Beauty grows on trees

I just recently returned from France to my home in Atlantic Canada. It was my first time in the country, and I was glad to have spent it within the lush, rolling pastures of Normandy, made famous through the artwork of impressionist par excellence, Claude Monet, during his years in Giverny, long before the Allied liberation I was there to commemorate.

Impressionism happens to be one of my favourite genres of art due its resonance with my philosophical appreciation for David Hume. Hume believed that our aesthetic standards, much like our moral ones, derive from inner sentiments that project approbations on our “sensory impressions”.  The snap-shot framing common in impressionism even mirrors Hume’s empiricism, with each short, thick brush stroke as a ray of light, a sense datum within our kaleidoscopic perception.

Tree-in-Flower-near-Vetheuil

Beauty, Hume maintained, does not realize itself by ideas, but by a conformity between the object and our inner sense. As he wrote in the Standards of Taste, “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” That “nature” we know to be biological evolution, which cross cultural surveys suggest has predisposed us to relish, among other things, the sight of an evergreen landscape, presumably for its signal of hydration and plenty.

Beauty, then, really does grow on trees. But how do we reconcile this with Adam’s point in his discussion with David that all art is a conversation which necessarily requires a group with shared concepts and ideas?

The difference lies in the distinction between aesthetics on the one hand and art on the other, a distinction that leads to an abyss of confusion if not addressed head on. The late David Best gives an excellent example of this in his 1985 book, Feeling and Reason in the Arts. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language, Best sees art, unlike aesthetics, as a type of language game, whereby “individual creativity depends upon the existence and grasp of a social practice.” A philosopher of rhythm and movement, he gives the following excellent example, which I’ve pulled from this review:

Some years ago I was privileged to attend a performance by Ram Gopal, the great Indian classical dancer, and I was quite captivated by the exhilarating and exquisite quality of his movements. Yet I was unable to appreciate his dance artistically since I could not understand it. For instance, there is a great and varied range of subtle hand gestures in Indian classical dance, each with a quite precise meaning, of which I knew none. It is clear that my appreciation was aesthetic, not artistic.

This formulation isn’t only applicable to humans. If you’re ambitious, try to imagine the wonderful aesthetic sensations honey bees must experience upon receiving the ultraviolet sense impressions of a pollen laden Golden crocus, before returning to the hive, and transmitting said beauty through the artistic medium of the waggle dance.  While the sentiment produced by the flower may be immediate and personal, the dance only works to communicate because each specie of bee has a genetic understanding of their particular waggle dance rules.

Humans have the capacity to learn the rules of a particular art and then bend them, inventing new forms of artistic media and waggle dances all our own. But it is important to bear in mind that the rules would cease to exist without the aesthetics underlying them. Even in Manga, another captivating form for which I (like Indian classical dance was for Best) have no artistic appreciation, the unique and extremely idiosyncratic iconography Adam highlights are all conspicuously exploiting a Pleistocene aesthetic, in the same way cheesecake exploits our adaptive sweet tooth. Namely, Manga hits on the sentimental fondness for cutesy and wide eye child-like facial features that one would expect in a species that protects and invests as heavily in their kin as humans do.

So in some sense David and Adam are both right. Adam is right that art can never be a private affair — it, by its very nature, is a social practice. Yet David wasn’t deluded when he reported experiencing aesthetic delight upon his introduction to anime, because the latter feeds up into the former. For without that shared evolutionary heritage, the conversation could never begin.


I’m Samuel by the way, and am pleased to be joining the Sweet Talk team. You can follow me on twitter @hamandcheese and I run an independent blog called Abstract Minutiae, where I try to bridge the conceptually near and far from using the ideas of Quine and Hayek. I’m also an economics student, commencing my MA in the fall. Cheers.

 

Advertisements

Anime is Sacred, Indoctrination is Profane

720px-Anirage-alternate.svg

My bother David is not pleased with the post I wrote about how we appreciate art.

In my very serious response, I’m going to pretend that he was talking about Anime or Manga rather than art in general.

David doesn’t want to buy into any institutional theory of Anime, because he does not believe that Anime’s value is arbitrary. Moreover, he doesn’t like the idea that partaking in the sublime enjoyment of giant sweatdrops indicating embarrassment requires that he be a member of a group. We must not sully the sacredness of Anime with the profaning influence of group indoctrination.

As far as I’m concerned, Protagoras of Abdera has this all figured out thousands of years ago. In the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras argues that people spend their whole lives teaching one another right and wrong. He said that if learning to play the flute was the same as learning right and wrong, we would all be prolific flute players, though there would still be variation in talent. Perhaps there would be variation in taste as well—the dialogue does not imply that he thought so.

My question to David is: how did he even discover Anime in the first place? It’s a very strange thing, with a whole iconography of facial expressions and reactions that have nothing to do with how people look or react to things. The answer is that you get introduced to Anime—directly or indirectly—by people. The fact that other people value it and talk about it makes you aware of its existence at all. Part of the joy of watching it is being able to talk to other people about it.

At this point I hear David saying: “Wait a minute. Say Anime just happened to be on the TV when I was a kid and no one actively introduced me to it. Say I never talk to anyone about it ever, I just cherish my private enjoyment of it.”

But you cannot escape community by this means, because the creators are part of a community by necessity! Anime does not spring up in a vacuum.  Artists and writers and voice actors and producers and directors all practice a craft which they learned from other people—either directly through instruction or indirectly through imitation—and by practicing that craft with other people playing the other essential roles. The devoted Anime fan sees every mech series as standing on the shoulders of Mobile Suit Gundam and other predecessors; the devoted fan sees how creators have learned from one another while also trying to do things their own way. They see the conversation.

Anime is a conversation, and conversations by definition require a group of people conversing.

Often denigration of the form is tied to denigration of the people. Anime fans have been denigrated as some version of “abnormal, insane people” for as long as people have watched Anime. That is because Anime is tied to the community of people watching and creating it; it just is.

I cannot help but see David’s attempt to demarcate Anime’s intrinsic value from merely arbirarily valued anime in the context of modern philosophers of science’s attempts to demarcate Science and Truth from mere truths, something Deirdre McCloskey has expended a great deal of energy arguing against. We humans do not experience anything meaningful—in terms of knowledge or aesthetics—without conceptual schemes, and conceptual schemes are built socially. They just are.

Anime doesn’t grow on trees.