Tuesday, July 14

Art and Pleasure: Where Aesthetics Meets Science

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For too long the arts have been divorced from the sciences, the unification of art and science now marks out the future of aesthetics.

When we draw pleasure from an artwork, what exactly is it within the piece we are responding to? “Why, that’s obvious”, I hear you say. “Pleasure is drawn from masterful brushstrokes on a canvas; the dexterous and nimble movements involved in a virtuoso music or dance performance; the finely carved contours of a marble sculpture; the challenging or provocative nature of a modern art piece”. This is, of course, all true; but there’s something else at play here. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the pleasure we receive from an artistic creation is inherently linked to its hidden properties. To illuminate this, let us consider the following hypothetical:

You are an avid fan of abstract painting, and are especially fond of a local avant-garde artist. After much deliberating, you decide to buy one of the artist’s pieces, particularly as his works are so reasonably priced. You head to his nearby studio, select a painting you wish to purchase, and swiftly return home where you hang it proudly on the living room wall.

Weeks go by, and the painting remains a great source of pleasure to both you and your various guests, with the work inviting many comments and critiques on its unorthodox character. One day, the phone rings; it’s the artist, apologising. He explains there has been a mix up, and the painting you had purchased wasn’t in fact one of his. Rather, it was the work of his child, who had accidentally knocked some tins of paint over a canvas whilst playing in the studio. This was then mistaken for the artist’s work, and was inadvertently sold.

Given the above, how would you now feel about the painting? Would you be indifferent? Or would the pleasure you initially drew from the piece be somewhat diminished? My guess is, for the majority of us, it would be the latter. What’s intriguing, however, is that the painting itself hasn’t changed. All of its tangible properties – the paint, the canvas, the frame – remain as they were, unaffected; but your beliefs surrounding the piece and its origins have now been completely altered. I suspect the artwork would be promptly taken down and returned or swapped.

Human beings, then, are natural-born essentialists. Essentialism is the notion that things have a hidden set of characteristics which make them what they are, and it is these intangible essences that are the most fundamental. This is something that the revered psychologist Paul Bloom discusses at length in his important book, How Pleasure Works. And while the classic definition of essentialism comes from the philosopher John Locke, Bloom offers an equally eloquent explanation:

“[Essentialism] is the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”

The idea of artistic intentionality is also played out in our fictional scenario with the abstract painter. That is, did the artist intend for it to be viewed as art? Evidently not, given we know it was an accident involving his child. Hence, non-visual characteristics are also vital in assessing whether or not something can be viewed as art at all. This idea is perhaps most synonymous with the art theorist Arthur C. Danto, who recognised that conceptual – as well as physical – properties must be considered when analysing the nature of art. This novel way of thinking helps to differentiate, say, an ordinary urinal from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, regular Brillo boxes from Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, and an unmade bed from Tracy Emin’s My Bed.

Let’s take this moment to address two rather large elephants in the room relating to non-manifest properties in art: who created it (is it the work of a famous artist?) and what did it cost? The sociologist Thorstein Veblen argued that these hidden factors matter to us because, fundamentally, we humans are snobs, and owning notable works is a way of displaying your wealth and status in a conspicuous manner (Veblen referred to this as “conspicuous consumption”). But while I don’t doubt this factors into our aesthetic response, it can’t be the whole story. After all, recall that in our imaginary story with the painter, he was neither famous nor were his paintings expensive (we were told they were “reasonably priced”). And yet, the pleasure we drew from the painting still changed upon discovering the piece’s true origins.

In highlighting just how deep our essentialist intuitions go, we will once again use the philosopher’s favourite device: the thought experiment, this time involving a real-life band.

Royal Blood is an incredibly exciting rock band, renowned for their powerful sound, melodic songs and commanding live performances. What’s more, they achieve all of this with just two band members, with bassist Mike Kerr making innovative use of guitar effects pedals and the linking together of multiple amplifiers to mimic the sound of guitar and bass being played simultaneously.

Royal Blood band members Ben Thatcher and Mike Kerr (Image: Independent)

Let us now imagine the group consisted of a more generic line-up: two guitarists, a vocalist, a bassist and a drummer. Even if this hypothetical five-member line-up was sonically identical, would we be as enthralled with the band? Or does the ingenuity, skill and artistic imagination required to create Royal Blood’s sound using only two people contribute to the pleasure we draw from them?

In unlocking this conundrum, the philosopher Denis Dutton provides us with some clues:

“As performances, works of art represent the ways in which artists solve problems, overcome obstacles, make do with available materials…works of art [have]a human origin, and must be understood as such.”

Dutton argues that artistic creations are “performances” and that we are innately wired to derive pleasure from such displays. What’s more, our aesthetic response to these displays is deeply intertwined with how we think the work was created. Here, again, we see essentialism at play, with the essence in this context being the implied human performance underlying the work’s creation. This, in my view, is one of the reasons Royal Blood are so rightly revered. As one YouTube user rather amusingly and pithily commented:

“I hear guitars and I see bass. My brain explodes.”

The connecting of aesthetics with an understanding of the cognitive and biological sciences continues to be one of the most exciting new academic fields, revealing valuable insights into how and why we humans perceive art the way we do. For too long the arts have been – much to their detriment – divorced from the sciences, something this fascinating and burgeoning area is attempting to remedy. The unification of art and science marks out the future of aesthetics, and I for one avidly welcome it.

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