Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Some Thoughts on Aesthetics.

Recently, Roosh V put up a post on beauty which got me thinking of an article I read recently. But before I get to that, I want to put down a few thoughts on the subject of beauty.

I think one of the problems of the traditional philosophical treatments of beauty is that they tend to see the appreciation of beauty as a rational act.  While I think that this approach may have some validity, I don't think enough consideration is given to unconscious processes that are active in the appreciation of it.  Recent insights in cognitive neuroscience show a continuous interplay between conscious and unconscious processes. For example, with regard to the processing of erotic imagery, there is evidence that the brain is processing stimulus information well before conscious cognition is apparent. My view of the matter is that our minds are pre-wired to respond pleasurably to certain visual stimuli. And I don't just mean in the sexual sense, rather, a wide of pleasures (and noxious sensations) can be stimulated by a glance of the eyes. The point is, that when it comes to aesthetics, pleasures are generated subconsciously but appreciated consciously. 

Now, what I'm interested is in the process of subconscious pleasure generation.

It appears to me that human beings are genetically pre-programmed to respond positivity to certain visual stimuli. Symmetry, for example, is not just appreciated in facial forms but also in buildings and compositions of a variety of kinds. Purity, in terms of colour or form is also appreciated.  Certain types of massing, and ratios of a part to a whole also appear to be universally pleasing. It seems that our visual processing hardware is designed with certain rules in mind. If these rules are violated then a progressive sense of disgust is elicited.

Let's say then that there is some kind of hard wired response that generates pleasure only in certain circumstances. How would we judge an art that positively stimulates that response? Or an art that negatively stimulates it.  I suppose that what I'm trying to suggest is that is an art which synch's with this pre-determined hard wiring "natural" to the human species.

The reason why I bring this up is because I feel that classical art was a type of art that instinctively appealed to humans and modern art is a type of art that doesn't. Which brings me to that article I read about. In 1995 two Russian emigre artists, Kumar and Melamid decided to undertake an interesting art project. What they did was use extensive market research to determine what people in eleven different countries liked when it came to art and what they didn't. Based upon this research they decided to paint pictures which represented this market research data. The project and its details can be found here. There is even a book.

Kumar and Melamid's work needs to be understood as visual representation of market research more than an artistic vision. But what's fascinating about their work is the remarkable consistency of what people like in art. Much like the remarkable consistency in what men like in women and women in men.  From an interview with Melamid by The Nation:
N: But there were some surprising results from this poll, yes?
AM: Actually, what shocked me was that it was not surprising. I thought there would be much more interesting--I mean, much different results. Because my small experience talking about art with the people of Bayonne gave me quite a different impression of what the people want. They couldn't exactly say what they want, but seeing artists working gave them ideas of what was possible. The problem is they don't have examples. Maybe they can't be asked, maybe language doesn't work. I was expecting great discoveries, a real vox populi, a high opening. But I think it was the fault of the poll, not the people. It's the fault of all polls. Maybe people have to be shown. Maybe we have to buy a van and go around the country working on art among people--van art. From Vanguard to Van Art.
N: But weren't you kind of surprised that people, regardless of class or race, an wanted pretty much the same thing?
AM: Yeah, that was another shock, because you remember that initially, the idea was to paint different pictures for people of different incomes, but we realized that there's no difference! The blue color diminishes with income and with education, but still the blue color is the majority in every group. And every group wants these landscapes, with soft curves, people fully clothed. That's what gives a good idea about this society, because it's really a united society. That's why this society is still alive. It's not breaking up like Russia, because in Russia they have several different consensuses. You lose that, so you lose everything.
N: What's interesting about the "most wanted" picture that came out of all of this is that it's very close to the classic nineteenth-century American painting, which is a landscape with people, showing harmony with nature, or the conquest of nature. What do you think that suggests?
AM: I think people want stability, culturally and traditionally. The modern art was a breakup with tradition, which became a new tradition, of course. And it's interesting, on one hand I can say that this society's demandtosupply economics works really well, because you can buy landscapes. Maybe not good landscapes; that's the problem. There's nothing bad in landscapes per se. I don't know if we can imitate it now, but why landscape is lower than Abstract Expressionism? Mostly because landscape painting has been given up on by the elite, and people who want to make fame and money don't make landscapes, they make abstract pictures.
N: Robert Hughes wrote that landscape "is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis are to the American novel," that the quintessential American paintings are landscapes.
AM: So, now we know he was right.
I think it is remarkable that people in China, Kenya and U.S all have a very similar aesthetic preferences despite significant geographic, cultural and genetic differences. What it seems to point to is that our sense of beauty has been implanted into us and it is not as malleable as the blank-slaters and fat acceptors seem to think. It isn't because of cultural conditioning as much as it is biomechanics.


