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The Survival of Beauty and Art

The Survival of Beauty and Art

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The Survival of Beauty and Art

Longueur:
560 pages
7 heures
Éditeur:
Sortie:
May 3, 2013
ISBN:
9780991728336
Format:
Livre

Description

The Survival of Beauty and Art is a direct followup to Faas’ The Genealogy of Aesthetics (Cambridge, 2002), his Nietzschean critique of the Idealist western tradition. Genealogy met with both lavish praise and fierce rebuttal. Professor D. Townsend, head of the American Society of Aesthetics, conceded that its thesis was “clearly and forcefully presented” (European Journal of Philosophy, 2004,4), but has since mounted The Genealogy of Aesthetics: An Attack (2010). More positively inclined reviewers called Genealogy “interesting and far-sighted,” “well-written, polemical, and thought-provoking” (K. Harries, Review of Metaphysics,61:2 Dec 2007) as well as “extensively researched and outspoken.” Ekbert Faas, writes A. J. Rindesbacher, “gives aesthetics theory a decisive push in its move from the head into the body” and “opens aesthetics to a wide array of new approaches, broadly speaking of the life sciences and neuroscience.” (European Legacy, 2005 10:5)

The Survival of Beauty and Art will probably meet with similarly divided responses. The study continues its polemics against traditional (formalist) aestheticians, especially by focusing on more recent ones (like Arthur C. Danto’s) with their Hegel/Heidegger-inspired prophecies about the imminent death of art. However, Faas also critiques the Darwinists’ obsession with trying to prove that art/aesthetics is, say, either an adaptation in its own right or merely a byproduct of more genuine adaptations, like the play instinct.

More generally speaking, The Survival of Beauty and Art develops an unprecedented theory of aesthetics and art. Its five principal categories, the affective, sexual, perceptual, cognitive and cultural, are developed on the basis of today's evolutionary and cognitive science, as well as illustrated via the interpretation of individual works of art. In this it also draws on more traditional disciplines such as iconography, the history of ideas, philosophical analysis, and close reading.

Éditeur:
Sortie:
May 3, 2013
ISBN:
9780991728336
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

An avid traveller, Faas hitchhiked throughout Europe and North Africa in his mid-teens and has kept up his globe-trotting ever since. During his student years, he lived, worked and studied in Munich, Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Rome and London. A full professor of English Literature after completing two Ph.Ds (Dr. phil. and Dr. habil.), Ekbert Faas left Europe to restart his career under a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies in New York City. A biographer, translator, novelist, critic, literary historian, and interdisciplinary scholar, he has had a lifelong interest in poetics, and especially in evolving a new aesthetics based on cognitive science and evolutionary theory. A recent result of these endeavours, The Survival of Beauty and Art has been submitted for publication. Since his highly acclaimed Woyzeck’s Head appeared in 1991, he has also continued his work as a novelist. His diaries, started at age 15, and by now counting 150 volumes, have served him as a major quarry in his creative endeavours.

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The Survival of Beauty and Art - Ekbert Faas

The Survival of Beauty and Art

Ekbert Faas

Published by Aguilar Press

Toronto, Mexico City, Madrid, Paris, Berlin

www.aguilarpress.com

ISBN 978-0-9917283-3-6

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2013 © Ekbert Faas

ekbertfaas.net

Smashwords Edition Licence Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you.

Table of Contents

1. Simplicissimus's Approach, or Back to Basics

2. Theoretical Preview

3. Traditional Aesthetics

4. Western Precursors of a Naturalist Aesthetics

I. AFFECTIVE AESTHETICS

5. Appetitive Pleasures

6. Beautiful Environments

7. Tasteful Habitats

II. SEXUAL AESTHETICS

8. Sexual Selection and Related Theories

9. Suicidal Artistry

10. Sexual Beauty's Deceptiveness

11. The Affective and Sexual in Art

III. PERCEPTUAL AESTHETICS

12. Theory

13. Perspective

14. Colour

15. Colour versus Design

IV. COGNITIVE AESTHETICS

16. Music

17. Animal Ludens et Ridens

18. Stone Tool Production

19. Religion

20. Language, Literature, and Representational Art

21. Theory

V. CULTURAL AESTHETICS

22. Art's Possible Maladaptiveness: Hunter-Gatherers and Beyond

23. Tradition-Specific Characteristics of High Cultural Art

24. Art under Circumscription: Egypt

25. A Typology of Early Imperial Art: Mesoamerica, Egypt, Crete

26. The Repulsive and Horrific in Art

27. Birth Pangs of Modernism

28. The Survival of Beauty and Art

29. Looking Back

REFERENCES

EXTENDED REFERENCES

APPENDICES

FURTHER READINGS

Index

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

1. Simplicissimus's Approach, or Back to Basics

(References for chapter 1)

Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?

