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Is It Art?

A Science of Beauty, Part I


Saturday, July 9, 2011

There’s no accounting for taste. ~ Folk saying

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern. ~ Alfred North Whitehead (1943)

A photographer friend of mine told me years ago that the “world just looks better through a camera lens.” Indeed it does—to most of us. The camera viewfinder adds a frame to a part of the world and allows the photographer to focus her attention. In short, the camera’s frame allows a photographer to create art.

Tam Hunt

But what the heck is art? What is beauty? Do these questions matter to anyone beyond the photographer, art lover, art historian, or philosopher of art?

I’ll attempt to show in this two-part essay why these questions—and their answers—should be important to practically every field of human thought.

Art has been around for as long as humans have been around and it seems that thinking about art—the philosophy of art—has been too. Plato, as with practically every topic in philosophy or science, had some relevant insights. Though the topic was discussed in many different Platonic dialogues, Plato’s idea of art was never clearly spelled out by the master.

The simplest summary of Plato’s feelings on the matter is that he viewed beauty as the perception of eternal Forms that exist as a substrate to reality. Actual (physical) forms are imperfect reflections of the deeper Forms; the artist enjoys most the art that most fully reveal the Forms. These ideas are strange to us today and this kind of thinking (sometimes known as “essentialism”) has been dispelled in most areas of thought over the course of the last couple of centuries.

Kant, the difficult 18th Century German philosopher, presented perhaps the most influential historical theory of art (aesthetics) in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment. For Kant, there was indeed no accounting for taste—but those with good taste would agree on what is good art. While artistic appreciation is purely subjective for Kant, there are certain principles that make good art universally appreciated.

Time-traveling to the present era for the sake of brevity, I’m going to mention just a couple more modern notions of art.

For Stephen David Ross, a professor of philosophy and literature at SUNY Binghamton, art is all about contrast—“intense contrasts,” to be more specific. Contrasts are “conjunctions, unifications, syntheses, of dissimilar, opposing constituents.” Ross also recognizes that the criteria he describes exist on a spectrum, as a matter of degree—except for the “intensity of contrast.” (I’m not clear how “intensity” can be anything but a continuum, but this is Ross’s contention.)

The two quotes at the beginning of this essay are better answers, however, to the question "What is art?" There is indeed no accounting for taste, as the folk saying goes, because taste is so varied, but most of us can also agree with Whitehead’s statement as a non-exclusive description of art. We do, in making a judgment about what is art, or whether we enjoy it or not, impose our own patterns on the sense impressions provided by the art object.

Visual art is easily recognized as intended to be art. Paintings have frames. Sculptures have pedestals. It’s not hard to figure out that visual art is intended to be art. (Whether the art critic believes the intention is warranted or not is a different question altogether.) There is a limited audio equivalent of a frame or pedestal: the sometimes inadequate silences that generally begin and end a song or other types of music.

But as we perceive sound around us, let’s say at a loud restaurant or bar, we may have trouble differentiating when we are listening to a song or to conversations, or a mix of both. Can those conversations be art even when not intended as such? Or could a conversation or set of conversations become art simply by being packaged as art by an enterprising artist? Is a cacophony of fruit machines in Las Vegas art because I record it and call it art? Is a conversation itself art when practiced by those skilled at the art of conversation?

Or, for a higher profile debate: Is the 1987 photograph Piss Christ (a plastic crucifix suspended in a vat of the artist’s urine) art because Serrano (the artist) says it is and was paid to produce it?

Well, under Whitehead’s approach to art, even Serrano’s highly irreverent creation became art when Serrano imposed a pattern on his experience, and this is aesthetically appreciated when the perceiver recognizes the pattern of experience relevant to the piece. A conversation could be considered art when it is “framed” by the perceiver as being such. So it is indeed in the eye/ear of the beholder and there ain’t no accounting for taste. Frames can be, and are, imposed by the creative artist during the course of her craft; but frames are also imposed by anyone, professional artist or not, when a pattern is recognized and appreciated.

And this is as much art as that produced by the professional artist.

Art in Nature, Nature in Art: Even though aesthetic enjoyment seems to be hopelessly arbitrary on a case-by-case basis, what if there were at least some possible accounting for taste? Could there be principles of beauty that we can enumerate and examine empirically? In short, is a science of aesthetics, a science of beauty, possible—rather than “merely” a philosophy of art?

I think there is and I’m going to suggest a few ideas in this essay along these lines. While I agree that there’s no accounting for individual taste, it seems that there are patterns and tendencies that we can identify at various levels that can form the basis for aesthetic enjoyment and a science of beauty.