There is no doubt that modern art was one of cultural prongs used to overturn the traditional order of the West. Any conservative pushback is going to have to tackle it and perhaps the line of attack should be less philosophical and more biological. Arguments about beauty are probably best not argued on philosophical lines but along "visual ergonomic" ones. A well designed chair is for the body is what beauty is to the eye. And perhaps our argument against modern art shouldn't be an argument about what is morally right or wrong but about what pleases human nature and what doesn't.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Art Renewal website?

http://www.artrenewal.org

Drew said...

Modern art and modern architecture is ugly.

I am in the house buying mode right now. I am specifically avoiding the houses from the 70s-80s. They are heavily influenced by the sterile modern design, with asymmetric angles and flows.
They're ugly.

The new commercial building architecture is plain and ugly too. I can't believe companies pay these people money.

Leap of a Beta said...

Interesting. This is the first study I've seen that examines art appeal since I read Sophocles and his ideas that there is a true beauty, of which art captures a mere part of. This seems to capture part of that argument. Which doesn't surprise me, when appreciation of things like Neoteny are built into humans as well.

Jason said...

Steven Pinker discusses the issue of art and what is naturally pleasing in his book How the Mind Works.

Heythatsmycar said...

@ SP

Great post. I know exactly where you are coming from.

I suggest for your next overseas trip that you go to Spain.

For a sense of nostalgia of what art has lost, visit the medieval Gothic cathedrals in Burgos or Leon, or even the Muslim architecture in Andalucia.

Next, travel to Bilbao and visit the Guggenheim museum, Frank Gehry's modern "masterpiece" and, according to critics, one of the greatest buildings in the world. Frankly, I think it's hideous. When I visited a couple of years ago, the exhibition hall was given over to a gay British/Indian artist who had blasted red wax all over the place with a gas-fired cannon. So "subversive" (and ridiculous)

Finally, go to Barcelona and see Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. That building says one thing...hope

Anonymous said...

And perhaps our argument against modern art shouldn't be an argument about what is morally right or wrong but about what pleases human nature and what doesn't.

Are you retarded? Death Metal, modern art, Bukowski, minimalist architecture, these things are all pleasurable to some subset of people, and abhorrent to other subsets. How are you going to judge which "human nature" is the basis from which to judge what is proper and what is not? This isn't even half thought through.

The Social Pathologist said...

How are you going to judge which "human nature" is the basis from which to judge what is proper and what is not?

I'm not here to make declarative statements on which is the best art as determined by my analysis of human nature, rather, that the human response to art is a valid critique of it. For example, if an artist puts up a shitty sculpture in the middle of the town and people want to tear it down because its ugly, I think there is a certain validity to the sentiment. Instead, what we have today is this sort of shit forced down our throats because clearly "we don't get it."

The Social Pathologist said...

@Drew

I'm in house building mode. I'm trying to get a traditional house (New old house) built, in a traditional neighbourhood built but its hard. Both the building codes and architectural profession are resisting it. There seems to be this unholy alliance at forcing contemporary stuff into traditional areas.

@Heythatsmycar

Modern town planning is a disaster. Jan Jacobs wrote the definitive text. I recently went to a lecture by Professor Gehl, an expert in the rejuvination of cities. Basically his message was that of Jacobs but still the profession doesn't get it.

His professional developement was interesting. He started off as another "save the world" architect but what changed his view was his marriage to a psychologist. She continually complained to him that his town planning designs based upon aesthetic prinicples rather than human need. She would complain to him that he designed "as if people didn't matter." It took a while but he got the hint.

Drew said...

SP, what style of house are you trying to build? Got example pics?

