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In June upon my return from Hong Kong, I wrote a post called “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language” that postulated the following: “the measurement of expression necessarily disturbs a statement’s meaning, and vice versa.” I only mean to codify a common problem in translation, namely, that it is more difficult to translate some things (poetry, evocative words) than others (scientific treatises). Although I should note that some translators are better than others, like Anne Carson, who delivered outstanding translations of Sappho’s poetry in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.

One reason that she triumphs is that she complements the translations with a comprehensive glossary. Here is an example:

koma is a noun used in Hippokratic texts of the lethargic state called “coma” yet not originally a medical term. This is the profound, weird, sexual sleep that enwraps Zeus after love with Hera; this is the punishing, unbreathing stupor imposed for a year on any god who breaks an oath; […] Otherworldliness is intensified in Sappho’s poem by the synaesthetic quality of her koma–dropping from leaves set in motion by a shiver of light over the tree: Sappho’s adjective aithussomenon (”radiant-shaking”) blends visual and tactile perceptions with a sound of rushing emptiness.

Adding this context to the translation allows us to compensate for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle by giving us much of the meaning we are missing. Many linguists believe that each language is capable of expressing anything another language is, and to the extent that any approximation is possible, this kind of glossary really aids full translation of both expression and meaning. Another reason she is a successful is that she creates new words in English using standard word formation rules that give us a better sense of the original meaning. For example, as you may notice from that excerpt, she translates the Greek word aithussomenon as ‘radiant-shaking.’ Like many translators, she could have opted for ‘radiant’ or ‘quivering’ or some other simple gloss.

The translation issue isn’t merely academic. Computer scientists, engineers, and linguists have been engaged in creating and improving natural language processing, which can be said to involve everything from parsing human language into constituents that a computer can process for speech recognition programs or text interface with Ask Jeeves, Bing, Wolfram Alpha, etc. If you type the following search query, “What should I do on a first date?” the computer must be able to wring your intended meaning out of it, first, and then determine the most relevant information to respond with, second. Obviously, this is a gross simplification. And still more distantly, natural language processing is critical to the development of artificial intelligence. The prospect of an artificial intelligence without the ability to communicate with us is frightening, as might be seen by Orson Scott Card’s discussion of varelse.

The “principle” might affect NLP thus: assuming morphemes (the smallest units of meaning in language) were discrete and stored as matrices, then science terms would have more characteristics whose meanings were always relevant than non-science terms, and context would change values in the matrix less (if at all) for science terms. For example, let us assume that we are storing words in a 1×23 matrix, and each column stores a binary value for a certain category of language for the following categories: (1) Utility-Miscellaneous, (2) Utility-Mating, (3) Utility-Energy, (4) Utility-Safety, (5) Adj-Bright, (6) Adj-Dark, (7) Adj-Good, (8) Adj-Bad, (9) Noun-Person, (10) Noun-Place, (11) Obj-This, (12) Obj-That, (13) Tense-Past, (14) Tense-Present, (15) Tense-Future, (16) Probability-Unknown-Question, (17) Probability-Possible-Doubt, (18) Probability-Certainty, (19) Singular, (20) Plural, (21) Verb-Eat, (22) Verb-Sex, (23) Verb-Sense. Just act like these are all the categories of words that would have been important to you as a pre-Pleistocene human. Translating the question, “How many are there?” might get you the following calculation (omitting tense and a few other umm… critical things):

PLURAL: [0000000000000000001000] +
PROB-UNK-QUESTION: [00000000000000010000000] = [00000000000000010001000]

It won’t elicit a response that gives you the exact number probably, but it might get a response like “many” which would just be the plural meaning along with the certainty meaning. Some cultures do not have numbers beyond, say, three. After that, they have words for certain magnitudes. So an acceptable response might look like this:

PLURAL: [0000000000000000001000] +
PROB-CERTAINTY: [00000000000000000100000] = [00000000000000000101000]

The human need for information would have transformed this caveman style language into modern language with its recursive grammars, but I am just showing you an example of a rudimentary NLP model based on lexical storage in matrices. Why are matrices important? Depending on what you want to accomplish, you can change the dimensions and values of the categories for matrix operations that could, in turn, symbolize grammatical sentences. Perhaps you could get meaningful dot or cross products, or even develop meaningful 3D imagery based on ‘lexical vectors.’ Just as an example of the flexibility, you could convert the system I listed above in the following way: (1) Utility (Miscellaneous, Mating, Energy, Safety), (2) Adjectives (Bright, Dark, Good, Bad), (3) Nouns (Person, Places), (4) Objectives (This, That), (5) Tense (Past, Present, Future), (6) Probability (Unk-Q, Possible, Certainty), (7) Number (Singular, Plural), (8) Verbs (Eat, Sex, Sense). Instead of having 1×23 matrices, you’d now have 1×8 matrices but more values inside the matrices. So the aforementioned question “how many are there?” would now end up being: [00000120] with the answer being: [00000320].

Assume now that you develop a vocabulary of 10,000 words using this matrix system. First, poetry form dictates meaning for poetry words, so there would have to be values dedicated to how the context changes the meaning of the words. This means you will not be able to deal with fixed matrix dimensions or values, as a matter of definition. Not so with scientific treatises, so no context is necessary and these words, once stored, may remain just so absent changes needed for syntactic purposes. Second, the traits of the scientific word, that is, the characteristics that make up a definition for a scientific word will be certain. There is no doubting that an intrinsic quality of a proton is its positive charge. Without it, and perhaps slightly heavier, you have a neutron. But the word ‘love,’ the subject of so much in art, requires flexibility. To the extent that it does in fact have any intrinsic meaning, it could have equal parts longing and affection, desire and intention to couple — none of them being necessarily tied together. That means you have to attach simultaneous meanings and probabilities. This implies significantly greater computation costs for an NLP system that is able to finally comprehend poetry. Finally, as our discussion of the principle suggests, it also means that the closer a translation comes to locking down the expression in a translation (as Carson does above: it takes a full paragraph to get at the full expression of koma), the more of its intended intrinsic meaning that can only be derived from the original word and context are lost. Does any essence remain?