Pablo Picasso

Let's start with some concrete examples. Taking several Renaissance artworks, we'll interpret them in light of traditional aesthetic criteria, and then suggest how these might be critiqued, or, if need be, substituted by others. This may sound overly radical, but turns out to be less so in practice. Although aesthetics and artistic creativity are firmly rooted in our evolved biological makeup, their individual manifestations are also subject to religious, philosophical, and sociopolitical constraints. Only when the latter supplant, repress, or vitiate these biological roots—as the Western aesthetic heritage has tended to do—is it time to think of making the necessary adjustments.

Here is the first of our Renaissance artworks, Dürer's Adam and Eve engraving of 1504:

A. Dürer, Adam and Eve (c. 1504). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Traditional Approaches: Generally, these point to a) Dürer's use of iconography, b) his strong drive towards naturalism, and c) the opposite orientation, equally powerful, towards geometric abstraction.

a) At least if part of Christian culture, viewers, of course, would know that Dürer's Adam and Eve, like countless similar artworks, deals with the Fall, Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Genesis also mentions other animals, plants, and trees, among them the Tree of Life, adversarial to the serpent. So we're not surprised to spot some of them around the ancestral couple. These organisms not only carry their proper names, but other, iconographic meanings as well. The mountain ash, which Adam holds on to with his right hand, was traditionally associated with the Tree of Life. The parrot on the same tree was an emblem of positive cleverness also inimical to the snake. And so on.

b) Also well known is Dürer's anatomically realistic depiction of animals and plants which he frequently drew from life. Before 1504, he also sketched realistic female nudes like the Naked Hausfrau (1493), often from live models in his workshop.

The same focus on realistic anatomical detail is evident in early male nudes such as his 1501 Apollo and a self-portrait (c. 1503), projecting an eroticism all its own:

A. Dürer, Self-Portrait in the Nude (c. 1505). Kunstsammlung, Weimar.

The slightly hunched body, twisted by sudden motion as if he were turning to us, the lips full and sensual, the penetrating gaze from his sideways tilted eyes holding ours, the dangling genitals delineated in such prominent fashion as to make them come alive with a creatureliness of their own. There is the analogous, naturalistic precision in Dürer's 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve: the gnarly musculature, the anatomically rendered limbs and taut skin, delineating what's underneath down to the minutest details.

c) At the same time, Adam's and Eve's body postures incorporate the opposite, idealistic and geometric bias: their position is frontal, the bodily proportions appear drawn with compass and ruler, the movements are stilted as if the pair were posing. The models for this geometric manner are several. One comes from a rumoured mathematical template supposedly underlying the beauty of the human body propagated by Greek sculptor Polykleitos (active c. 450-420 BC). Unfortunately, little of it has survived except general notions about leg posture like contrapposto (i.e., one leg engaged, the other idle) or implausible rules such as seven and one half heads amount to the height of a person. Nonetheless, subsequent artists and theorists desperately tried to rediscover Polykleitos's mysterious rules by measuring his sculptures, but with little success.

A similar phantasm about how to geometrically design human bodies, Vitruvian man, derived from a casual remark in De Architectura by Roman architect Vitruvius. Sacred edifices, he proposes, should be proportioned like the male body which, with arms and legs outstretched, was supposed to fit both square and circle, these allegedly most perfect geometrical forms. The Renaissance obsession with Vitruvian man was far-reaching and enduring. God, it was believed, had used the proportions of the human body to reveal the innermost secrets of nature. According to Kenneth Clark, Vitruvian man was the foundation of a whole philosophy to the Renaissance, still valid today. For it offered exactly that link between sensation and order, between an organic and geometric basis of beauty, which was (and perhaps remains) the philosopher's stone of beauty.

Meanwhile, attempts to illustrate Vitruvian man proved difficult. Leonardo altered Vitruvius's original idea to suit his famous illustration. More truthful to the original, Cesariano's circle-and-square-enclosed male looks like a gorilla rather than a human being. Nonetheless, the notion sent artists and aestheticians on a wild goose chase after a mathematically exact matrix of human beauty which continues to this day.

Personal encounters with Jacopo de' Barbari, Emperor Maximilian I's court painter in Nuremburg, launched Dürer on the same quest. Jacopo showed him two nudes, male and female, constructed according to geometric principles, when Dürer was still a young man and had never heard of such things. Strangely, the older Jacopo refused to reveal to Dürer how he had constructed the figures. Desperate to discover the secret, Dürer read Vitruvius—with instant results. Using compass and ruler, he produced a Geometrical Construction of a Female Nude in classical contrapposto, which, like several similar ones, points to his Adam and Eve of 1504.

Yet Dürer must have realized that he could do better. The 1504 Adam and Eve engraving, though immensely popular to this day, has remained one of Dürer's rare works in the narrowly geometrical mode. The departure from it is evident in his 1507 Adam and Eve painting. The postures are not fully frontal. Adam and Eve are moving rather than standing contrapposto. The androgynous, muscular Eve of 1504 has become softly contoured and paradisiacally beautiful.

