Last week, I argued that art couldn’t be a spandrel, at any rate not a spandrel on norms of beauty. In this, my concluding post on art and beauty, I want to advance two theses. The first is that our sense of beauty comes from art, not the other way around. And the second is that the art capacity is adaptive.
Let’s start with the sense of beauty, or more generally, the sense that things have aesthetic value. Throughout this series of posts, I have been sympathetic to Kant’s notion of disinterested pleasure. I judge a thing to be beautiful because it gives me pleasure (or displeasure) in a way that is disinterested, i.e., which is independent of my desiring it, or feeling an aversion to it.
Biological causes of sensory pleasure are more plausible candidates to be the roots of our sense of beauty. We are fascinated by rhythm, harmony, visual patterns, etc. because obsessive perceptual play—focusing on them, attending to them, picking them out—with these things makes us better at picking out perceptual objects. This is why infants love patterns, cadences, rhythms. But even here it is clear that mere playability is not enough for beauty. We don’t find a row of script Ss, or a constantly reiterated tango beat, particularly beautiful, though both are very apt for perceptual play. Nor do animals find things beautiful: when was the last time your dog was gobsmacked by a gorgeous sunset? Yet if perceptual play is good for us, it must be so for them.
Once this opposition has been noted, though—desire/play vs aesthetic appreciation—it becomes something of a mystery what unifies aesthetic appreciation. I am enraptured by a Mozart symphony; I am entranced by a Picasso painting. What do these two attitudes have in common? My root assumption is that both attitudes are disinterested. But disinterested what? Certainly my bodily response to the beat and the melody of the Mozart doesn’t feel like the visual excitement occasioned by the Picasso. And what about natural objects? What does my attitude towards a magnificent mountain range share with my appreciation of Caspar’s Wanderer? Why are smells never beautiful? Ditto touch?
My answer to these questions rests on a simple inversion. Our sense of the beautiful rests on our sense of art, rather than the other way around. In my previous post, I noted how art depends on style. Style mediates the self-consciousness of art’s effect on the consumer. he consumer appreciates not only the pleasure that art gives, but the means by which this pleasure is given. Style is the codification of the means.
My thesis: Things are found beautiful because we appreciate them in the context of artistic style. The Himalayas are beautiful because we can assume with regard to them something like our attitude to the Caspar. Not every realistic painting of the Himalayas is beautiful. Why? Because such a painting forces us to adopt its banal attitude. But every view of the Himalayas is beautiful. Why? Because we can take up whatever artistic attitude pleases us best.
The influence of art explains two things about the sense of beauty. That it is mark of humans, and humans alone, to appreciate it. (Animals do not.) That it gathers together such a diverse class of objects, while at the same time excluding some others, such as smell and touch.
Obviously, there is much more to be said about this. But let me hurry on. My attitude towards art should be clearer now. It can’t be a spandrel on the sense of beauty because the sense of beauty rests on it.
Is art adaptive then? Is this what explains its universality? I think so. It is adaptive on two levels. It is adaptive for the individual because art involves perceptual and motor play. The individual becomes a skilled perceiver by perceptual play; she becomes dexterous through manual play. Art involves both. Secondly, it is adaptive for the group, because a group that protects artists and compensates them for their labour provides to its individuals a source of such play. It may be that artists waste time that would be better spent hunting or foraging or seeking mates. But when they devote time to these essential activities, their whole group is deprived of the individual benefits art provides. People don’t develop very well without art. For this reason, it is advantageous to the individuals in a group if the group were to divide labour. Leave the art-making to a few; take care of that few.