Art and beauty have a peculiar kind of relationship and have been uneasily coupled since perhaps the beginning of human history. This close relationship received its most formal expression with the 18th century aestheticians. But art and beauty have always been separable, as the 20th century demonstrated, even if the extent of their separability has been exaggerated. Art always occupies a time and space in our four-dimensional world, but beauty occupies a place somewhere in the excitement of our brains, and we as a species still crave art that excites in this way. Art nowadays is coupled with fashion, and the ideals of beauty, we have discovered, are not so much in our culture as in our heads, innate features of the human mind that have some strict hardwiring toward health and safety but which allow for a lot of variation in our local ecologies.
Human beings have been trying to exploit features of beauty that indicate health and wellbeing since time immemorial, but perhaps it's most helpful for us to began at a point in time when the story of art and beauty were still intimately wedded. Let's turn to the 18th century, where we can learn a thing or two about beauty and also observe the way in which aestheticians became self-conscious about the concepts of art and beauty and their marriage. First I'll begin with a story of manners, and later I'll turn to the separation of art and beauty.
In the 18th century, England passed a law forbidding women to artificially adorn themselves. The edict covered all uses of “scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high heeled shoes, or bolstered hips,” and any woman wearing these adornments to artificially enhance her beauty was considered by British law as practicing something equivalent to witchcraft. Discovery of false adornments by a husband was considered just grounds for divorce. One such Englishman petitioned the court for divorce or a more compensatory dowry, writing:
I have a great mind to be rid of my Wife, and hope, when you consider my case, you will be of Opinion I have very just Pretensions to a Divorce...never Man was so enamored as I was of her fair forehead, Neck, and Arms as well as the bright Jet of her Hair, but to my great Astonishment I find they were all the Effects of Art: Her skin is so tarnished with this Practice, that when she first wakes in a Morning, she scarce seems young enough to the be the Mother of her whom I carried to Bed the Night before. I shall take the Liberty to part with her by the first Opportunity, unless her Father will make her Portion suitable to her real, not her assumed, Countenance (Nancy Etcoff, The Survival of the Prettiest)
Note the British gentleman's use of the word art. He uses it in reference to his wife's ability to disguise her true beauty. As the philosopher of art Noel Carroll notes in On Criticism, up until the 18th century art was just a term that people used to refer to the way someone did something relative to some domain. An art could be a way of doing things as diverse as cobbling or karate. Or in the case of the man's wife, the art of cosmetic subterfuge. But in the 18th century, even as the old term was being used, art was emerging as a separate domain altogether, exemplified in the Beaux Arts or Fine Arts of drama, literature, dance, music, sculpture, architecture, and painting. (Now we'd include these under the heading of art along with the graphic arts, film, and computer-generated visuals.) The first consumers of these Fine Arts were aristocrats and other wealthy and powerful people who could afford to commission artists to create or perform art for them. Part of the enjoyment and cultivation of the arts was a display of conspicuous consumption, showing everyone else that you could afford it. And the democratization of the arts was relatively late, a 20th century phenomenon. So too was the acceptance of the idea that art could be ugly.
To be fair, it's not as if art began only a few hundred years ago. It's likely that we human beings have been creating art since the beginning of our species some 50 to 75 thousand years ago. At the least we know it's been a while. The Lascaux Cave paintings, for instance, are about 17 thousand years old. But the emergence of the Fine Arts and the celebration of art as sui generis highlight some of the peculiar features of artworks, a cluster of features in fact. For one, they display or fail to display craftsmanship, and they're enjoyed for their own sake. They also exhibit certain styles and trends and concerns—the Lascaux Cave paintings even, for who can look at those and think our hairy ancestors didn't care about horses and deer? Also, people enjoy judging and appraising the works in addition to appreciating them. One natural way to appraise artworks is by talking about their beauty.
18th century aestheticians often were more interested in the appreciation or creation of artworks in terms of aesthetics. Artworks are created, found, or arranged, and natural objects or phenomena lack such human creativity as a necessary criterion. Aesthetic preoccupations, like beauty and sublimity, can be applied to artworks, but of course nobody, not even these aestheticians, ever thought aesthetics was of a piece with works of art. Sure, artworks can be beautiful, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini's statue of David, or awe-inspiring; or, as philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, artworks can “excite the ideas of pain and danger” and be “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” But so can a typhoon, as theoreticians like Burke would admit. Artworks transcend aesthetic preoccupations if aesthetics is only about beauty and sublimity. In addition to being beautiful or sublime, artworks can also be about ideas or emotions, or be proxies for human comportment. They can be too preachy or kitschy or melodramatic, to take a few negative traits, or morally instructive, elegant, or arresting, to take some more positive qualities. Even so, the 18th century aestheticians were only interested in talking about the artworks as beautiful expressions of an artist's emotion.