You know what else I realized by the end of The Art Instinct? It isn’t terribly important whether you accept Dutton’s thesis or whether you think I’m on the right track with my own thoughts. Dutton proved that, not only is art a very much cross-cultural concept, but that tastes in art may also be cross-cultural. This last point isn’t really evidence for an art instinct, but it is evidence that biology matters for culture and that the counter-revolution Dutton fights on a daily basis, and with relish in The Art Instinct (never have “Dadaist experiments” been so scorned) and on Arts & Letters Daily, will ultimately prevail. Indeed, it seems to me that the animating purpose of the book is to cut down the cultural relativists who held away in the humanities and anthropologists beginning in the 1950s. I suspect that, although they already are in retreat, this book will make searching for refuge all the more difficult.

But a difference that does matter is how we define art. As exhaustively chronicled in my first few posts in this pathetically self-aggrandizing book review series, Dutton has a “cluster criteria” for categorizing art. These criteria exist both to set standards on how to judge particularly extraordinary art and to say what is not art at all. It’s an odd thing to me. I recognize the value in fighting the extremist postmodernists, but this does not seem to me to be the best way. We could cede that everything is art, yet categorize based on its relative utility for us, as I argued in Art Instinct Thoughts, Part II, or on any other categories. But the postmodernist experiment would not have been possible without the change in the costs of production and information transmission and we must now address what these changes reveal both for our concept of art as well as for aesthetics in general.

Reducing the cost of information transmission, which is the fundamental purpose of language, fiction-making, or art (even if it is to be an end in itself), means that all kinds of new art can arise. Where there were once epic poems, novels and other broad texts arose. “Non-fiction” took a piece of their pie, and now new media, such as blogs, come on the scene. Where there were once radio shows, television shows abound. Although each new form may cut into the old form a bit, the pie of information transmission itself is growing ever larger, meaning we humans are ever better educated.

It might be worth explaining the importance of these fictions in the context of information transmission a bit more. In the case of novels, it has been argued that they are dying an ignominious death. It is true, they are increasingly less popular, but there will always be a niche market for them as Mario Vargas Llosa argued:

In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.

How many emotions do we experience, through simulation, for the first time by reading a novel? The more important question: how many are best expressed given current technology by a novel? I can tell you that I can find no other medium would allow me such a full nostalgia for Hong Kong as a novel. Only a novel would adequately give me the heightened sense of drama, the sense of triumphal capitalism, tying together many seemingly unrelated cultural, personal, and financial strands. No new media, such as a blog, could replace Noble House.

The same human race that cross-culturally loves art is the same human race that must always act and never stands still. Through its infinite wants, and its inability to tangibly achieve these wants, sometimes simulacrums will do. And yet, the prevalence of various types of fiction has changed in the past several hundred years and is changing more still. But in order to explain some of the shift, in terms of information transmission costs, from novel to non-fiction, I wrote in “The Death of Angels” the following:

Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? [Edited: Precious little, though there is that niche.] Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop.

And yet, as the pie of total information transmitted expands, more and more different needs become supplied. The terrain for the most important story types is saturated with artists trying to supply the demand: romance, adventure (sci-fi/western/Dan Brown), or even using the Booker list from The Art Instinct: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth stories. These markets are saturated. Economics suggests that artists should find new markets. In order to do that, artists must assess where there are demands not being met. You would expect lots of different types of stories to come about, and I’d argue that boring existentialist stories were one of the first key indicators of this. But God bless the French, they love em! Now we have all kinds of anti-heroes, anti-stories, and off-kilter narratives like the Watchmen that you don’t know what to make of. This is all perfectly understandable.

But now you also factor in the decreasing costs of production. Although many continue to argue that real wages have stayed merely constant since the 1980s, we could accept this (though I do not) but proceed to explain, yes, but most goods are much cheaper now so the actual purchasing power, and therefore the standard of living of everyone, has risen enormously. Consider this post from Carpe Diem. Now let us remember that certain terrains (landscape and portrait painting, for example) will be in a condition of extreme competition already. Given the assumptions (1) decreasing cost of info transmission and (2) decreasing cost of production, what are the consequences? We would expect the following, in roughly this order:

  1. With lower barriers to entry, more artists enter the market.
  2. When one type of art market is saturated, new markets arise. Some new markets will exist because decreasing production costs makes new art forms feasible.
  3. Competition heats up in traditional art markets, fostering innovation with old forms.
  4. New art forms become accepted as they cater to niche demands that cannot be fulfilled by old art forms.

One graphical way to look at this is to consider a very traditional microeconomics style supply and demand graph. First, we will look at a very much simplified hypothetical market for art in 1800, then the same for 2009, and discuss the differences. The change that occurs between the two is the decreasing production costs (which includes, in reality, the decreased info transmission costs).

Hypothetical (and totally fictional) prices are on the vertical axis, while equally fictional quantity is on the horizontal axis. In 1800, about 1000 art objects are created and sold for $5 a piece. This hypothetical market is a composite of the wide bazaar type markets, where goods are much cheaper and plentiful, and the insanely expensive market populated by rich patrons and their supremely talented artists. As technology improves, production costs decrease, and the supply curve shifts rightward. Assuming that the same demand for art exists (art is a cross-cultural universal, the demand for which may lie dormant within) two hundred years later, more art is now produced and for a cheaper cost to the buyer. Notice that this extra 100 objects sold in 2009 would, according to my argument, include both innovative art in the old forms as well as art in the new forms. Whether counterrevolutionaries like Professor Dutton appreciate it or not, much of the Dadaist experiments and postmodern drama making have been in these new forms.

These innovations should be appreciated as works of art, but seen for what they are: less popular and less useful to humans. Due to Dutton’s contribution in The Art Instinct, we finally understand why they are also less meaningful on many levels.