I equate aesthetics and beauty even though many artists, and philosophers of art, wish to distinguish them. They are equivalent for me because there is no legitimate division between what should be considered “merely” beautiful and what should be considered to hold aesthetic/artistic value: It’s all about shades of beauty. Beauty is potential art and art is beauty recognized, as I’ll explain further below. Aesthetics is all about judgments of beauty, in the broadest sense. Beauty is all about value, quality—and so is aesthetics. To say something is beautiful is equivalent to saying something has aesthetic value.

The first step in creating a science of beauty is to recognize that aesthetic appreciation, an appreciation for beauty, like with almost all things in the universe, exists on a continuum, a spectrum, not as an “all or nothing” phenomenon. Art is not limited to humans. We do in fact have clear evidence of art and aesthetic appreciation in many non-human species. Darwin wrote explicitly in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, that many animals, including birds – with their little bird brains – appear to exhibit aesthetic appreciation: “Birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have…. In man, however, when cultivated, the sense of beauty is manifestly a far more complex feeling, and is associated with various intellectual ideas.” (P. 307, Plume Concise Edition 2007).

The peacock’s tail, to use the most well-known example, is most likely as magnificent as it is merely because peahens (females)likeornate tail feathers in their males – a phenomenon labeled by Darwin as “sexual selection.” That is, the peacock’s tail has evolved because of the steady selection by peahens, resulting in increased mating opportunities and therefore increased reproduction of males with more impressive feathers. A larger tail is “maladaptive” in terms of individual survival, because of its weight and size, but it confers a reproductive advantage because of its attractiveness to peahens. (See Part V of my series on Absent-Minded Science for more on sexual selection).

Experiments have been conducted on peacocks and have confirmed that peahens do indeed mate more frequently with peacocks that have larger tails and more eye feathers, resulting in more offspring for peacocks with the biggest tails. Does the peahen count eye feathers and compare the various peacocks with each other? Of course not. But a peahen doesn’t have to know how to count to be able to appreciate a larger array of feathers, just as humans don’t need to think explicitly about symmetry to enjoy facial beauty in other humans and make judgments about who they consider more beautiful (as a personal matter).

Human beauty is in fact another great example for my thesis. Judgments about human beauty are sometimes placed in a different category than more refined artistic appreciation. That is, appreciation of beauty is thought by some to be different in kind than appreciation of art. This is a big mistake. Appreciation is a continuum and there is no real separation between enjoying fine art or a human face – or a human body, for that matter. It’s all about attraction or, to be more accurate, degrees of attraction, just as Darwin suggested by recognizing that human aesthetic appreciation is “more complex” than that of birds. Attraction, as with most things, lies on a continuum.

There is certainly a difference, however, to use an extreme example, between appreciation for porn and appreciation for the Mona Lisa as a work of art. But the appreciation is the commonality, even if the type of appreciation is different in important ways. Appreciation is a continuum of increasing complexity as new threads emerge and are woven in at each level of complexity. Similarly, I’ll try to demonstrate here that an ant’s appreciation for a good meal lies on the same continuum as the highest human artistic appreciation, as does a leech’s appreciation for human blood or an electron’s appreciation for one path of motion over another. Yes, even non-biological objects are subsumed in this general theory of art.

Here are a few interesting examples of art in the natural world.

Australian cetologists recently made a remarkable discovery: Humpback whales enjoy pop songs that change each year. "Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale," said the primary researcher, Ellen Garland, a graduate student at The University of Queensland. Male whales generally sing just one mating song each year, but it changes over time and more catchy versions spread rapidly to different populations around the world. Interestingly, the songs seem to spread always from west to east.

Why do whales enjoy pop songs that change relatively rapidly? We can never know, because enjoyment is a purely individual and internal affair, but it certainly seems reasonable to believe that whales have a fairly complex culture, as Garland suggests, and that their relatively advanced minds can adapt and enjoy different songs over short periods of time, whether or not the primary purpose of these songs is to attract mates.

Is a whale song art? Surely it should be considered such – as much as any human musical creation should be considered art. It seems clear to me, though it is again unprovable, that the same mix of motivations prompts whale song creation as prompts human song creation: sheer desire to create beautiful sounds, desire to attract mates, desire to entertain loved ones, etc.

Similarly, some birds are capable of learning songs that evolve over time: parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds. All other birds are stuck with songs based on their genetic heritage, though this heritage also evolves, just at a slower pace. An interesting recent study found that young male songbirds learn songs more quickly in the presence of female birds. The degree to which this process is “self-conscious” is impossible to know, but through the principle of continuity – the notion that biological and physical change is almost always continuous, not discontinuous – we can have some confidence that there is indeed relatively complex thought present in the little birds, even though there is very likely not much of a sense of self.