There is something to that, but the artworks need not be limited to expressions of the artists' emotions. They could just as easily represent other forms of human creativity. And to the extent that artworks display human creativity, we sometimes talk about them as though they were people, which is what I mean when I say they can be proxies for human comportment. For instance, the other day I was sitting around with my friend, sharing some of the new music I've been listening to. I'm a sucker for hip-hop, pop, R&B, and lately I've been on a new hip-hop kick. I let my friend listen to Killer Mike's new album, about which he said he found it offensive and thought it perpetuated racial stereotypes. And when he brought up Kenrick Lamar, I bristled and told him I gave one of Lamar's albums a chance but I thought it was too misogynistic. Inasmuch as an artwork expresses something, it is like a person We can think of the artwork as so intimately involved with its creation that these sorts of appraisals are possible. Artworks can be judged offensive or misogynistic, just as people can be.
To the extent that artworks can be beautiful, modernism and postmodernism in the 20th century mostly eschewed beauty for political reasons. The reasoning was as follows. The human mind/brain can only process the raw data it receives from the senses through the environment. The environment is a set of social constructions. Concepts like beauty are also from the environment and therefore also a set of social constructions. So if we change the concepts or militate against the concepts through changes in the environment we can dispense with some concepts in favor of others. But this is a false theory of perception. As psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Blank Slate, the mind/brain is far more complicated. The visual system, for instance,
comprises some fifty regions that take raw pixels and effortlessly organize them into surfaces, colors, motions, and three-dimensional objects. We can no more turn the system off and get immediate access to pure sensory experience than we can override our stomachs and tell them when to release their digestive enzymes. The visual system, moreover, does not drug us into a hallucinatory fantasy disconnected from the real world. It evolved to feed us information about the consequential things out there, like rocks, cliffs, animals, and other people and their intentions.
And also hardwired us with a sense of beauty.
The human mind/brain's sense of beauty operates according to a basic framework that allows for some variation, but only within the range of the framework itself. This sense of beauty coevolved with our ancestor's ecology, but now that the hardware is there, it's unlikely to change for a very long time. Steven Pinker writes that our sense of beauty
is the mechanism that drove our ancestors into suitable habitats. We innately find savannas beautiful, but we also like a landscape that is easy to explore and remember, and that we have lived in long enough to know its ins and outs” (How the Mind Works).
Both children and adults show preferences for landscapes with lots of nice plant life and forests but don't care too much for deserts and rainforests, and the same has been the case probably since our species' existence. Pinker goes on to write that this innate sense of beauty is also found in certain cross-cultural preferences for certain faces. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff corroborates. In The Survival of the Prettiest, she recounts a study showing pictures of various faces of men and woman throughout the world. The study was done across several continents and also included Ache and Hiwi tribes in Paraguay, who have no access to Western media, where psychologists found that a tribesman “was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another,” suggesting that “[w]hatever process leads to consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.” Although people in the study typically preferred faces of the same race as themselves, what they preferred universally were “female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face.”
Our innate sense of beauty evolved in response to our ecological preferences for certain kinds of hospitable environments and healthy persons. But something the modernists and postmodernists got right was that our understanding of beauty is far more malleable than we might have thought. Nancy Etcoff and other psychologists have discovered, for instance, that the preference for certain facial features is actually closer to the kind of face you'd get if you made a composite face, putting together several people's faces and creating an average face. Etcoff writes that
The mechanism that stores and averages faces is innate and universal, but the composite it forms is dependent on the faces it sees. This means that in a multicultural world people's internal averages might begin to reflect the universal face, a composite of the features of all races.
Our innate sense of beauty for people is attuned to both universal and local features that indicate health, and in one locale features that appear healthy might appear unhealthy in others—like white skin, for example. And our preferences for certain features of nature come from our ancestor's preference for livable environments. That's the best hypothesis going, anyway.