Dutton describes the central idea of his book (p. 100):

Given their evident universality, the pleasures of the arts should be as easy to explain as the pleasures of sex and food; that they are not is a central problem for anyone wanting to broaden the relevance of evolution to the whole of human experience.

Having successfully established in the first few chapters that art is indeed a cross-cultural universal, which seems like a necessary condition should he wish to prove that art is a human instinct, he now needs to prove that it is an adaptation. As Dutton explains (p. 90):

The gold standard for evolutionary explanation is the biological concept of an adaptation: an inherited psychological, affective, or behavioral characteristic that reliably develops in an organism, increasing its chances of survival and reproduction.

He goes on to say that everything else is either a mutation or a by-product of an adaptation, the latter essentially meaning “an unintended consequence of the adaptation.” The name of the game in this book must be proving this case for our changing, yet constant, strong relationship with art.

Dutton begins this herculean task with a major chapter in the book titled “The Uses of Fiction,” a subject to which I have devoted myself previously in this blog and from which I shall quote in the next post (see, in order: “The Angels Within” and “The Death of Angels“). Dutton begins by saying that criterion 12, imaginative experience, is the most important again. He does this because he’s going to link persuasive arguments for fiction-making being an evolved adaptation (p. 105), and fiction-making uncontroversially deals in the imaginative. Dutton argues that fiction-making is an adaptation, finding the aforementioned gold standard based on the following possible adaptive advantages (p. 110):

  1. Stories provide low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience.
  2. Stories– whether overtly fictional, mythological, or representing real events– can be richly instructive sources of factual information.
  3. Stories encourage us to explore the points of view, beliefs, motivations, and values of other minds, inculcating potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities.

Dutton details the compelling evidence for fiction-making being an adaptation: (1) the rather elaborate, yet consistent, rule-governed way children pretend-pour pretend-tea out of an empty teapot into several cups, (2) pleasure in purely imagined fictions, and, most interesting of all, (3) the pedagogical uses of Iliad and Odyssey. As for this last bit of evidence, which is persuasively suggestive as opposed to conclusive (p. 115-6):

Classicist Eric Havelock argued that providing cultural grounding and even technical knowledge was a major purpose of [the stories]. […] We tend to imagine the Homeric rhapsodes as entertainers for their age, but Havelock argues that they were essentially preservers of a ‘magisterial tradition’: teachers, in fact, providing lessons in how a priest ought to be addressed, how classes of people– women and men, kings and warriors– ought to behave with respect to one another…. […] The narrative of the first book of the Iliad even gives specific instruction on docking a ship at harbor: furl the sail, lower the mast, row to the beach, anchor the stern in deep water, disembark by the bow, and unload the cargo, and so forth. The bard, says Havelock, ‘is at once a storyteller and also a tribal encyclopedist.’

So maybe all is not lost in an investment to study dead languages? A little joke for my Classicist buddies. Very little. In any case, at this point, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I could not believe that there is an art instinct. This book, in my view, is not important because Professor Dutton is correct in everything he argues. Rather, it’s because, while he is right about most of his assertions, he sets up analytical frameworks and categories that do explain a lot and give laypeople like me something to think about. I actually think that the distinction between adaptation and by-product is dead-on and should be applied to this problem. I just don’t think he has succeeded in making the case that this ‘art instinct’ is an original selected-for adaptation. It seems that although Dutton has his points, a far stronger argument could be made that it is a by-product.

A by-product of what, you ask?

The language instinct. Or, more specifically, an “information transmission” instinct, which was probably a precursor to the language instinct. Although very little beyond the intuitive is even necessary to argue the case, scholars have shown how the evolution of our neural architecture and pharyngeal system, separately, derive from very important adaptive advantages for humans. Stephen Pinker has done the most to popularize the subject in required reading for all linguistics students. It isn’t that a fiction-making or art instinct arose separately, and so, I write to confirm Pinker’s hesitation to go too deeply in ascribing “adaptation” status to by-products, though they are indeed profound, meaning-giving adaptations.

Language, and its pidgin-esque predecessors, and the grunts, whistles, and singing before that, concerns information transmission. But the information, whatever the state of language in humans or their evolutionary forebears, has never encoded nearly as much information as can be gained from our extraordinary senses. (On account of this reality, many have accused humans of never being more than solipsists.) In some sense, then, whatever we say or write lacks a sense of authenticity because it necessarily leaves so much information out. You, in the “theater of the mind” as Dutton writes, must fill in the gaps through all sorts of methods: fictions of complementarity, as Kermode writes, implication, connotation, paradox, etc. And so it is in a similar sense that the late Nobel Prize-winning author Czeslaw Milosz writes:

Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.

Milosz’s point is that in an important sense, biographies are also fiction. I’m generalizing the point to say that every narrative is a fiction because it lacks the encoding power and gaps in meaning and description must always be filled with fictions. ( Our senses are not fictions; they are the frame of reference for other narratives, fictions. ) Every piece of information allows for a world of inference to be created, a world in which, as writer/director Nicholas Meyer points out, the intentional voice of the actor is not necessarily controlling in interpretation. This suggests that we create fictions with every sentence we utter or gesture — possibly since the first organism in our evolutionary line, presumably pre-Pleistocene, communicated purposefully. Animal communication amongst beings with no ability of mental representation (yet another very interesting point that Dutton lays out for us to consider), which would not include some primates and certainly not Tursiops dolphins, would hardly count on these grounds. If this is true, and I think it must be, then the fiction-making instinct certainly comes from our language instinct and is therefore its by-product. One appealing aspect of this “alternative hypothesis” to The Art Instinct is that it proceeds from first principles and gets built from the ground-up, as opposed to the naturalist approach which seems to work from the top-to-bottom.

I think the naturalist approach works extremely well, on the other hand, for looking at other questions that might be better answered by Dutton’s surveys of the arts and virtuosity. I will address this in my next post.