In the US midwest, since about the 90s new houses in the 250k+ range employ a lot more 'traditional' elements of proportion.

Here are a couple examples.
Built in '93.
http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/622-W-Hickory-Grove-Ct-Dunlap-IL-61525/5106034_zpid/

Here is another built in 2000.
http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2119-W-Leyna-Dr-Dunlap-IL-61525/64571588_zpid/


Both of those examples are very modern, but don't have the ugly proportions of this kind of 1960's "modern" monstrosity...
http://www.remax.com/realestatehomesforsale/6038-n-knoxville-peoria-il-61614-gid600015060279.html


But I suppose it depends on how traditional and far back you want to go.

Drew said...

I limit it to 250k+ for review because as our local market gets below that price, the style/utility trade-off starts weighing more in the utility side, and at the cheapest scale everything just turns into boxes that barely fit the property or other random unwanted/poorly maintained pieces.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Drew

The house I want to build is similar to this

http://www.picturevictoria.vic.gov.au/site/melbourne/NorthMelbourne/18868.html

The style is Victorian Italianate. It's very common in the heritage areas of Melbourne. I want the house to blend in with the rest of the streetscape. I've chosen this style because it should be the simplest to reproduce here but you'd be surprised just how much detail there is. Frankly, most architects can't reproduce the style. So I'm going it alone with an architect who is really helpful and not pretentious in anyway.

Unfortunately, this sort of stuff gets put into these areas,

http://www.decoratingroomdesign.com/beautiful-house-south-yarra-in-melbourne-by-lsa-architects.html

Simply awful. I seem some very good modern architecture, but it takes a lot of skill to execute it well. The ugly house in you link looks like a poor copy of an Eichler home. They can be quite stunning homes in the appropriate context, otherwise they look crap. Not to mention that they're hugely wasteful of energy.

Drew said...

The Eichler homes in the link are too sterile for my taste. And the LSA home reminds me of a form of communist brutalism. We've had some that too.

http://tangsphoto.photoshelter.com/image/I0000hhc3Ivs8edw

They tore down this 1875 building for that 1960's eyesore.
http://www.cityofjoliet.com/images/crthse.jpg
Is there anything the boomers and silents didn't ruin?

http://img.groundspeak.com/waymarking/7d3a952d-fe62-463b-92ea-4927f48242f2.JPG

http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMA59T_Will_County_Courthouse_and_Joliet_Illinois

The Social Pathologist said...

@Drew

They're too sterile for me too. Put them in a glam 60's setting and they don't look too bad. The problem is they're too specific. Traditional architecture weather fashion well as opposed to the modernist stuff which dates and looks bad.

The architectural profession does not get enough heat in my opinion and God knows just how miserable they make our lives by providing an environment which is ugly.

ElectricAngel said...

@drew, SP,

the best explanation I have read on the support for Bauhaus ideas in architecture and public planning comes from James Howard Kunstler's book, The Geography of Nowhere, In a nutshell, we fought WW2 to defeat Hitler. hitler and Stalin like neoclassical architecture, Hitler hated and shut down the Bauhaus. hitler lost, ergo Bauhaus must be correct. It goes on to decry US suburban architecture as creating an alienating, disconnected place of great disaffection.

there's another, infuriating book that explains that the alienation was not bad design, but good design. in The Slaughter of Cities, Jones explains that a WASP upper class, in the process of contracepting itself out of existence, realized it had to do something to reduce Catholic fecundity, social capital, and political power that arose from tightly-knit neighborhoods of traditional architecture. so they pushed Bauhaus and urban renewal to destroy Ethnic Catholic enclaves in Northern Cities. this had the beneficial effect of driving up demand for cars and appliances, and also, because the newer houses were not row houses and so cheap to heat and maintain, economically sterilized the Catholics, who now had less in the way of economic resources to pour into children.

electricAngel said...

Modern Architecture is uglier, you see, than it appears.

ElectricAngel said...

I posted some of Jones' writings in a new post over at Patriactionary. Thanks for getting me off my duff, SP.

The Social Pathologist said...

@ElectricAngel

I've been away for the week. So my apologies for not getting back to you earlier.


I'll have a look at the post and get back to you later.

MarcusD said...

