I have been writing an entry on “Art and Evolution” for the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (3rd edition), and I am going to try out some ideas in a series of posts. On the main points that you might expect to hear about, my positions are (in ascending order of logical strength):
- Art is culturally universal.
- Art is evolved.
- Art is selected for.
I won’t get to 3, the most contested of these theses, for a while.
I want to start by considering the question: “Is the appreciation of beauty culturally universal?” I also want to touch on whether it is evolved and/or selected for. (To be clear: this is just a preliminary to the above questions about art.)
Perhaps it is a reasonable to parse this causally: the palace is beautiful if it occasions pleasure other than by causing pleasure. The pleasures of living in the palace can only be had by being causally connected to it; the pain of senseless extravagance only arises if it is actually built (and thereby detracts from universal health care or education). Disinterested pleasure does not require such causal connections. Merely visualizing the palace is enough. (It would be reasonable, I think, to add as a background condition that taking disinterested pleasure in something might require some familiarity with the kind of thing it is.)
You have to admire the explanatory reach of Kant’s position. Think of bodily pleasure, for instance, that of sex. When we say that somebody is beautiful, we have to be saying (if Kant is right) that contemplating that person ought to give anybody pleasure independently of any causal connection. The proposal has two parts. First, I may carnally long for somebody, but this does not count for Kant as judging him or her beautiful because the pleasure I thus imagine is one that requires a causal connection. But what if I take pleasure in lustful contemplation? If I get sexual pleasure simply out of “contemplating” a woman’s naked form, am I poised to judge her beautiful? For this kind of pleasure may be independent of a desire for sexual contact.
This, I take it, is where the second part of Kant’s proposal enters the scene, a part often not separated from disinterest. For there is nothing universalizable or normative in lustful contemplation. There is nothing in it that supports the idea that others should take the same kind of pleasure, or any kind of pleasure, in the contemplation of this woman’s naked form. So it is certainly possible that persons are beautiful, but only if the pleasure of contemplating them transcends sexual preference and desire.
Similarly for food and wine. Enjoying food is not enough for the application of aesthetic epithets; indeed it is irrelevant. To make a “judgement of taste”about food, you have to judge that it has qualities, which might be related to the flavour experience, that ought to give anybody pleasure independently of enjoying the flavour. It’s certainly possible that terms like beautiful (or their domain-specific counterparts) can be attributed to food, but it requires considerations quite different to the sort that food critics usually employ.
OK, so here’s the question. Is the appreciation of beauty culturally universal? When it’s put this way, I can’t see why not. Of course, different cultures may think that different things are beautiful. This is particularly true of persons and food, the examples just dealt with. It may be that the Chinese prefer compact human figures and dislike preserved game meat while Norwegians are oppositely inclined. Putting aside what the intractability of such preferences might say about the aesthetics of the human figure and of food, my question is whether, regardless of culture, every normal human takes up the attitude of normative disinterested pleasure toward some things. Or are Kantian judgements of beauty/taste culturally constructed? What I am saying is that put this way, I can’t see how they could be.
Imagine, if you will, an isolated tribe that has had no contact with Kantian Europe. Suppose that this tribe leads a very hard life because food is scarce and foraging difficult. Should we think that members of this tribe are incapable of disinterested norms of pleasure? Again, imagine a civilization on Mars: the creatures there are human-like, but have no cultural contact with us. Could they be human-like but lack judgements of beauty? I think these questions have to be answered negatively. There can be local standards of beauty, and it is an interesting question whether their being local impugns disqualifies them as the basis for judgements of taste. Nevertheless, beauty itself is not a culturally constructed concept. Every human being is capable of making judgements of taste.
Many readers will doubt that I have said anything controversial. Of course, beauty is a cross-cultural concept, they will say. My question is this. If beauty is universally recognized, what is the argument for saying that art is not? For it is widely held that art–the creation of works for disinterested pleasure–is a concept of recent origin. The implication, I take it, is that there are many societies that cannot take disinterested pleasure in indigenous song, dance, and objects. How could this be?
More about this in later posts.