As I read the ending of The Art Instinct I realized that some of my comments in previous posts may have been premature. For me, the real meat of the book is in the final few chapters, starting with “The Uses of Fiction.” This is really thought-provoking and it needs to be put into the proper context. When I’m ready, you’ll get some posts — but no more embarrassing myself. 🙂

So something a bit lighter: I was reading an interview with everyone’s favorite fashion guru, Tim Gunn, today. He talked about his initial trepidation in moving Project Runway from New York to Los Angeles for season 6, which premieres tomorrow:

I was concerned about what Los Angeles would really do for us fashion-wise. And I have to tell you, I was there for less than 48 hours … and it just struck me. I had this epiphany that I beat myself up over because I should have had it earlier and what the epiphany was — good God almighty, before World War II, Hollywood was the only place in America where there was any original thinking when it came to fashion because in New York, all [designers] were doing was copying.

It was all happening in Hollywood and I was reminded that Gilbert Adrian, who was the head costume designer at MGM for 30 years, there was such a fervor for his work that had ended up with a ready-to-wear line. So that was the centerpiece and the core of all the creative thinking.

This brings up a lot of interesting points. First, until WWII, even a place like New York couldn’t break into the prestige arts. I doubt that Gunn is right that everyone in New York merely copied. The parallel to judgments about Shanghai are striking. Conventional wisdom days that mainland Chinese just copy everything. While I have indeed personally witnessed this in an academic context, even from students from the best Chinese universities, like Tsinghua, there’s some vitality to the arts in Shanghai that is spreading throughout the country. Attending the International Graduate Student conference in Hawai’i in February, I also attended a fascinating presentation by Gary Liu about an early 1989 contemporary art show in Beijing — the first of its kind in the People’s Republic. Some of the works were performance art, where an artist waited for a crowd to gather around her mirrors, then she took a pistol out and shot the mirrors, causing instant confusion and disarray. In the end, cops showed up and the show, widely seen as a nuisance at the time, has entered the stuff of legend. Are the Chinese inspired from outside? Sure. But just copying? No more than we do, most times, probably.

Second, Gunn brings up the talented artists working in the movie and television industries. Apparently, these people are better than we have ever really given them credit for. How often do we stop to think of the possible applications for these talents, after all? Or stick around for the Creative Emmys? Not me, I will tell you that. And yet, about a year ago I read Master of Disguise, the story of Antonio Mendez, one of the CIA’s most legendary officers. He writes in a few places in his book about how he would work with these talented behind the scenes artists in Hollywood to craft perfect covers for Iran or southeast Asia. These artists, regular people who probably otherwise knew little about serving the country in the military, turned Mendez and his team into a bunch of movie moguls trying to shoot a movie in Iran. With that cover, he smuggled several American hostages out of Iran.

So this is all to say that I cannot wait for Project Runway season 6. It won’t be hard to be better than season 5. But I think it’d be difficult to approach the talent of seasons 3 and 4.

According to Aristotle,

…the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.

Just as we have quoted this for many years, so have scholars studied it. One of the foremost modern scholars to look at the statement is Leo Strauss, just as wrongly associated by liberals with neoconservatives as he is rightly associated with interesting political thought. According to Wikipedia, Strauss thought Aristotle’s statement a watershed moment in the known history of philosophy: it suggested that philosophers could not simply contemplate a state of nature independent of that existing for man. In other words, if nature, a state of being without pretension or artifice, exists, then man’s fundamental and essential states arise from nature. Aristotle believed that these states were “political.” Aristotle was right, and I think it is consistent with much of Dutton’s The Art Instinct, but I think if we really want to understand the power of the observation, we would do well to reframe his statement.

My interpretation of Aristotle places him as simultaneously the first Manhattanite/Parisian/Londoner as well as a very deep thinker who opened doors for those who would enter economics later. For him, politics is rooted in the conception of the city-state, which has a constitution (a theme? an idea? a soul?) rooted in some good, because people are always acting in favor of some good. This idea is a powerful assumption that underlies useful economics today: that humans are rational because they are always acting in favor of the best good that they can foresee. ( This is usually challenged by statists who seek arguments for government intervention while skipping the best of Coase. ) Of course, Aristotle was not perfect (he thought slavery was a good idea, for example), but he knew enough to challenge many of Plato’s odder conceptions of politics, specifically the idea that a unified polity might be more important than the happiness of the polity’s citizens.

To the contrary, a desire for happiness is what makes women and men such political animals. In a sense, this makes us much less homo sapiens and much more homo economicus, for at every decision, we choose that which brings the most happiness. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes it’s not — and sometimes we regret our decisions, but that does not mean that at the time the decision wasn’t the one that we thought, given our cognitive restraints, would lead us to the most happiness. Aristotle and Adam Smith both vaguely believed in people pursuing their self-interest this way leading to a more harmonious society. Tossing out a bunch of well-known thinkers of the past and associating it with an idea hardly make it so, but I bring it up to make a point.

Sometimes our judgments and decisions are so quick that you wouldn’t think they could be conscious. We look at a painting and instantly know if we like it. Some questions to ponder:

1. Can an aesthetic judgment be said to be reflexive?

2. Are there art works from which we derive such reflexive aesthetic judgments? If so, are there art works from which we primarily, if not only derive such reflexive aesthetic judgments?

3. How do the answers to the first two questions affect Dutton’s criteria for being categorized as an art work?

In answer to the first question, I think that the answer must be yes. There may be reasons, inexplicable but instant for the viewer, that a painting seems beautiful to someone. An aesthetic judgment need not be cast on mere art works, either, for it could pertain to people. When someone sees a highly attractive potential mate, although there may indeed be thoughts going on in the head, and the judgments filter through various considerations (including, apparently, symmetry), these are reflexive in the sense that they require no will power, no volition, no conscious consideration to actually possess them. Dutton seems to make this argument on p. 54 when he argues that “virtually all kmeaningful human activity above the level of autonomic reflexes is carried out within stylistic framework…. Style and culture are virtually coterminous.” And then also argues that the art instinct (and much of our judgments from it) occur cross-culturally.

