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Xenolinguistics, as broadly understood, though mostly as a matter of farce, is the study of non-human languages. In May 2009, the blockbuster Star Trek premiered around the world. In one of its funnier exchanges, James T. Kirk and Uhura bring xenolinguistics to our awareness:
KIRK: So you’re a cadet. You’re studying. What’s your focus?
UHURA: Xenolinguistics. You have no idea what that means.
KIRK: Study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax. It means you’ve got a talented tongue.
Yes, typically, xenolinguistics is the study of “alien” languages, but one must permit the possibility of other languages on planet Earth, whether from ocean-dwelling mammals as seen in Star Trek IV or Elvish from Lord of the Rings, so I choose to define it as the study of “non-human” languages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Klingon arguably does not qualify, as its creator, Marc Okrand, developed the language with human language universals, though with admittedly rare syntactic and phonetic combinations. (Of course, one must cede that languages could have developed independently on other planets, as they apparently did in Star Trek, with exactly the same linguistic universals, tendencies, and restraints as ours.) The combinations are rare because they impede cognitive processing and pronunciation, respectively.
First, regarding cognitive processing, Klingon uses an “object first” sentence structure, whereby the sentence “I hit Charlie” becomes partially inverted in Klingon as “Charlie I hit” though they mean the same thing. Very few languages in English have this type of sentence structure, and the few that do are locked away in the Amazon or similarly remote, or possibly even undiscovered, environments. The reason why object first, as opposed to subject first languages, are so rare is because, in summary, we tend to think linearly. Starting with an effect, not a cause, increases uncertainty and ambiguity in the brain as it processes the sentences. Therefore, it seems likely that object first sentences have either evaporated with time due to others having a distinct competitive advantage, or that they never arose significantly in the first place due to its relative handicap. We would predict that such languages could only exist, all things being equal (this is a key phrase), in an environment of relative isolation, without trade and significant cultural exchange.
Second, regarding pronunciation, Klingon possesses a particularly odd phonetic inventory, yet its sounds, while not generally consistent with what occurs in human languages, are can all be found in the inventory of human sounds. In other words, there are no sounds in Klingon that a human cannot make. The reason why its sounds, alone and in combination, are relatively rare in English is because they cost of a lot of energy to make. The presence of harsh fricatives and gutturals is accentuated by lax (meek, in Klingon terms) vowels.
This discussion on Klingon is all to say that we really have no idea what an alien language would be like, as we are bound by certain customs and universals as human speakers. Suzette Haden Elgin recognized this problem when she wrote the science fiction novel, Native Tongue. In the novel, humans interact with aliens, but since presumably the plasticity of an adult brain is so low, only babies have the ability to learn alien languages because adult brains get overloaded by them. Therefore, Elgin’s solution to the problem is that humans force babies to interact with aliens thereby learning alien language and serving as a bridge. Yet there are many very important reasons to believe that even babies would have difficulty learning alien languages. Our specifically neural structures, as made more clear every day by neuroscientists, linguists, and psychologists, strongly impact our relationship with language. An easy way to think about this is the difference between how chimps and humans deal with language. Yes, chimps are capable of rudimentary language, expressing words with consistent referents, but they are not capable of the complex grammars we are.
The same might be true of aliens. Whether humans or aliens have the comparatively finite grammar is beside the point: the cost of information transmission seems like it will be relatively high. Whether the information transmission occurs through telepathy, or the spoken or written word, obviating the impact of impossible phonetics for the human tongue, grammars and meaning would be the most difficult barriers to understanding. But this is not to say they would be insurmountable. Logic is a fine tool to use, so long as specificity is a quality aliens value.
This is why meaning could be a problem. The physicist-cum-Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author David Brin turned the tables in his incredible Startide Rising saga. In this universe, humans, derogatorily called “wolflings” by most aliens, speak with far more ambiguity than others. It is the humans that do not value specificity, littering the language with metaphors and words that have all kinds of double or triple meanings. Someone familiar with any Chinese language would scoff at merely three possible meanings for an isolated word, as it could have many more than that. Most alien languages, such as Galactic Six or Galactic Five, do not allow for ambiguous meanings, as each word corresponds to something very specific and could not mean anything else. Some languages on Earth accomplish this feat with elaborate case systems in which certain morphemes are attached to a word, whether grammatically or morphologically, denoting its relationship to a subject, object, or other grammatical role.