In 1507 when he painted his Adam and Eve, Dürer abandoned the idea of imposing a geometrical scheme on the body in his artworks. Nonetheless, his obsession with the secret geometrical template for the human body continued. As late as 1521, a few years after Barbari's death, Dürer asked the Regent of the Netherlands to give him Jacopo's secret book, but was told that it already had been promised to the court painter, Bernard van Orley. Was there a sort of Masonic mystery formula kept secret from him by jealous Italian colleagues who, once in Venice, were rumoured to have conspired to murder him?

Of course, there was no secret formula—only one of many ideational phantasms arisen at the crossroads of other, more influential aesthetic vectors such as the human artist/Divine Artificer analogy, or the ideal world behind the real one. Dürer continued the search regardless. He kept studying human proportions, applied painstakingly detailed measurements to the bodies of babies and corpulent women (one of whom, in good Polyclitean fashion, is said to be seven heads tall), and performed Herculean labours on treatises on perspective and human bodily proportions. Amazing how a painter of his genius would have wasted so much of his short life on these largely fruitless endeavours! Yet he certainly wasn't alone. Treatises on perspective and related matters between Alberti's pioneering De Pictura of 1435 and F. Novotny's Cézanne and the End of Scientific Perspective of 1938 amount to some two thousand seven hundred.

So how should we evaluate such endeavours, more generally speaking? Drawing on recent science, it takes little to show how Dürer and his age's obsession with metaphysically sanctioned templates for the perfectly proportioned body and, by extension, for nature in general, derive from armchair philosophical fantasies of our predominantly idealistic cultural heritage rather than from verifiable facts. Linear perspective, which artists/theoreticians pursued with sometimes similarly misguided doggedness, raises more complex issues. This is due to the mirage-like counter-play between measurable perspectival object shrinkage and how we naturally perceive the same objects as more or less constant in size. To us today, this perplexing contrast is easily understood through a simple experiment in front of a bathroom mirror. But to the Renaissance, size constancy (like numerous other perceptual biases such as object and layout constancy, brightness contrast, or simultaneous colour contrast), largely was an irritant in their geometrically perspectival pursuits. Here a science-inspired perceptual aesthetics can clarify what to artists then and for centuries thereafter remained unresolved problems.

Beyond perspective, this also applies to artistic criteria such as linearity, colouring, figure-ground contrast, symmetry, and proportionality in painting. But matters that complex need more space than allowed by an introduction. For the moment, we'll merely add that a new perceptual aesthetics largely plays the role of supplementing rather than supplanting what previous aestheticians like the Gestaltists and Perspectivists have managed in analogous endeavours.

In turning to another, more basic aesthetic category, or what this study calls affective aesthetics, let's try to imagine a totally unenculturated visitor from out of nowhere. Fully human like us, this fantasy individual has remained ignorant of the world's major cultural traditions including our Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian one. For instance, he has never heard of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. Let's call him Simplicissimus. That his name is borrowed from the titular anti-hero of Grimmelshausen's famous seventeenth-century novel is meant to suggest that Simplicissimus, although unenculturated, is far from stupid or insensitive. Now let's show Simplicissimus Dürer's 1504 Adam and Eve engraving, and then Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve of 1526:

L. Cranach, Adam and Eve (c. 1526). Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Being fully human like ourselves, Simplicissimus would see everything we see. He would also be able to convert the artworks' two-dimensional figurations into the three-dimensional scenarios they represent, and to respond to them with the same instinctual, perceptual, emotional, and cognitive biases brought to them by humans in general. But would he be capable of a genuine aesthetic reaction? If yes, what might be the criteria of this naturalized yet unenculturated aesthetic response?

Given Simplicissimus's tabula rasa ignorance in cultural matters, the answer can only be traced to said biases. As we know since Darwin, a major subgroup of these is ruled by our instincts to survive, a second by those to procreate, and a third by our perceptual and cognitive abilities that help us go about these two basic impulses of life. Let's briefly turn to the first of these.

Simplicissimus, in viewing Cranach's painting, would obviously be ignorant of any Christian iconographic meanings. It would never occur to him that the tree weighted with juicy ripe apples has to do with good and evil, that the one apple handled by the naked pair is to bring about their downfall, that the various fully grown stags prefigure diverse aspects of a divine saviour destined to redeem them, or that the parched little deer lapping water symbolizes the human thirsting after God.

What he'd see instead is a scenario bursting with life and with promises of good things to come: the young, beautiful couple sharing an apple, plenty more hanging in the tree which also gives them shelter, the ready source of water beautifully mirroring the little deer that drinks from it, the abundance of potential foodstuff in the animals surrounding the humans, the wide-open, clearly surveyable grassland behind them, the clear blue sky above, and, in the middle- and background, further mysterious tree growth, holding the lure of the yet unexplored.