In answer to the second question, it seems to me that without a solid EEG for frame of reference, we would have a very difficult time separating works in which we form primarily reflexive judgments from those which require deliberation. A Rothko painting, for example, doesn’t really grate on the deliberative parts of the brain. Its primary impact will be swift.

In answer to the third question, the answer seems to be a resounding “yes” especially by Dutton’s naturalist approach. Conditions 2, 6, 10, and 12 suffer the most. Approaching them in order, skill and virtuosity very often can be determined by those with knowledge of a tradition, style, institution, or culture. But if we maintain the existence of an art instinct with various cross-cultural aesthetic universals, then naturalism must reckon with John Stossel’s demonstration of the violence between standards in so-called Modern art and the frivolities of young children. I would not argue that works with more skill will not rise to the top of a market and be appreciated accordingly. I would however argue that skill and virtuosity is not a necessary condition. Condition 6, representation, seems important to art indeed — but again, it does not seem necessary. What is Rothko representing, depicting, telling us about? What practiced skill do we see here? I know I’m an amateur’s amateur when it comes to art, but I primarily see fantastic decorations for a room, not unlike wonderful wallpaper, except wallpaper is dismissed as art in The Art Instinct. Intellectual challenge and imaginative experience, the latter which seems to be included mostly to account for narrative, also suffer from the admission of reflexive judgments. No imagination, no extra thought may be necessary beyond the most rudimentary of perceptions.

Dutton rightly says in his book that we are basically using the best lenses currently available to us to try and explain all of this human nature and human decision-making. He mentions that one day there may be a neural test that does a far better job of doing this, but we’re not there yet. Having attended the neuroscience lecture sessions at AEA meetings, I am in whole-hearted agreement. So are some of the best economists of the 20th century, such as Ludwig von Mises, who stated in Human Action:

Since time immemorial men have been eager to know the prime mover, the cause of all being and of all change, the ultimate substance from which everything stems and which is the cause of itself. Science is more modest. It is aware of the limits of the human mind and of the human search for knowledge.
It aims at tracing back every phenomenon to its cause. But it realizes that these endeavors must necessarily strike against insurmountable walls. There are phenomena which cannot be analyzed and traced back to other phenomena. They are the ultimate given. The progress of scientific research may succeed in
demonstrating that something previously considered as an ultimate given can be reduced to components. But there will always be some irreducible and unanalyzable phenomena, some ultimate given.

All of this means that we can only explain so much. Arguing for an art instinct still leaves us grasping for much of, as Dutton said Pinker writes, “the engineering of the natural world.” Just so, we have precious little understanding how the structure of the brain informs many of our decision and aesthetic weights, let alone our reflexive aesthetic judgments. Perhaps time will tell us more.

From “sammy”:

I am at a texas beach and i see off shore oil rigs. its so beautiful

Aug 15, 2009 10:31:21 AM

As some readers may have noticed, I am moving slowly in my book review(s) through The Art Instinct, almost chapter by chapter, since that is how I took my notes. In this post, I wish to address the concept of art as a universal across cultures, which is Professor Dutton’s main concern in chapter 4. The author easily exposes the inconsistencies of many anthropologists who argue that other cultures do not possess the Western concept of art, and yet, I am troubled by what I perceive as an inconsistency in his argument. If art is limited to objects or practices that show the 12 conditions as enumerated in Part I of this blog series, then I am not sure he has demonstrated art’s universality. And yet, it is universal. Therefore, in U.S. Supreme Court parlance, one might say that I do not join in the opinion but I concur in the judgment.

I thoroughly enjoy the evidence Dutton gives us of scholars past who have apparently dominated anthropological discourse in this subject in the past 50 years, who, as Joanna Overing did, claimed that “the ‘aesthetic is a bourgeois and elitist concept in the most literal historical sense, hatched and nurtured in the rationalist Enlightenment.” Dutton very politely remonstrates that, in fact, concerns of the aesthetic far predate the Enlightenment, going at the very least back to the Greeks. As for the modern sense of the word “aesthetic,” I always appreciated George Santayana‘s discussion on it in The Sense of Beauty (emphases mine):

If we combine, however, the etymological meaning of criticism with that of aesthetics, we shall unite two essential qualities of the theory of beauty. Criticism implies judgment, and aesthetics perception. To get the common ground, that of perceptions which are critical, or judgments which are perceptions, we must widen our notion of deliberate criticism so as to include those judgments of value which are instinctive and immediate, that is, to include pleasures and pains; and at the same time we must narrow our notion of aesthetics so as to exclude all perceptions which are not appreciations, which do not find a value in their objects. We thus reach the sphere of critical or appreciative perception, which is, roughly speaking, what we mean to deal with. And retaining the word “aesthetics,” which is now current, we may therefore say that aesthetics is concerned with the perception of values.

Incidentally, The Sense of Beauty (whose author and contents are not mentioned in The Art Instinct, whether because Dutton finds nothing of value or because Santayana himself renounced the work I do not know) is available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. Another odd note, I found that the quote “Only the dead have seen the end of war” comes from Santayana! I was really excited to learn this, considering that it is one of my heroes, General Douglas MacArthur, who has led many as the guilty culprit in attributing it to Plato.