These might be of interest to you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PDWXMMgy9c

http://www.mccreryarchitects.com/portfolio/liturgical/new-mount-carmel-of-america/


It's interesting how social liberalism instigates a change in church architecture, and [attempted] religious renewal brings a return to older forms. When they say a church is a "catechism in stone," they aren't kidding.


By the way, do you mind sending me an e-mail address I can reach you at? I have a few links and studies I'd like your thoughts on (and which you will likely be interested in).

MarcusD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MarcusD said...

@ElectricAngel

I'm not sure Hitler liked Neoclassical so much as a sort of triumphalist architecture borrowing from it. Speer, the architect he (basically) lived vicariously through, vis a vis architecture, was someone predisposed to Bauhaus (by training), but frequently gave into Hitler when he demanded something bigger.

The "Welthauptstadt," along with other projects, seems more like Baroque (in intent), but with exaggerated scale, rather than exaggerated ornament. It reminds me of Clark's "heroic materialism." The weird thing about the "Volkshalle" was that it would have had it's own micro-climate inside (e.g. weather).

MarcusD said...

These might be of interest to you, SP:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PDWXMMgy9c

http://www.mccreryarchitects.com/portfolio/liturgical/new-mount-carmel-of-america/


It's interesting how social liberalism also instigates a change in architecture, and [attempted] renewal brings a return to older forms. When they say a church is a "catechism in stone" they aren't kidding.

----

@ElectricAngel

I'm not sure Hitler liked Neoclassical so much as a sort of triumphalist architecture. Speer, the architect he (basically) lived vicariously through, vis a vis architecture, was someone predisposed to Bauhaus (by training).

The "Welthauptstadt," along with other projects, seems more like Baroque, but with exaggerated scale, rather than exaggerated ornament. It reminds me of Clark's "heroic materialism."


-Marcus

(sorry for reposting the comment)


By the way, SP, would you mind sending me an e-mail address I can reach you at? I have a few links and studies I'd like your thoughts on (and which you will likely be interested in).

MarcusD said...

@ElectricAngel

I'm not sure Hitler liked Neoclassical so much as a sort of triumphalist architecture. Speer, the architect he (basically) lived vicariously through, vis a vis architecture, was someone predisposed to Bauhaus (by training).

The "Welthauptstadt," along with other projects, seems more like Baroque (in intent), but with exaggerated scale, rather than exaggerated ornament. It reminds me of Kenneth Clark's "heroic materialism."

----


These might be of interest to you, SP:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PDWXMMgy9c

http://www.mccreryarchitects.com/portfolio/liturgical/new-mount-carmel-of-america/


It's interesting how social liberalism also instigates a change in architecture, and [attempted] renewal brings a return to older forms. When they say a church is a "catechism in stone" they aren't kidding.


By the way, do you mind sending me an e-mail address I can reach you at? I have a few links and studies I'd like your thoughts on (and which you will likely be interested in).

The Social Pathologist said...

@Marcus

Firstly, the new Mount Carmel looks very good. Beautiful in fact.

Secondly, I wasn't that big a fan of McNamara's "Church Theology". I think he trying to read too much into the bible.

I think the question of church aesthetics needs more thought. I think the architecture of a church should convey he impression of holiness and sanctity and I don't think there is any formulaic response to task. One absolutely beautiful church I went to in Croatia, was open air. In that row of deciduous trees formed the roof, with a stone altar at the front and a stone bell tower. The impression it gave was of man and nature worshiping God. It was modern yet traditional and proof that one isn't locked into a particular style to express worship of God.

The thing about this church though, is that everyone thought it was beautiful. In other words, its beauty was accessible to everyone, not only to hyperspecialised arts gurus. The Church architect either sticks to forms that work or is judged by whether any novelty in church design conforms to this test.

The Vatican, for instance, whilst impressive, almost fails the test for me. It's too ornate and distracting whilst Saint Chapelle in Paris is sublime. Some of the baroque Church's whilst beautiful distract from the business end of the faith. Still, these "hyperdecorative" church's express an religious enthusiasm to worship God, even in their excess and are therefore excusable.

What jars with regard to the ugly churches is their inability to convey holiness. I need to devote more thought to the matter but I think I should be able to come up with some intellectual consistent critiques.