Granted there is the snake, the lion, and the boar; and the unpleasant prospect of having to ward them off or kill some of the animals for food. But for the moment, everything is tranquil; and anyway, this, to Simplicissimus, is neither Eden nor Paradise. Instead, it is just a near optimal environment in which to survive and procreate. And as such, it strikes Simplicissimus as beautiful just as similar real-world scenarios would have appealed to our ancestors during the two million years or so while they evolved into anatomically and cognitively modern humans.

In Simplicissimus, as in us, these primordial experiences live on as unconscious memories determining our preference for analogous kinds of environment to this day. How we cherish a savanna-type landscape over others (to be discussed in 4 and 6) was shown in numerous experiments by environmental aestheticians over several decades. Through popularizing accounts, the so-called savanna hypothesis has also reached the general public.

So has an independent endeavour, by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, to establish our preferred environments and corresponding pictorial representations. Based on the consultation of close to two billion people, the resultant series of most wanted paintings by the two artists turned up remarkable similarities among nations world-wide. No doubt unintentionally, their endeavors also confirmed environmental aesthetics. A picture like France's Most Wanted, to invoke one example, unwittingly illustrates most motifs predicted by the savanna hypothesis. What's more, it matches similar landscape stereotypes found in hundreds of classical paintings, including Lucas Cranach's 1526 Adam and Eve.

Sexualizations of the Fall: Dürer and Baldung Grien: The parallels between France's Most Wanted and Cranach's painting are easily identified. They mostly concern shared pictorial motifs such as humans, animals, and easily available sources of food and drink. What's missing from France's Most Wanted is Cranach's sexy ancestral pair. Yet come to think of it, can Adam and Eve, as depicted by Cranach, Dürer and other Renaissance painters like Raphael and Federighi, really be seen as sexually attractive? At first glance, it seems like an untenable proposition: the Fall as an occasion for the depiction of erotically suggestive nudes; and for works like Dürer's 1504 engraving one may still want to bring in our unenculturated Simplicissimus to lend plausibility to the proposal. But take Dürer's c. 1496 Adam and Eve, executed in the naturalistic manner of the Naked Hausfrau and of his Self-Portrait in the Nude. Except for the title, hardly anything in the drawing suggests that it is dealing with the Fall.

The identities of Eve, who has her broad back turned towards us, and of Adam, who, facing us, lacks the customary fig leaf to hide his genitals, are certainly ambiguous. There's the tree, or rather its mere trunk, but no snake. Instead of Eve handing the apple to Adam, as in Genesis, they mutually offer apples to each other. Adam and Eve, rather than facing us, seem erotically involved with each other.

The sexual intimacy suggested by Dürer's early drawing becomes an increasingly lurid affair in works of the twelve years younger Baldung Grien (1584/5-1545), Dürer's disciple, coworker, and perhaps lover. The following three depictions of Adam and Eve by Baldung document the escalating secularization and simultaneous sexualization of the motif. The first is a woodcut from 1511 (A), the second a painting from about 1523 (B), and the third a contour copy of a drawing also from around 1523 (C):

A. Hans Baldung Grien, Adam and Eve (c. 1511). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

B. Hans Baldung Grien, Adam and Eve (c. 1523). Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

C. Hans Baldung Grien, Adam and Eve (c. 1523).

A, while retaining some of the predictable icons (e.g., the snake and the apple), may well be the earliest representation of the Fall as a sexually motivated act. Adam is pushing his (invisible) genitals up against Eve's posterior while encircling one of her breasts with his left hand. Eve, while coyly shielding her pudenda with a fig leaf and absent-mindedly holding the apple up to Adam, seems contentedly complicit in Adam's lasciviousness. Meanwhile, both are staring at us as if to defy those inclined to disapprove of their unorthodox demeanour.

Theologically, the idea that sexuality brought on the Fall was, of course, well established. To Augustine, the human genitals were the root of all evil. That's the place from which the first sin [was] passed on, he exclaimed. For not even honourable procreation can exist without Lust. Since no one is seminated without it, no one is born without it. Sexuality is that disease whence original sin is contracted. It's the royal road of sin, which through a kind of contagion connects the generations of humankind. Baldung, as if to make sure that viewers (and possible censors) would get his theological message, placed a sign saying LAPSVS HVMANI GENERIS [Fall of the Human Race] above Adam and Eve.

Was he sincere or merely using the biblical motif to explore sexual matters under its protective umbrella? B and C suggest an answer. Biblical paraphernalia in B—a miniscule snake, an apple dangling aimlessly from Eve's left hand, a tree trunk caressed by her right, and hence phallically suggestive rather than iconographically symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge—have been marginalized almost out of existence. What fills the panel instead is the self-consciously defiant lecherousness of the slightly less than life-sized pair. The sexual assertiveness in the 1511 woodcut has become lewdly exhibitionist. Adam, in by now familiar fashion, encircles one of Eve's breasts with his left hand. His right, barely hiding his genitals, caresses her left loin. Meanwhile, Eve's pudenda and lower belly take centre stage. The fully transparent veil—totally out of tune with the biblical scenario—accentuates rather than obscures their prurient appeal. But most revealing are the couple's faces. Eve's eyes are turned to Adam who searches out ours with sidelong slyness, as if asking us to admire his sexual prize. These two look like jaded pros rather than romantic lovers, let alone first-generation sinners.