But back to The Art Instinct. I think Santayana’s quote is important for refining Dutton’s category of art, as will become clear later in this post. For now, let us survey other people’s conception of beauty and art. Apparently, Overing claims that “[the Piaroa people of the Amazon’s] notion of beauty cannot be removed from productive use… objects and people are beautiful for what they can do….” (p. 67) Dutton declares that this is hardly an affront to Western aesthetic sensibility because although the Piaroa have a different sense of beauty, it is still a sense of beauty, and therefore within the domain of Western aesthetics, considering the rough Santayana definition of the subject. ( I use Santayana partly since I do not remember encountering a definition of aesthetics in The Art Instinct. ) Yet later in the chapter (p. 82-84) seems to agree with Arthur Danto, the long-time art critic at The Nation who Dutton considers highly, that “art is opposed either to utilitarian artifacts or tourist kitsch: all parties can agree so far that art objects are those apparently formally significant objects that express or embody ideas.” Dutton positively summarizes Danto thusly:

Danto insists on a conceptual distinction between art and utilitarian artifact…. Artifacts are not problematic for Danto: they are simply nicely made useful objects. Art works are altogether something else, ‘a compound of thought and matter,’ as he puts it. A utilitarian artifact ‘is shaped by its function, but the shape of an artwork is given by its content…. To be a work of art, I have argued, is to embody a thought, to have a content, to express a meaning, and so the works of art that outwardly resemble Primitive artifacts embody thoughts, have contents, express meanings, though the objects [i.e. artifacts] they resemble do not.”

[ For readers without the book, Dutton makes arguments only slightly different in form but exactly the same in substance in this lengthy but interesting excerpt from Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. ] I confess that I am not actually sure if the author agrees with this passage, but as shown by the quote before the passage, it seems that he does. If this is so, it is roughly consistent with his attempt to demarcate the borders of art. However, it would not be entirely consistent with his chiding of Overing, who still fails the common sense litmus test because of course the other cultures’ senses of the aesthetic may fit within the Western one. Nonetheless, her claim that “[Piaroan] beauty cannot be removed from productive use” goes unchallenged by the author, so let us assume that it is true. If so, then Piaroans may not have art works in the Danto sense, only artifacts. According to the author, this would be impossible, unless he relents on the strength of his conditions and allows for artifacts.

This seems eminently reasonable for me for many reasons. First, let us assume that what I believe Dutton argues in this chapter is true: that every culture produces art that is not artifact. Let us look at another thought experiment. Further, let us assume that while every culture has a sense of beauty, and that there is a spectrum of cultures that spans those which produce art work that is strictly useful for its directly pleasurable visual qualities in addition to many other types of art all the way to cultures that produce art that is never only useful just due to the visual, aural, tactile, or olfactory pleasures/beauty people may derive, but is always useful in some other way. We have no problem with the former ideal, that fits perfectly into Dutton’s conditions. But somewhere along the way, the purpose (intention?) behind the art becomes less about achieving those pleasurable ends and more about other useful ends, yet you can have both at the same time.

So here is the question: does a set of objects exist beyond the latter ideal end for which there is no possible way to satisfy the Dutton conditions? If so, then Dutton is fine. If not, then he’s inconsistent. No human action is taken without some kind of need, and since (admittedly knowing very little about anthropology) it seems that (1) no art work is undertaken in most societies without some other purposes besides merely the aesthetic pleasure of it all, and (2) it would seem impossible to draw an arbitrary line at the point where the extra-aesthetic needs satisfied becomes trivial, then the Danto / Dutton artifact / art distinction falls. The subset / set argument would prevail. ( This is another way of arguing that sport events are fine: if old art works have purposes like repulsing enemies, pleasing gods, honoring ancestors, I’m still unsure why *winning* as one of many concerns precludes a Super Bowl from becoming an artistic event. )

A final argument on this point relates to the naturalism so fondly used in The Art Instinct: artifacts are regularly considered art by those without stakes in the battle over theory. Consider Ceramic Art museums proudly displaying artifacts, or the Harn Art Museum’s current “African interiors” exhibition that features doors and window frames amongst other “more clearly” artistic objects. Although it is interesting to note that on the Harn page, they elsewhere draw a distinction between artifact and art work, it seems clear that the usual sense of the word “art” in the Western sense includes artifacts as a subset. This means that while all artifacts would be considered art, not all art would be considered artifact (duh).

In summary, I agree with Professor Dutton that aesthetics is a cross-cultural category. But if it is, then art must be a broader category of human endeavor than what he currently allows. If art is an instinct, then almost all of us must exhibit it in some way or another. There may be those who find solace in the beauty of their driving technique, whether on the golf course or on the road, who find nothing so much inspiring in music, theater, cinema, or other visual arts. On the other hand, let me emphasize that while writing these posts I have come to realize the relative uselessness of just waving a wand and saying all of human activity is art. Still, I favor it for the reasons outlined and now believe perhaps we should just consider all these activities subsets of art, and art theory / aesthetics, in turn, subsets of economics. In the next post, I will put an “interlude” post discussing reflexive and instant aesthetic judgments and their role in The Art Instinct.

I should have known better than to post Part I before I was coherent, if only because Professor Dutton owns the internet and knows everything that is said on it (as evidenced by Arts & Letters Daily, which he runs and I have read since 2002). Still, I am honored he would even deign to respond to my thoughts. In lieu of a one-post book review, let me say here that I find the book eminently persuasive and right on almost all counts. I wish it had been much longer! However, I do have some additional thoughts. Coming to the book from an economics and linguistics background, I was fascinated by the discussion on landscape paintings and preferences early in the book.

What, after all, could make Kenyans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans all have the same overall preferences for landscapes in paintings, and specific landscapes at that? Without taking too much from the book, it seems that these landscapes, in particular those of the savanna (some trees, a slightly hilly terrain, some water, maybe a few mountains in the distance and some bushes… woo-lah!) tend to cater to prehistoric tastes. Humans would prefer to see themselves in these environments, as opposed to either flatlands or deserts, because there are vantage points from which they would feel more secure in addition to abundant life-affirming resources such as food and water. I personally connect with this argument, though perhaps there is something to be said for the hilly versus the flat in terms of Dutton’s 10th art condition — intellectual challenge. Hills and the spaces they create offer more questions than flatlands do.