If you want to contact me I can be contacted at

slumlord at optusnet dot com dot au.

The Social Pathologist said...

Oh, here are some pictures of the church I mentioned.

http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=18&with_photo_id=43243792&order=date&user=773091&tag=Autumn

http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43243710?tag=Autumn

http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=357&with_photo_id=41657731&order=date_desc&user=773091

MarcusD said...

"Secondly, I wasn't that big a fan of McNamara's "Church Theology". I think he trying to read too much into the bible."

There was a shorter video that summarized the series that I thought was well-done. I've read a few books on "reading" churches, so his video series was welcome (though at times at odds with what others have said).


"I think the question of church aesthetics needs more thought. I think the architecture of a church should convey he impression of holiness and sanctity and I don't think there is any formulaic response to task. One absolutely beautiful church I went to in Croatia, was open air. In that row of deciduous trees formed the roof, with a stone altar at the front and a stone bell tower. The impression it gave was of man and nature worshiping God. It was modern yet traditional and proof that one isn't locked into a particular style to express worship of God.

The thing about this church though, is that everyone thought it was beautiful. In other words, its beauty was accessible to everyone, not only to hyperspecialised arts gurus. The Church architect either sticks to forms that work or is judged by whether any novelty in church design conforms to this test."

I think people recognize (and appreciate) it as a church due to its adherence to elements of classical forms (even though they may be represented in a "negative space" of sorts). I do think it is a novel re-imagining, in the sense that it removes elements we take for granted in the architecture (walls, roof), but still don't associate with the necessary, distinguishing forms (facade, Romanesque arches, etc). I think I'll add it to my list of places to visit.


"The Vatican, for instance, whilst impressive, almost fails the test for me. It's too ornate and distracting whilst Saint Chapelle in Paris is sublime. Some of the baroque Church's whilst beautiful distract from the business end of the faith. Still, these "hyperdecorative" church's express an religious enthusiasm to worship God, even in their excess and are therefore excusable."

It's Baroque - I don't think it'll ever appeal to me (it reminds me a lot of the architecture seen in oil-rich countries, that is, tastelessly ornate). Saint-Chapelle, yes, that is a nice church. I think many of the churches in Paris are quite spectacular (and the best thing is that music usually matches - no "rock" Masses at Sacre-Coeur, but chant or chant-like music). I've visited quite a few churches in France, all of which are quite plain in decoration, but still leave me in absolute awe ("height and light" as they say). I tend towards simplicity (Romanesque, most of Gothic, but Rayonnant and Flamboyant test my patience).


"What jars with regard to the ugly churches is their inability to convey holiness. I need to devote more thought to the matter but I think I should be able to come up with some intellectual consistent critiques."

Well, I think it's a lot like the music played in churches today - it tries to emulate the current period, but as CS Lewis said, "those who keep up with the times, end up where all times go." "Relevancy" is a good sign that something is not right.

I find myself looking at (some) churches and trying to see anything "church-like" about them (and failing). I'm reminded of churches like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Bras%C3%ADlia. Abbot Suger was enamored with Gothic, but still recognized it as a "strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven." I guess we're in too much of the former.

The Social Pathologist said...

I do think it is a novel re-imagining,

In terms of architecture it is novel but in terms of pre-concieved notions of "churchiness" it is not. This is how I think modern architecture needs to approach the subject of the sacred.

Modern architecture by and large inverts this relationship by concentrating on the architecture more than the sacred.

I also tend towards simplicity. One of my favourite Churches is this one here in Melbourne.

As for music. Nothing beats Gregorian Chant when accompanied by organ. The local Cathedral has a Sunday evening Mass where it is accompanied by plain chant. The effect, especially when the Church is mainly empty is divine. You do really get a feeling of being in a Holy space.

I look forward to your articles.

Jennifer Eisenbach said...

Ok then what are the opinions of Frank Lloyd Wright? Or is he too an asshole?

Jennifer Eisenbach said...

Ok then what are the opinions of Frank Lloyd Wright? Or is he too an asshole?

Jennifer Eisenbach said...

Ok then what are the opinions of Frank Lloyd Wright? Or is he too an asshole?

The Social Pathologist said...

Arsehole, as we say here in Australia. If you don't believe me read his biography. Control freak as well.