This secularization and sexualization of the Adam and Eve motif has become total in C. Iconographic indicators pointing to the Fall are limited to a circular shape nonchalantly dangling from Eve's left hand and barely recognizable as an apple. Except for the two lovers, the only other identifiable object is a tree trunk that serves to support Eve's back while she willingly submits to Adam's genital fondling. Eve stares at us much like Adam in Baldung's painting.

In spite of this, one recent critic finds that Adam is stretching his right arm in the direction of the fruit of paradise, and Eve leaning against the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge. Baldung, the critic continues, ultimately equates the female genitals with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. For to the painter, the original sin is sexuality, the Fall of Man to be equated with the first coitus. Passed from generation to generation, this original sin dominates the life of man to the very present.

I am quoting in extenso to show how traditional criticism often injects into artworks what is culturally assumed or known, rather than actually there. Besides, we have little reason to assume that Baldung shared Augustine's theological interpretation of the Fall. What I see when I look at his self-portrait is something quite different—namely Baldung's haughty defiance of conventions, his self-advertising bisexuality, and dandyish curiosity about the fascinatingly abject and perverse.

Hans Baldung Grien, Self-Portrait (c. 1507). Kupferstichkabinett, Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.

But this too, of course, is mere speculation.

Or not quite. Recent research has unearthed numerous facts suggesting that Baldung, just like his teacher, Dürer, and their friends, indulged in boisterously confessional exchanges about sexual biases that might easily have had them run afoul of the law, and risk imprisonment, or even death. Dürer's wealthy patron, eminent humanist scholar Wilibald Pirkheimer, inscribed a portrait which Dürer drew of him in 1503 with the Greek letters for with the erect member of the man in the anus. While in Venice in 1506, Dürer joked to Pirkheimer about the pretty Italian foot soldiers [hüpsche welsche lantzknecht] he'd find if he were there as well. Pirkheimer, in another letter, must have joked about threatening to clyster Dürer's wife if the painter didn't come back soon. In an equally outlandish riposte, Dürer refused his friend permission to bride [his wife] to death in the process. A mutual friend, Canon Lorenz Behaim, mocked Dürer for having his hair curled daily and for wearing a goatee, which he'd better shave off. For his boy simply loathed it.

Was Baldung Grien, who apparently received a lock of that curly blond hair after Dürer's death, the master's boy? Also, would Baldung have been present when Pirkheimer translated the notorious Greek Erotes for Dürer? This pamphlet about Praxiteles' Venus of Cnidus, incidentally Kenneth Clark's quintessentially ideal nude, tells various stories about her clearly non-disinterested admirers in antiquity.

Praxiteles, Venus of Cnidus (c. 350).

One of these, when catching sight of her front, started to kiss the goddess with importunate lips. Another, this one homosexual, upon inspecting those parts of [her body] which recommend a boy, waxed ecstatic over the delicately moulded flesh on the buttocks. A third, aroused to the point of no return, defiles the marble with his semen. Finally, when, un-Galatea-like, Venus refuses to come alive, he jumps to his death from a high cliff into the sea. Unmoved, our homosexual connoisseur comments that the suicidal lover, in glutting his passion on the unfeeling statue, undoubtedly made love to the marble as though a boy, because, I'm sure, he didn't want to be confronted by the female parts.

Naturalist Approaches: Traditional critics/aestheticians explain (or rather explain away) the sexual content of artworks like Baldung's by pointing to iconographic and other details that simply aren't there, or by attributing to the artist unproven and out of character theological convictions and didactic intentions. Maybe the above facts about Dürer's circle in Nuremburg, sparse as they are, give us a more congenial sense of what inspired these and similar artworks. One thing is certain: except for the title, there is next to nothing in Baldung's c. 1523 Adam and Eve drawing, just as in Dürer's of c. 1496 and 1510, to make us associate these works with the Fall. We hardly need to reintroduce unenculturated Simplicissimus to realize that sexuality, portrayed in either romantic or lascivious fashion, is the main focus of these works.

The examples carry a more general lesson. With respect to perceptual and cognitive aspects, our approach, as pointed out, plays a mostly supplementary role, rather than stage a radical reorientation. The opposite is true for what this study calls affective and sexual aesthetics. Due to the traditional Western overidealization of aesthetics, our efforts along these lines largely amount to laying new foundations, or at least to reversing the general vector of the old. Traditionally, one usually starts from culturally-based aesthetic criteria, follows up on these with formal ones, and finally mentions sexual and affective characteristics in passing so as to either pay lip service to one's liberal attitudes or alternatively to declare such vulgar criteria wholly incompatible with the purely aesthetic. The following study proposes a general reversal of this trajectory. In other words, it will proceed from fundamental aspects like affective and sexual aesthetics, via perceptual or formal ones, towards their cognitive and cultural aesthetic counterparts.

