried to post it, and of course the posting was not there when I went back, so I will have to try again later, when I'm not annoyed.

  6. A quick answer -- it may be a feature of evolved human cognition and not of the phenomenal world. Thus beauty is in fact inherent, but it is inherent to our evolved psychology. We see this in a variety of cultural universals, including the existence of stories, poetry, theater/performance, dance, and music. These are recognizeable as such across cultures. More, those works within a culture which are considered great are typically considered great by those outside the culture. This implies a universal artistic judgment of some sort. The fact that the arts are at least partially translateable across cultures implies a universality of some sort. There are of course going to emerge local traditions which can be distinguished from each other -- but they are always on the same fundamental underlying pattern. Poetry, for example, exists in all languages in all cultures throughout all human existence -- it can all be broken up into 3-5 second lines, and it is distinguished by repetitions, including musicality (contemporary exceptions that nobody can actually stand prove little more than that there are anti-art elitists out there who do what they do precisely becuase there is a standard to respond to). Stories exist in all cultures, and a good story in one is a good story in another. Within these cultures there are, of course, individual differences in taste, but even then, they follow the underlying univeral patterns. These differences are thus mostly superficial, and do not really affect the judgment of what makes for great art -- though they may affect what one likes.

    Further, there are ranges of complexity that are universal -- and were fully investigated visually by Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings range from the least complex to the most complex patterns people find to be visually pleasing. There is a range of complexity in music and in storytelling as well (plot complexity). These all matter for artistic judgment. And these are all human universals.