The practical import of xenolinguistics is not yet that we need to communicate with alien races, of course, though this would be nice if we could find a way to do so. We would better be able to negotiate on our own behalf in the event of calamity, or just to establish beneficial trading relations. More immediately, but in light of the contributions of science fiction thinkers, consideration of xenolinguistics might help us assess the differences in meaning that need to be ironed out by natural language processors, for this is the difficulty with speech recognition programs and all manner of artificial intelligence. How will we store the information in such a way that it will convey all denotations and connotations, which may change given the context, and how will we store the context information in the word? In the book, I have a section on how natural language processors do it today and how it might improve. Unfortunately, we still have precious little real xenolinguistics to build upon for these tasks and therefore the absolute practical import is sadly very low for aspiring xenolinguists. My advice? Learn computer science.
Some may remember my review of Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Like everyone else, I adored her book and really took to her method of translation. Recently, I decided to investigate a little bit more about this talented artist and scholar. I found that If Not, Winter is hardly anomalous as a representative work.
In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” published in a 2008 edition of A Public Space, she confronts the boundary between linguistics and literary theory, hoping to develop a kind of a theory of silence. She doesn’t need more space than what she uses in the essay to do so.
The motivation for the essay has its roots in the art of translation. According to Carson, there are two kinds of silence to be reckoned with by the translator. Physical silence occurs where something the author intended to be there is missing, as with many of Sappho’s poems, largely lost to posterity. Carson deals with this by using brackets where the author’s intended expressions are missing, but she says translators may be as justified in some cases to extrapolate expressions. The other kind of silence is “metaphysical” silence, wherein “a word… does not intend to be translatable. A word… stops itself.” Carson gives an example from the Odyssey:
In the fifth book of the Odyssey when Odysseus is about to confront a witch named Kirke whose practice is to turn men into pigs, he is given by the god Hermes a pharmaceutical plant to use against her magic:
So speaking Hermes gave him the drug
by pulling it out of the ground and he showed the nature of it:
at the root it was black but like milk was the flower.
MOLY is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up
for mortal men. But gods can do such things.
MOLY is one of several occurences in Homer’s poems of what he calls “the language of gods.” There are a handful of people or things in epics that have this sort of double name. Linguists like to see in these words traces of some older layer of Indo-European preserved in Homer’s Greek. However that may be, when he invokes the language of gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or Google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.
These silences occur with words that are a subset of unknown size of the words that must be borrowed from other languages as opposed to translated. Translators must make several difficult decisions in their work from artistic and linguistic standpoints, but it is the latter that is the most important here because there is a “spectrum of translation” they must always employ. On one end are single words that translate with virtually 1:1 correspondence to words in the other language. ‘Book’ is ‘libro’ in Spanish without much confusion. Then there’re words like ‘nose’ in English that translate with but the slightest difference into 鼻 (hana). In Words in Context, Takao Suzuki shows that the area American English speakers consider the nose covers a different portion of the face than the Japanese word, although both of course include the most important functional parts. Likewise, as discussed on this blog, Paul Kay (Berkeley) has shown that speakers of almost all languages consider the best example or shade of the word red as the same, despite differing ranges of shades that could be considered red. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, a single word translation will do. Next we have compound and composite word translations. The word ‘television’ seems like it translates quite cleanly to 電視 (dian4 shi4) for Mandarin (or Taiwanese if we’re being cute). But there are a few issues here: 電視 is actually a composite word, much like the original, made from two morphemes that indicate ‘electricity’ and ‘being looked at’ respectively.
At this point, we can see that for much translation, there are words that some languages possess which will be difficult to translate with the same economy. From here until the middle of the spectrum, words are translated with progressively more and more morphemes in the destination language. But when a translator is faced with the problem of translating one word into a paragraph, that might defeat so much about the original: pacing, essence, and so on. And then, of course, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language, which suggests that the more words we use to describe the word to be translated in order to most closely approximate the original meaning, the more its essential meaning, in addition to other connotations, is missed. Locking down the expression so rigidly pushes out meaning. Therefore, there comes a point on the spectrum where translators must seek different methods of translation besides seeking the complete and rigid expression for it.
Carson is a master of this, as I have pointed out before. In her book of Sappho poetry, If Not, Winter, she uses words such as ‘songdelighting’ and ‘radiant-shaking.’ Instead of writing out the complete expressions, she chooses innovation. She creates novel words using standard word formation rules in the destination language that may contain more of the original meaning than an attempt at complete expression might.
The second to last point on the spectrum of translation is when a word is just borrowed without further elaboration. Carson highlights the borrowing (outright theft, I’d think) of ‘cliché’ from French. She writes:
It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.