2. Theoretical Preview

(References for chapter 2)

One has reason to pay attention when the author of the first full-length professional demonstration of the adaptive significance of art critiques typical approaches to evolutionary aesthetics. Ellen Dissanayake discusses nine such approaches: the arts give us a deeper knowledge of reality and ourselves; serve in mate selection; provide signals for intragroup cooperation; offer risk-free practice for later life; help us manipulate and control other people; or, conversely, enhance cooperation and social cohesion and continuity of human groups. So-called Darwinian or evolutionary aesthetics focuses on the adaptive benefits of inherited predilections for certain landscapes, optimal waist-hip ratios (in females), body odours (in males), and symmetrical facial features (in both). It deals with the survival and fecundity promoting adaptiveness of the arts mostly as a by-product of these more utilitarian concerns. Also, there is S. Pinker's hypothesis of nonfunction according to which the pleasure caused by art is like that of strawberry cheesecake or pornography. Art is a pleasure technology of pressing pleasure buttons evolved in other contexts. It is a by-product of other adaptations, like the hunger for status.

What's wrong with these hypotheses, according to Dissanayake? Some focus almost exclusively on masterpieces of Western fine art, others err in the other direction by employing the terms art, aesthetic value, and beauty too broadly. In concentrating on literature, most evolutionary approaches once again have too narrow a focus. They look largely at modern Western (written) examples to the exclusion of non-Western and oral literature. Similarly, Darwinian literary studies, in Dr. Dissanayake's view, almost exclusively investigate subject matter rather than form, tone, and other artful devices.

Also, there is universal terminological confusion. Some hypotheses are based at least in part on unexamined presuppositions about art that may or may not be shared by other investigators. Some have to do with art as an artifact (a work, an object); a quality or feature (such as beauty); a cue to something else (such as creativity or skill); or as an activity or behavior. Some studies presuppose more than one meaning, inadvertently sliding from one aspect of art to another. Summing up, Dissanayake concludes that art, as examined by contemporary Darwinian theorists, recalls the famous elephant described by several blind men. What one concludes about the trunk may not pertain to what another has to say about the tail, ear, or foot. Hence, the new field of evolutionary approaches to the arts awaits a unifying set of principles about its subject.

The following study attempts to sketch such a unifying set of principles. In doing so, it also proposes a corrective to the traditional aesthetics still predominant today. The latter—ultimately derived from Plato and turned into an independent discipline by Baumgarten, Kant and Hegel—had it comparatively easy. The various manifestations of beauty and art were subsumed under common denominator formulas like idealized representation of reality, just as their aesthetic enjoyment was claimed to be disinterested. These criteria, originally developed for art, were projected onto nature via the notion of a Divine Artificer creating the world like an artwork. Thus, aestheticians scanned natural phenomena for traces, signs, or glimmers of an ideal or divinely created world to be aesthetically relished in contemplative and disinterested fashion.

The Scope of the Aesthetic: An evolutionary aesthetics, as proposed here, ought to reverse this top-down trajectory from the ideal to the concrete and dispense with unverifiable philosophical concepts. There should be no pat formulas; no ideal forms or disinterested pleasures. As Hobbes taught us long ago, the notion of disinterestedness is an absurdity. For as to have no Desire, he wrote, is to be Dead. Similarly, there are no Platonic ideas, no Aristotelian entelechies, no Kantian Dinge an sich. What has taken the place of these religiometaphysical fantasies, namely the counterintuitive world of gravitation, electromagnetic radiation, subatomic particles, quantum events, and so on, is closed to our senses, and hence to aesthetic appreciation. Biologist François Jacob usefully distinguishes between two manifestations of the same dog—the creature investigated by molecular biologists and physicists on the one hand, and the household dog perceptually and cognitively constructed by our senses and brains on the other. Naturally, it's the latter and the latter only that might become the subject of an aesthetic response. This is because we could neither see, hear, smell nor feel the other.

What, then, is the realm of the aesthetic? It's obviously the world of experience rather than the molecular, atomic, and subatomic universe revealed by modern physics or metaphysics. Evolutionary psychologists sometimes call it virtual: they point out that humans, like all forms of motile life, evolved to experience reality according to our needs to survive and procreate, not to perceive the world as it really is. As the saying goes, evolution has given us the cognitive equipment we have, not to turn us into good scientists, but so as to enable us to prevail in the struggle for life.

An evolutionary aesthetics, then, ought to focus on the reality we construct with our senses and brains, not on the counterintuitive world revealed by physics or metaphysics. Also, it ought to be read out of the narrative of motile sensory life from its earliest unicellular beginnings to humans. It should be understood in the framework of the major evolutionary developments of natural and sexual selection, from chemosensory to brain-mediated experience, as well as of the emergence of animal and human culture in three stages, first hunter-gatherer, then agriculturally sedentary, and finally statehood.

