Thursday, May 15, 2008

Aesthetics and physiology

Freedom of expression: there's an ideal I can get behind. I entirely concur with J.S. Mill's concept concerning the arena of philosophical (or political or aesthetic) debate. If we have freedom of expression, the best and strongest arguments will carry the day eventually. And weak or hysterical or cheap or mean-spirited arguments will be shown up as just that. They fall under their own gavel.

There's a sort of interesting TV show called Numbers, one of whose installments I saw recently. The charming lead, a young mathematical philosopher, made the point that human beings can't be expected to like just anything: our organs of perception, our neurons, and our mental capacity limit the field of what can attract us, just as they dictate what will repel us. If we narrow the focus a bit to the field of aesthetics, this observation is a restatement of something Nietzsche once said: "Art is applied physiology." Actually, the word "aesthetic" is derived from Greek aisthesis, which means "sensation." Aesthetic experience begins in sensation and develops into something beyond perception. As human beings we can't truly like just any old or odd thing, even if told we should. Sometimes when told we really must, we try to like something we're simply not wired to enjoy--I suppose out of a desire to please the person telling us to like this or that or some other thing. But doing so comes at some cost to our instincts. I'm not saying that first reactions are always trustworthy. We can sometimes be led to like and even to adore artworks we didn't immediately cotton to. But after dozens of tries, after proper instruction and explanation, we still find a work of art tiresome or revolting, why ignore what we feel?

Marxist aesthetics assumes no permanent fixtures in experience; it asserts that human consciousness is a tabula rasa and that we can be programmed to get pleasure from any object, process, or artwork that history has decided we "should" approve of. So that, for example, if history decides we should value as an artwork, what, oh, a five-hundred pound block of concrete sculpted in the shape of a prickly pear and oozing a pinkish-orange pus that has the smell of ozone and commercial "air freshener," then we must, absolutely must, like such sculptures. To which a good reply is: "Sorry. I'm just not wired that way." History will have to go about its business without our particular aesthetic votes of confidence.

Nietzsche's statement was made long before Chomskian theories about language development had been presented. Linguists before Chmsky had been arguing, again, that the human mind begins in infancy as a tabula rasa, and that any sort of grammar could be imprinted on it. But Chomsky observed that, in practice, only a limited number of grammatical features ever appeared in the world's thousands of languages. Which confirmed his hunch that the neurological structure of the brain includes certain processes while it excludes certain others. I think Chomsky is right. And his theory has a bearing on the making of art. Not all possible approaches, combinations, dissonances, amplitudes, discontinuities, repetitions, and insistences can be experienced with anything like pleasure. And where there is no pleasure at all, there can be no art.

Yet we have, as an audience, been browbeaten into putting aside our own instincts and responses in favor of many kinds of art that really have nothing to offer in the way of pleasure; or if they do, a pleasure at several removes from direct, sensory appreciation. The arid "pleasures" being inculcated include the self-congratulatory conviction that the audience is part of a small, rightminded group possessing the best ideas; that this group is on the progressive side of things; that the grating or empty or trivial artworks proposed for this group's appreciation contain the appropriate "message" or attitude for us all; that direct pleasure (or "positive cathexis," to use Freud's term) is a banal cliche', unworthy of the sophisticated art consumer. It's a strange kind of asceticism, better suited for, say, the Trappist order of monks. Asceticism or even masochism. We flagellate ourselves with really awful art. Why? Because we "should."

But really, should we? How long can we defy our own physiology and neural organization? I notice that two writers in recent years have published books on the theme of the return of beauty. Elaine Scarry and Zadie Smith. Coincidence? A shift in the wind? The arena of ideas will decide.


Philip Alvaré said...

With all due respect, It troubles me that you so readily adopt a kind of social Darwinism to aesthetic theory, particularly since you have advocated in past blogs for a healthy plurality.
As you say, "If we have freedom of expression, the best and strongest arguments will carry the day eventually. And weak or hysterical or cheap or mean-spirited arguments will be shown up as just that. They fall under their own gavel."
This feels uncomfortably like a might is right attitude. Is it possible that in a civilized society we might encourage various strands and arguments and theories and encourage multiculturalaesthetic variation.
Your reasoning comes uncomfortably close to how one might justify free market predatory capitalism over say, social democracy and further argue that a work of arts validity, viability and worth can be measured in direct proportion to its performance in the marketplace--"the best and strongest argument."
Can you please clarify/amplify your argument for me. What are you thinking?
Also, for the record, Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty" was published in 1999.
I look forward to your reply.
Philip Alvaré

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks for that thoughtful reply. I don't see the connection between Social Darwinism and the progressive doctrine of free expression and debate. Human arguments are at stake in public discussion, but not individual subsistence and survival.

No, I wasn't suggesting that there is "one story and one story only," as a famous poem of Robert Graves says. Our physiology doesn't allow for an =infinite= variety of pleasurable responses, but it can accommodate many, many kinds of artistic experience. So we don't need to be afraid that only one kind of painting, music composition, or literary work will dominate the field. Meanwhile, discussing our likes or dislkes where art is concerned belongs to free expression as well.