In order for it to be a universal, assuming insignificant changes in the species DNA over the past few thousand years, a few more conditions need to be established, however. One cannot consistently on one hand argue that the cultural biases aren’t very important and then argue that a cross-cultural finding is very important. Of course, it is true that we do need to know if it is cross-cultural, but we also need cross-incomes, cross-class, and cross-temporal references. In the latter case, did people in 1000 BC prefer the savanna landscape to anything else? How about 300 BC China, 545 AD Byzantium, 1300 Avignon, and 1860 London? Even if there are differences in these measures, you could still argue that there are only deviations against the baseline preference of landscapes. Personally, I strongly suspect Dutton’s thesis would be vindicated by such research, though much of it is impossible at this point.

Yet an explanation would still be necessary to explain the continuum of art production, ranging from the most preferred (landscapes) to the least. Evolution through natural and sexual selection is a solid starting point, and might have significant explanatory power, but there’s another way of framing the question. This is through the economics sciences: the hallowed concept of utility. Underrated economist Murray Rothbard describes it thusly:

All action involves the employment of scarce means to attain the most valued ends. Man has the choice of using the scarce means for various alternative ends, and the ends that he chooses are the ones he values most highly. The less urgent wants are those that remain unsatisfied. Actors can be interpreted as ranking their ends along a scale of values, or scale of preferences. […] Whenever an actor has attained a certain end, [then] he has increased his state of satis­faction, or his [utility].

Makes sense, right? But then there’s an even more important concept: marginal utility. Rothbard’s discussion of it is the best that I have read in any economics treatise, and I strongly encourage readers to check it out. However, for this, I turn to Parkin’s Microeconomics textbook:

Marginal utility is the change in total utility that results from a one-unit increase in the quantity of a good consumed. When the number of six-packs Lisa buys increases from 4 to 5 a month, her total utility from soda increases from 181 units to 206 units. Thus for Lisa, the marginal utility of consuming a fifth six-pack each month is 25 units.

It is important to note that it is impossible to precisely measure utility, so “units” is used for convenience. The only way that we are able to compare utility in truth is by choices and the way people rank their preferences. Unfortunately, I am not done building the economic foundations for my points on The Art Instinct. There are a few more. Rothbard writes that “for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases.” Meaning that if you have 11 gallons of water in storage, the 12th gallon of water will increase your total utility, but not by as much as the 11th gallon of water increased it. The 13th gallon will increase it less still, and so on. In other words, “The greater the supply of a good, the lower the marginal utility; the smaller the supply, the higher the marginal utility.” This is the law of diminishing marginal utility. In application, it is easy to see. When forced to reduce costs at a business, you will terminate the least important parts first, the most expendable personnel from your perspective, and so on, until you are left with the absolutely indispensable portions — perhaps a few managers, some particularly skilled laborers, and fixed costs such as utilities and rent. ( This is part of why the minimum wage raises unemployment amongst the least-skilled. )

What do these concepts have to do with The Art Instinct? Assuming Professor Dutton’s thesis to be true, it seems to me that the concepts could be very useful indeed. It suggests that in economics terms, savanna landscape paintings give people with no paintings the greatest marginal utility. Then comes deciduous and coniferous forest paintings. Then whatever is next according to the survey. After beautiful landscapes, let us assume that we have Impressionist paintings of gardens and sailboats. Then we have a set of infinite categories of art, and at infinity + 1, we have diamond encrusted skulls by Damien Hirst, and at infinity + 2, we have Duchamps readymades. This suggests that while the existence of Duchamps readymades gives us an increase in our total utility, it is smaller than the increase in total utility we get from a Hirst skull. But this does not mean that a Duchamps readymade must be less valuable than a Cage performance or even a landscape painting. This becomes a supply and demand question. Again, we turn to Rothbard to explain this “paradox of value” which so long vexed economists:

The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when “bread” is obviously more useful than “platinum”? The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether “bread-­in-general” is more or less valuable to him than “platinum-in-gen­eral,” but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a “loaf of bread” is more or less valuable to him than “an ounce of platinum.” That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising.

In the context of our discussion, if landscape paintings are so important, than how can a Hirst skull or a Duchamps urinal be worth more than a landscape painting? It’s quite simple: the supply of landscape paintings is far, far, far greater than the supply of Hirst skulls and Duchamps urinals. Do we see this in reality? Yes, we do. While a Hirst or Duchamps might be sold occasionally at Sotheby’s in New York or Christie’s in London, landscape paintings (and prints, an acceptable substitute for many) are a dime a dozen at Walmart, local art fairs, or Thomas Kinkade stores. This suggests that if the supply were cut off by government, in the short-run a few landscape paintings would be worth vastly more than anything Hirst has ever made, and in the long-run, landscape paintings would become objects of great passion on the black market. Landscape paintings are so prevalent in free markets that they cross all classes, going from the bottom to the Florida Highwaymen to Park West auctions on cruises to the big boys, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. [Updated 8/12: To be sure, there are markets for knock-offs of Hirst and Duchamp, but it is relatively minor. Why is that? Because if truth be told, the utility people and institutions get from the work is less from the contemplative, imaginative, and virtuoso qualities of the works (that is, almost anything that suggests increased fitness value or selection from an evolutionary perspective). The utility in some cases comes from prestige identification, which in turn maintains position, or from challenging the status quo for its own sake. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the marginal utility for an individual with no art or the total utility for society at large from landscape paintings is far greater. ]

If we tie Dutton’s thesis with these remarks, it seems that we ought to be able to learn more about selection in the human race. As technology increases, so do our capabilities and choices — it is possible that landscape paintings will one day be supplanted by something virtually perfectly pleasing to us. But given the current state of affairs, if we could extrapolate market data for the various dispersions and popularity of an almost infinite range of art works, we would better be able to hypothesize the traits selected for as shown in art. Or, more importantly, the relative importance of Dutton’s (or anyone else’s) conditions: intellectual vs. special focus vs. imaginative experience.