The aesthetic, in what follows, therefore will denote the human as well as nonhuman response to what is beautiful or ugly in the broad sense given these terms by seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes: the beautiful is whatever by some apparent signes promiseth something Good or whatever, in modern parlance, enhances survival and reproductivity—just as the ugly is whatever, by contrary signs, promises something bad or aversive.

Hobbes's terminology lends itself ideally to our approach. For like today's cognitive scientists, he stresses the constructivist nature of perception. What we perceive of an object is not its physically verifiable composition, but its perceptually constructed Representation or Apparence. Thus, colours are such (aesthetically pleasing or unpleasant) apparent signes, apparent, in the philosopher's parlance obviously meaning seemingly so, not clearly visible. Contrary to previous assumptions, colours, to Hobbes, were not part of the respective objects' physical bodies. For if those Colours … were in the … Objects that cause them, they could not bee severed from them, as by glasses or prisms. The same is true of sounds. We realize this when we listen to an echo and notice that the thing we see, is in one place; the apparence, in another. In other words, an echo might reach us from a corner of a mountain valley far removed from the source of the original sound, such as an Alpine yodeler.

Affective and Sexual Aesthetics: Proceeding from the basic to the complex, we'll distinguish between 1) affective, 2) sexual, 3) perceptual, 4) cognitive and 5) cultural aesthetics. Some of these five categories, as we'll see, divide into further subcategories. Thus affective aesthetics, for instance, can relate to either nutrition, the environment, or a habitat. This first of the five main categories, can be traced to the very beginnings of life. Consider…an amoeba—moving nonrandomly across the bottom of a laboratory dish, writes D. C. Dennett: it will always head to the nutrient-rich end of the dish, or away from the toxic end. The organism is seeking the good, or shunning the bad. So why not credit these unicellular creatures with a rudimentary sense of appetitive aesthetics, or with the ability to respond to what Hobbes describes as the apparent signes displayed by something life-enhancing or beautiful, such as glucose to an E.coli bacterium?

Naturally, aesthetic experience increases in complexity with the refinement of the organism's perceptual system. Even a brainless amoeba with its exclusively chemosensory perception, however, registers the apparent signs of anything promising nourishment, and perceives these as beautiful. A more complex instance is found in the seagull chick which eagerly opens its bill when it perceives the beautiful red dot on its mother's beak. For what this apparent sign holds in store, is a promise of something good, namely the food regurgitated from the mother seagull's gullet. At least to the chick, the red dot is an apparent sign of something life-enhancing, which is beautiful.

As life diversified, affective aesthetics was supplemented by a sexual aesthetic. This happened with the emergence of two-parent (or dioecious) sexuality. Sex, in its most general sense, is a recombination of genes from more than one organism. It is probably as old as life, and still practiced horizontally by certain present-day bacteria. By contrast, dioecious sexuality emerged much later. Also, it's an altogether more dramatic affair. Guided by diverse signals, males and females find each other, engage in more or less cumbersome acts of copulation, and produce young ones who are the future beneficiaries of this vertical, rather than horizontal, spreading of their genes. Mission accomplished, the parents are headed for death. Recent theorists view this process in a distinctly sinister light. Poor dioecious creatures slave away in the service of their species and are rewarded with death for fulfilling what Lynn Margulis calls their unasked-for-mission. Richard Dawkins famously speaks of selfish genes sealed off from the tribulations of life inside gigantic lumbering robots (e.g., our human bodies), and marching through the generations in inexorable, juggernaut fashion.

Darwinians have paid less attention to the unprecedented functioning of sexual beauty as it lures the partners into performing this thankless procreative task. Affective beauty, on the whole, functions as a reliable signal of what it promises. What the chemoreceptors of unicellular amoeba interpret as beautiful is directly life-enhancing to the individual organism, i.e., nutritious, like algae, diatoms, or other protozoans. So, to humans, are decorously served up meals. By contrast, sexual beauty is deceptive. The excitement it promises is intense but short-lived. It brings no immediately life-enhancing benefits to those who fall for it. To some, its after-effects are depressing. Post coitum omne animal triste. Once we have succumbed to its lure and performed its behests, we have outlived our main function on behalf of the species. As Arthur Schopenhauer remarked, sexual beauty is a mere trick played on us by nature. For nature can attain her end of self-perpetuation only by implanting in the individual the illusion that what is merely a good thing for the species is a good thing for this individual. Sexual beauty, to Schopenhauer, is a delusion that conceals the service of the species under the mask of an egotistical end.

Perceptual Aesthetics: A third, more elusive layer of the aesthetic is perceptual. Whereas affective and sexual aesthetics are largely content-oriented, perceptual aesthetics is what's traditionally called formal. In a way, it operates alongside all the other kinds, and plays a major role in their functioning. Even amoebas, in gravitating towards edible diatoms, may be said to feel attracted to the latter's' chemosensory shapes. Similarly, we feel attracted to the bodily shapes, facial forms, odours, and behavioural patterns of the partner we desire sexually. By contrast, we can hardly claim that the sight of a sunset strikes us as beautiful because it appeals to what we want to eat, drink, inhabit, or make love to.