At much lower levels of complexity, bacteria create beautiful forms through their own propagation in appropriate media. It is highly unlikely that there is an intention in the individual bacteria to create the pattern – it is, rather, a consequence of the collective behavior that results in a macro-scale pattern that we as human beings can enjoy. Recent research by Eshel Ben-Jacob at Tel Aviv University has suggested, however, that bacteria have a surprising intelligence and far more sophisticated communication abilities than previously thought, and that these are largely responsible for the amazing patterns observed by Ben-Jacob and others.

Bees create hexagonal honeycombs through an innate desire to be more efficient in constructing cells for their offspring and to store honey. Hexagonal honeycombs sectionalize the volume of the hive most efficiently, in terms of the consumption of wax for walls, though there are many other ways to tile a plane or sectionalize volume (as M. C. Escher amply demonstrated in his work, using what are known more generally as “Penrose tiles” to create very interesting images).

Similar forms occur, without the intervention of any bees or microbial life, in fluids placed in certain conditions. Benard convection cells are generally hexagonal cells that appear in shallow dishes filled with heated liquid. The hexagonal cells form as a result of the heat-induced motion of the molecules comprising the liquid. As the molecules rise up in the fluid column they are pushed aside by other rising cells. As they are pushed aside they meet other molecules pushed from other columns. The dynamic equilibrium state leads to hexagonal cells because this is the lowest energy condition, entirely analogous to honeycombs or soap bubbles joining together.

Where is the dividing line, in these examples of nature’s complexity and creativity, between “unintentional” art and intentional art? Does art require a frame imposed by an “artist,” whether it’s a literal frame or an analog to a frame such as the pauses between songs? Or can the art appreciator herself impose the frame, whenever and wherever she wants? This is, in fact, what a photographer does when turning her lens to a subject she wishes to turn into art. Photography is largely “found art.” And we can argue by analogy that any artist working in any medium can impose a frame on her subject and thereby turn it into art. All of these examples are of imposing a pattern on experience and thus the creation of art, whether or not there is recognition of that pattern by anyone other than the creator herself. And it is important to keep in mind that the appreciator becomes an artist through the very act of appreciation, the very recognition of pattern.

It seems, then, that art is art regardless of the process of creation – except for the frame itself. The frame becomes all-important. This is similar to, but even more general, than Whitehead’s opening quote: “Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.” I assert that the pattern is the frame is the pattern is the frame. Art becomes art when a subject imposes her frame on her experience. And that’s it. There is no necessary separation between creation by an artist and appreciation by another individual. They can be the same person. Beauty is pervasive. Art is pervasive.

Principles of beauty: Based on this discussion, I propose a brief outline of necessarily general principles of beauty that hold at various levels of reality. These principles constitute a very rudimentary beginning to a science of beauty, but it is nonetheless a beginning:

• Symmetry is beautiful – at all levels of reality. This beauty of symmetry is most likely a consequence of the fact that symmetrical forms are the lowest energy forms, the most stable forms, from the simplest of structures to the most complex, and due to the predictability of symmetry.

• Similarly, symmetry in time (music, for example) is often beautiful, and is generally known as consonance. At higher levels of cognition, consonance gives way to appreciation of more complex temporal patterns, including dissonance.

• At the lowest levels of cognition, simpler types of symmetry are most beautiful, but as cognition complexifies, more complex symmetries like the Golden Ratio become beautiful. At the highest levels of cognition, fractal symmetry (multi-level spatio-temporal symmetry) becomes quite beautiful.

• At higher levels of cognition, unpredictability arising from a base of predictability is beautiful. Symmetry and predictability are generally beautiful, but when more complex consciousness develops (it’s a sliding scale), the surprise of novelty can become equally if not more attractive.

• Contrasting and complementary colors are beautiful. No matter the range of vision in the appreciator, contrasting colors introduce additional detail into the world and this is considered attractive at all levels.

• The interpenetration of opposites is beautiful and is known most generally as complementarity. The interpenetration of symmetry and asymmetry (or symmetry building and symmetry breaking, as the biologist Lee Klinger has suggested) is perhaps the primary form.

Part II of this essay will elaborate further on these ideas and suggest a path for fleshing out this proposed science of beauty.

Let me close with a quote from one of my favorite movies, American Beauty (a work of profound beauty in its own right), spoken by one of the main characters, a disturbed yet precociously wise high-school boy who obsessively films the world around him, as he describes a short video of a plastic bag floating rhythmically in the air with a number of dry leaves:

"It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and ... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in. "

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Tam Hunt is a philosopher based in Santa Barbara, California. He also dabbles in music, photography, and cinematography. His blog is www.tamhunt.blogspot.com.

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