Modernism and postmodernism also got it partially right on art. These movements opened people up to new possibilities in human creativity. As Steven Pinker writes, these art movements at their heights “offered invigorating intellectual workouts...and countered a sentimental romanticism that saw art as a spontaneous overflow of the artist’s personality and emotion” (The Blank Slate). At their heights, they introduced new ideas and the possibility for new ideas beyond the prevailing orthodoxies. But these movements failed in other respects. Pinker writes that philosophies of these movements failed to “acknowledge the ways in which [art] was appealing to human pleasure. As its denial of beauty became an orthodoxy, and as its aesthetic successes were appropriated into commercial culture,” there was “nowhere for artists to go.” And perhaps it was no surprise that art became industrialized—so much so that if the 18th century erred on the side of speaking so happily of the marriage between art and beauty, the 20th century critics erred on the side of hooking art up with a newer, trendier partner: fashion.
What of art today? Art today exploits some of those innate features of beauty, but the other creative and evaluative aspects of art might be attempts to preserve chaos. Art is really in bed with fashion nowadays. Of course, it's possible to critically engage with and about art, but the only art that survives being of the moment is the art that we have, as a species, preserved—it's the stuff that survives critical appraisal. And it either represents the heights of human accomplishment or serves as signposts in the history of human creativity. Or we reappraise it and judge that we no longer care about it. Some artworks and artists don't survive critical appraisal or interest. To take a relatively recent example, I ran across this overtly mean article called the “Top 10 [Hip-Hop] Artists Nobody Cares About Anymore.” I'm not familiar with some of the names on the list, but the list included 50 Cent and Ludacris, two once much-loved hip-hop artists who are no longer talked about. No matter what, as much as we may fool ourselves, as much as art and culture critics attest that art knows no boundaries, the art that is going to get preserved is the art that optimally exploits or reacts to formal properties. It need not be merely beautiful, but if it doesn't serve as a testament to human accomplishment or human history, it's not going to occupy any space for us.
Billie Pritchett is a writer and English lecturer with interests in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and phenomenology. He maintains his own blog called si hoc legere scis… and is on Twitter via @b_pritchett.
The illustration is A Painting of a Peacock by Masuyama Sessai(1754 - 1819), currently in the Nagoya City Museum.
The distinction between aesthetics sensibility and art is certainly a fertile topic, though I wouldn’t look to evolutionary psychology to examine the topic. All the usual objections apply here, e.g..:
As a subject of cross-cultural anthropological study art and aesthetics have proven to be particularly tricky, not least because the concepts are so heavily value-laden. Clifford Geertz once noted that anthropologists often have a hard time recognizing metadiscourse about aesthetic values in other cultures because to them it often doesn’t seem to be about aesthetic judgements at all.
For alternative anthropological takes on aesthetics and art see for example
Billie Pritchett says
Happy to check out those links you posted, and I’m particularly interested in what you refer to as the “usual objections” to Ev Psy’s application to aesthetics and art. But would you be so kind as to summarize the position, and what you see as the problem? Also, would you mind going through some of the alternative anthropological perspectives? I ask for other readers’ sakes as much as my own, since I know sifting through a link-dump can be very tedious. A summary of what you’re referring to and some of the basic arguments would be most helpful.
Sorry for the “link-dump,” I was just trying to provide references for anyone interested in the topic.
The first link is a critical review of Pinker’s Blank Slate by anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the rest are for prominent books on anthropology of art. The Layton one is probably a good place to start although its rather dry, while Morphy and Perkins Reader is good for a little more expansive dip. The Gell book was largely responsible for the sudden recent interest in the subject (though I personally dislike Gell’s perspective)..
What I meant by “usual objections” are the variety of objections to evolutionary psychology in general. I guess I felt that they didn’t need rehashing, but since I had to open my big mouth I’ll just say this. I am very skeptical that a cross-cultural search for hardwired aesthetic universals would tell us anything terribly interesting about human aesthetic sensibilities, or that we should try to hypothesize such universals on the basis of speculative evolutionary adaptations. I do not deny that culture and human biology have coevolved, and that human capabilities like language and aesthetic sensibility have a biological basis, but it is an entirely different matter whether we can isolate common hardwired predispositions that don’t turn out to be empty universals when they are divorced from their specific cultural contexts (the tension here is between what Harvey Whitehouse called innatism and the ethnographic perspective). Certainly it starts to sound like a bad joke when we claim that people universally like to look at nice easy to navigate landscapes with plenty of food as opposed to deserts or rain-forests.