What, over and above certain ancestral aesthetic memories associated with the sunset, could explain this mysterious pleasure? Just minutes ago, the landscape seemed quite ordinary. Then, as the last rays of the sun, huge above the horizon, bathe everything in glowing red light, casting long, sharp shadows towards and past us, it suddenly strikes us as extremely beautiful. Are there certain special features such as an intriguing figurality, outstanding acuity, emphatic strikingness, curiosity-arousing complexity, and attention-grabbing mysteriousness that make the sunset appear so specially beautiful? Or rather, are there certain perceptual biases to make us project these beauty-charged features onto reality as we watch the sun set? Then imagine an artist in tune with these perceptual biases who, in her paintings, accentuates the resultant features, and produces a likeness of the sunset which art lovers find even more beautiful than the actual phenomenon. How art-related versus such nature-oriented aesthetic responses are prompted by either having been made special (art) or become so (nature) will be further discussed in chapter 15.

For the moment, let's look at some of these perceptual biases which help us experience, say, a sunset or other perceptually beautiful phenomena. Brightness contrast, for one, accentuates the edges between different objects, and thus allows us to see the objects more clearly. This effect is due to intensity differences between adjacent retinal areas which often create perceived boundaries where there are none physically. An artistic example is Arcturus II by Vasarely, in which the luminous diagonal rays intersecting four coloured squares are not in the painting itself, but an illusion created by brightness contrast.

Another perceptual bias makes us fill in sparsely delineated outlines, thereby helping us recognize objects. Analogous biases allow us to perceive objects as more or less constant in size, shape, colour, or layout. All such perceived constancies differ from what physical measurements tell us about the same objects. A beautiful landscape or artwork thus can at least in part be seen as an out-of-the-ordinary perceptual creation resulting from the interaction between said biases and certain extraordinary stimuli impinging upon them from outside physical reality.

To speak with Nietzsche, we find beautiful the virtual, merely apparent, perspectivist, underrepresented, and even falsified world that evolution has made us perceive in the service of survival and procreation. In fact, the more superficially and coarsely it is conceived, the more valuable, definite, beautiful, and significant the world appears. Examine what strikes you as beautiful through a microscope or telescope, and beauty begin[s] to cease. Only with a certain obtuseness of vision, a will to simplicity, does the beautiful, the 'valuable' appear. Homo aestheticus thus reminds us of the aforesaid seagull chick which, in begging for food, naturally pecks at the red dot on its mother's beak, but pecks the more fervently if that beak is replaced by a stick with three red stripes providing a so-called supernormal stimulus.

Before turning to our last two major categories, cognitive and cultural aesthetics, let's say a few words about their primary focus, namely the products of human artistic creativity. The main thing to stress here is that the aesthetically pleasant and the artistically creative are radically distinct from each other. The aesthetic is a passive motivational response mechanism causing organisms to evaluate the phenomena they encounter as either attractive (beautiful) or aversive (ugly), which they do in variously affective, sexual, perceptual, cognitive, and cultural modes. Artistic creativity, in contrast, is an active process carried out, not by nature itself, but by a few of nature's organisms, including humans.

To denote this wider scope of things created by some of nature's organisms, we use the term artefactual. This is partly because the artefactual, like the Latin ars, stresses general skills (like cooking, horse breaking, shoemaking, governing, decorating or beautifying), rather than just the creation of the so-called fine arts. The artefactual in this wider sense not only recaptures these earlier uses, but also encompasses nonhuman phenomena evolutionarily prior but kindred to human art.

For the sake of convenience, we'll sometimes use artefactuality and art as interchangeable terms, even though artefactuality might be said to contain art, rather than the reverse. A useful alternative to denote this whole complex is World Three (a term derived from Karl Popper), as distinct from World One, the physical world, and World Two, the realm of conscious experience. As examples of human and nonhuman artistic and/or artefactual World Three creations, compare a stone tool with a beaver dam, a Beethoven symphony with the song of a nightingale, or vervet monkey alarm calls with human vocalizations (like laughter or crying), or even with language. In spite of the obvious differences, all of them are part of the artefactual insofar as they were produced, not originally by nature, but secondarily, by the efforts of diverse of nature's organisms. Obviously, these matters will have to be discussed in greater detail later.

As mentioned, aesthetics, in its most basic, that is affective, form can be traced to the very beginnings of life. The protohuman and human arts, by contrast, emerged much later, probably after the appearance of two-parent (dioecious) sexuality and sexual selection. Here, the earliest art form was probably music (and dance) which continues to resonate with its nonhuman, evolutionarily analogous (e.g., birdsong) and homologous forms (e.g., the songs uttered by gibbons). Hence music, as if guided by a deeply-laid principle of inherited associations, as Charles Darwin observed, excite[s] in us, in a vague and indefinite manner, the strong emotions of a long-past age. Research into

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