I’m afraid that my thoughts on Denis Dutton’s new book, The Art Instinct, are still heavily disjointed. Before I address the book in a more steady fashion, there is one point that I feel capable of writing about coherently now. May sports be a subset of the set of things categorized as art? My opinion is no secret: I think every human endeavor is art. Professor Dutton disagrees.

He argues in chapter 3, “What Is Art?”, that when answering the question, we should work backwards, not trying to find a universal (or minimal, and therefore useless) answer to the question, as some believe I have, but rather by identifying works of unarguable distinction as art first. Then we should identify features of these works or qualities of the experience of these works that ought to be generalized. In the book, Professor Dutton identifies (1) direct pleasure, (2) skill and virtuosity, (3) style, (4) novelty and creativity, (5) criticism, (6) representation, (7) special focus, (8) expressive individuality, (9) emotional saturation, (10) intellectual challenge, (11) art traditions and institutions, (12) and imaginative experience as these criteria. None alone, I believe he argues, is a necessary and/or sufficient condition for the work to be considered art. He omits two conditions that he basically says go without saying (13) being an artifact and (14) being normally made or performed for an audience.

To address the question of what is art is beyond the scope of this post, but let me say that I think the Professor overreaches on 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14. In the case of sports, the Professor argues that while 1, 2, 5, 7, and 9 may apply to sports, one of the most important ones, 12, is missing. ( It seems maybe this is a necessary condition? ) According to the Professor:

For the ordinary sports fan who cheers the home team, who actually wins the game, not in imagination, but in reality, remains the overwhelming issue. Winning and losing is the principal source of emotion, which is not expressed, as it is in artistic works, but rather incited in crowds by a real-world sporting outcome. Were sports fans authentic aesthetes, so my speculation goes, they would care little or nothing for scores and results but only enjoy games in terms of style and economy of play, skill and virtuosity, and expressiveness of movement. […] [ A game is not a make believe event ] offered up for imaginative contemplation but is rather a real-world event….

Arguing on behalf of sports as art, I will make several arguments that I do not think are mutually exclusive. First, at times, the Professor argues that we should engage in naturalistic definitions of art that seek the fundamental values of the category “art” instead of seeking a universal definition that somehow encompasses everything from landscape paintings to Duchamps’ “readymades.” If he accepts this premise, I would gladly take my chances that most would recognize in sports a highly aesthetic quality as Plato did. I believe from something I read many years ago, but have since lost sourcing on, that Plato argued (amateur) athletic performance was among the purest of arts because of the sacrifice involved by the athlete who worked so hard to train and perform for the benefit of audience. Barring this argument, second, seeing the art in diving, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics is easy to concede based on Dutton’s principles alone and they do not contravene his warning that concern for victory is a dealbreaker.

Third, consider golf. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the relative beauty of this swing compared to this one is simply blind. ( The element of virtuosity doesn’t even come into play! ) Then there’s the golf course, the distinctive ways in which players approach a putt, a chip, or a drive. There’s a million ways a woman or man can play golf for a particular hole, round, or tournament. After a swing, there’s a million things that could happen — we watch because of much more than just a concern for winning. We watch to see what will happen next, which is certainly an imaginative endeavor before the event occurs, but is implied in every moment of a sporting endeavor, especially golf, especially this past weekend when Paddy Harrington rushed some shots so poorly while Tiger Woods kept his form.

Fourth, consider that in American football, there are almost two dozen players simultaneously performing on the field. Each of these performs according to her or his practiced and focused talents, sometimes quite independently of the rest of the team. Although Dutton is right that winning is usually of paramount concern, we all watch with bated breath to see if Tom Brady can break a single game yardage record. If that’s not art, then what about how perfect the spiral throw is? How well the right shoulder fade is executed into the end zone? Are viewers not often prone to commentary on these measures? We all know who throws the ball the most beautifully whether in short or long-yardage situations. Personally, my favorite football artist of all time is Steve Spurrier, who came up with and executed more trick plays than any coach I know, not to mention the most glorious offensive scheme of all time. Check out this, this, and… if I stayed doing this I’d be here all night. It will suffice to say that I whole-heartedly believe that pass-heavy offensive schemes raise the football art to new heights, while old fashioned 1960s style running, and even spread option offenses, make me sick.

Fifth, consider the transcendent moments shown in movies which are mere derivatives of it. We root for the characters and want them to win just the same as we do in sports, though it may be said that it is not usually the primary concern, which was one of Dutton’s entirely arbitrary condition to distinguish sport from the rest of the arts. Here’s a clip from The Legend of Bagger Vance where Bagger explains, as best he can, the concept of artistic inadvertency that I wrote of only a few weeks ago.

Or how about this, from the “new classic” Rudy?

That was based on a real story and almost all of that final scene substantially occurred in real life. Far from being concerned about winning, tens of thousands of people wanted to see a never-used player finally get a shot. No, art is not about drawing arbitrary lines based on what suits us to be called art. Art is about possibilities. And that is why, if it must be so, sports satisfy the 12th condition. We’re always imagining possibilities with what could happen — the way other shots would have been taken in golf, other approaches occur in football, and there’s absolutely no shortage of metaphor coming from sports that applies to real life, which also has artistic connotations.

In truth, though, all this demonstrates the fallacy of the 12th condition. It shouldn’t be there. I suspect it is only articulated for the purpose of keeping sports from the arts. In this, perhaps Dutton resembles some of his aesthetician forebears, Immanuel Kant and Clive Bell. Dutton writes,

Philosophers of art naturally end to begin theorizing from their own aesthetic predilections, their own sharpest aesthetic responses, however strange or limited these may be. Kant had a keen interest in poetry, but his dismissal of the function of color in painting is so eccentric that it event suggests a visual impairment. Bell, who candidly acknowledged his inability to appreciate music, centered his attention on painting, extending his views fallaciously to other arts, such as literature.

It seems to be the same case but with Dutton and sports. Much to the author’s credit however, he writes that some conditions may be added or subtracted from the list, and that in any case, he is aware of the sports point as a jumping off point for further debate. Hence this post.

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