Billie Pritchett says
I read the book review of “The Blank Slate” you posted, and I generally agree that Pinker as well as other people who do evolutionary psychology try to establish too much of a one-to-one correspondence between what they take to be an evolutionary adaptation and human attitudes toward any number of topics–politics, art, religion, and so forth. Actually, I think the review didn’t go far enough. One peculiarity of the often reductive incorporation of natural selection into psychological explanations is that the psychologists use the supposed isomorphism between the adaptation and a human preference to justify the claim for the adaptation and at other times to justify the preference. What I mean is something like the following, which the anthropologist Thomas Hylland discussed in the article you posted, and which of course Hylland touches upon. One of the problems, Pinker believes, with Modern and Postmodern art is that it’s ugly, and humans have this innate sense for beauty that gets violated by art that comes out of these movements. Now, in this case, then, Pinker is justifying the adaptation in view of the status quo. At other times, Pinker does the opposite, appealing to the better angels of our nature to overcome the adaptation. Say, for instance, it’s true, as Pinker believes, that human beings have an innate tendency toward violence, that human nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Well, as Hylland quotes Pinker, and I’ll paraphrase here, just because our genes tell us to do something isn’t sufficient to want to do it if we can do something else, in which case we can just tell our genes to “go jump in the lake,” as Pinker says. Ultimately, though, as we see in Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” he thinks that it’s less a matter of free will and more a matter of mechanisms like a strong State that can exploit or tame these adaptations that makes all the difference.
Between the time when I wrote the article above and now, my opinion has changed somewhat. I suppose minimally I agree with you that there are innate aesthetic capacities, especially when thinking about formal or expressive properties we can find in nature and art and people. I don’t know how much I’d want to push it past this point, however. Perhaps there is something to the fact that art, for instance, pressed the limits of intelligible, particularly in the 20th century and onward, and that some of the reasons why the art is unsuccessful for general audiences (me, too, often) is because there is some point at which it cannot be made comprehensible unless you appeal to the artist’s or art community’s thought or sensibility, in which case it would help explain why art became so niche. And obviously, there’s something to be said for the fact that art, even if natural for many people to want to express themselves in terms of art, has always been, when thought of in the tradition of the Fine Arts, something for upper classes, no matter the degree of the art’s intelligibility.
Again, thank you for the comment.
Thanks for the reply. I think we largely agree.
The question of when and how “free will” or “culture” can override or transform genetic predispositions is clearly a central problem here. It seems that there has been some tendency towards much more flexible models and cultural feedback (niche construction and adaptive plasticity) within evolutionary psychology itself:
But then if culture can significantly alter predispositions the whole enterprise becomes increasingly unfalsifiable (counterexamples can be explained away by other influences). And it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint adaptive origins as more factors are taken into account.
One of the big problems with adaptation happy evolutionary psychology and something like memetics is that they need to take a rather atomistic view of the social phenomena that they try to explain (modularity or memes as monads of information achieve this). Socio-cultural anthropologists tend to interpret cultures holistically, which is antithetical to the kind of decontextualized analysis the neo-Darwinian approaches necessitate. Even if we can assert some adaptive function to a cultural feature, it does not explain the specific form of the feature because other cultural solutions could serve as well, and thus we need to turn to the larger cultural context. To make a crude analogy, people everywhere have to eat, but this does not determine what and how they eat or explain the whole world of practices and beliefs that surround these activities.
To quote Tim Ingold:
“Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . .
This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become–in which they grow up and live out their lives.”
When I said there is a biological basis to language and aesthetics I meant the pure minimum this implies. Certainly the case is clearer for language, even if you don’t ascribe to Chomsky’s generative grammar or think there are analogous language universals. For aesthetics the case is more tenuous. I prefer to use the word aesthetics over beauty, since I think the latter is misleadingly narrow. Certainly something like Francis Bacon’s art is striking in its aesthetic effect but it is not traditionally beautiful in the sense I assume Pinker uses. Besides Beauty and pleasure, aesthetics must encompass discomfort, ugliness, pain, and everything in-between (we might not want to even imply that such oppositions are constitutive of aesthetics).
Really what I wanted to write about was anthropology of art, but I’m running out of steam, so next time…
In case my last sentence was too much of a caricature of Pinker’s position, I’ll just simplify that I find evolutionary psychology to bee far too reductionist and offer simple answers for complex phenomena which are not necessarily determined by natural selection.
So many problems with evolutionary psychology.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris thoroughly debunked evo-psycho – or sociobiology as it was called then – in his work, especially “Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture.
And one of his former students R. Brian Ferguson compares cultural materialism (which he advocates) to sociobiology and “idealist” strategies here:
Materialist, cultural and biological theories on whyYanomami make war
I’ve been following the career of Pinker, aghast, for over 10 years.
Though my dislike of cultural materialism is not as intense as evolutionary psychology, broadly similar objections can be made to both: by asserting that cultural practices and meanings are ultimately reflections of a material base it vulnerable to accusations of being overly reductionist as well as being a reflection of ethnocentric utilitarian biases. And the objections that culturalists ignore the brute fact of power or material conditions can feel like an echo of the accusation that they ignore the brute fact of a fixed human nature (both look to a more solid foundation to their theories). I guess I am on the side of the “idealist obscurantists” like M. Sahlins, who early on in his career wrote a seminal study of techno-environmental social evolution in that “natural laboratory” for comparative research, Polynesia, before being converted by French structuralism to believe such typologizing is silly.
There has always been much hand-wringing among socio-cultural anthropologists over the fact that people like Dawkins, Harris, and Pinker are so efficient in popularizing their perspective. But reductionist grand theorizing that fairly comfortably fits with people’s commonsense cultural understanding is a much easier sell than anthropological uncertainties. Of course I’d add Jared Diamond to that list of popularizers of materialist-reductionist views that give me heartburn.
But this is getting a little far from art and aesthetics.
Yes, let’s talk about Pinker and aesthetics. Like all the New Atheists he’s not only devoted to evolutionary psychology but he believes he’s an expert in all areas due to his own awesomeness – second only to Sam Harris in his utter conceit.
As Menand points out in the New Yorker review of The Blank Slate, Pinker is a complete Philistine. I was even more surprised that someone was citing Pinker for aesthetics than I was appalled that someone representing The Partially Examined Life was referencing that hypocritical misogynist douchebag as if he was of use for anything except as Laurence Summers go-to guy for why women have lesser STEM careers due to their feeble lady brains..
And you don’t even have to bother to click the link and search the review – I’ve posted the relevant bit from the review here for your convenience::
Earlier in the Blank Slate review:
And as far as your characterization of cultural materialism as “reductionist” I have to wonder if you’ve actually read the work of Harris, (or the excellent paper by Ferguson that I posted a link to) or if that’s just what you’ve heard about CM. You don’t offer any examples of this alleged reductionism.
Artful matters of value:
“Aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics – these matters of value, Wittgenstein agreed, lay in the realms
of the unutterable. But it was natural and inevitable that men should speak of them, and much
could be learned from the way in which people went about their foredoomed task of trying to say
the unsayable. Moreover, it would not be clear where the boundary of sanctioned speech lay until
an attempt had been made to cross it and that attempt had failed. Such efforts Wittgenstein
regarded with benevolence. He treated them as reconnaissance expeditions, perilous to be sure,
but well worth the effort expended on them.“
H. Stuart Hughes, The Sea Change
You lost me when you referenced the Blank Slate, that compendium of evolutionary psychology BS and “women aren’t as smart as men” pseudoscience.
Also Pinker is a booster of racialist Razib Khan.
One of the better responses to The Blank Slate when it was first published.
It’s always fascinating to see the connections between evolutionary psychology and the racialist scientists and their views of human beauty.
When the New Yorker gave Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” a critical review, Pinker provided a link to a column written by Razib Khan as his defense. Pinker and Khan have a mutual admiration society going, and to the best of my knowledge Pinker has never criticized Khans views on gender and race.
Virginia Dare, the media outlet for racists (Virginia Dare is supposedly the first white woman born in North America) posted this fascinating exchange of thoughts by Razib Khan and professional racist Steve Sailer on the connections between aesthetics, race and intelligence.
Pinker is no doubt too aware of the potential damage to his career by saying such things himself, but he appears to be in complete sympathy with this way of thinking.
Pinker also used Steve Sailer as a reference for his work, something that Malcolm Gladwell noted in an exchange with Pinker.