The latter is a good reason for borrowing a word from another language. Another reason is that a speech community possesses significant demand for a word that it does not yet have. For example, French speakers started using the word ’email’ because no word in French concisely described such a concept and its word formation rules would likely not have led to such an economical word either. (The Academie Francaise has tried to stifle the use of this word in favor of ‘courriel’ and I do not know the extent of its success.) A better example is the English borrowing of ‘schadenfreude’ from German which means “taking delight in others’ misfortune.” Although I have only really heard Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of the Wall Street Journal, use the word, I have read it on several occasions from other writers. Just beyond these words are similar words for whom some meaning can never be discovered or reclaimed without being a native speaker of the language. Multilinguals know of many such words. Some brag about them. Some keep their knowledge locked away. Some of these words also depend crucially on shared temporal experience, as ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ mean so much more to many Czechs than most American English speakers can understand — though they can try if they read Havel, Seifert, Kundera, and maybe some Poles as well. This is a story worth telling in another post someday.
Finally, we arrive at the end of the spectrum, yet there is no guard rail or barrier, and we stand at a precipice beyond which we cannot see anything precisely: only the bright and ineffable, like MOLY. These words land in our language with a form bearing no relationship that we can trace back to any meaning. Morphological analysis stops because it can never start. Syntax? Phonology? Save yourself because the tracks have all been covered. Carson shows several examples of the bright, ineffable silences: they are all places that we cannot go. These silences may be uttered by our inner angels, the angels above, or from even more inexplicable origins. Our choice to explore them creates possibilities that we never before considered.
This will be my final entry in my series of posts devoted exclusively to The Art Instinct and the thoughts they provoke, though I may post a condensed summary review later. Here I wish to discuss what I said I would discuss two posts ago: virtuosos. The author of the book, Professor Denis Dutton, is obviously a lover of the arts. Partly, it’s because he has the ability to appreciate truly great works of art and if you read the book, you too will gain a fuller appreciation of the finest of fine arts.
He starts out his last chapter, devoted to “greatness in the arts,” with four assertions. I have nothing to say about them except for the second assertion: “the arts are not just crafts.” His ground for this assertion? Apparently: “the craftsman knows in advance what the end product will look like.” Yet, when the prototype of a product is developed, the craftsperson knows just as much about its exact finished form as Vermeer knew about The Girl With the Pearl Earring or Annie Leibowitz knows about Queen Elizabeth II when taking the picture. Indeed, the craftsperson actually knows a lot less about the finished product. It’s not even a true assertion. True, Leonardo had a great deal more imaginative in his works than those examples, but craft cannot logically be distinguished on these grounds from art. Indeed, I am reminded of a fun passage in Cryptonomicon, the exciting 1000 page parallel timeline thriller by Neal Stephenson. A dentist has a particularly challenging job ahead of him and he is unsure about whether he can pull it off. Through hours of labor, witnessed by no one except for perhaps a few attendants, the dentist summons every ounce of creativity and skill to the job: and succeeds. As the author writes, the dentist is proud, but not too comforting to his patient because he’s left with the knowledge that his virtuoso achievement will forever be trapped away in the operation room, never to see the light of day. Although Dutton warns us against making too much of these achievements, and I probably do so, there must be some middle ground here.
The question is actually far from academic here, too, for it has been litigated ad nauseum in U.S. courts. The reason why is because the U.S. maintains a massive catalog of tariffs for each category of goods. So every good that could possibly be traded fits into some category, the system of which is now called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule. Although very scary to a free trader like myself, it has well served special interests in this country since its inception. In 1892’s United States v. Perry case, a church tried to get stained glass windows into the U.S. under the duty-free category of paintings. Instead, the court found them subject to a 45% duty (think about how much that is for a second) by lumping them in with objects that had both merely ornamental and useful purposes. Because some carved marble seats had some useful value in 1916’s United States v. Olivotti & Co., they too were subject to higher duties. The ornamental purpose of a work of art finally triumphed for classification purposes in Brancusi v. United States for a sculpture that was highly abstract.
A lawyer is entitled to his digressions. In any event, there is no stipulation that craftspersons may not also demonstrate uncommon skill or virtuosity. And it is of virtuosity which Dutton seeks to speak. He ambitiously tries to “sketch the central characteristics that inhere in the very greatest works of art, the masterpieces that have withstood Hume’s Test of time….” The first characteristic is “complexity.” “Complexity does not mean sheer complicatedness but rather the densely significant interrelations of, say, poetry, plotting, and dramatic rhythm in a play like Shakespeare’s King Lear.” I can buy this. The second characteristic is “serious content. The themes of great works are love, death, and human fate.” Okay. The third characteristic is “purpose.” Dutton favors the opinions of Charles Murray (apparently a libertarian like me and I think Dutton) and Leo Tolstoy:
Murray [believes] that “great accomplishment in the arts depends upon a culture’s enjoying a well-articulated, widely held conception of the good” and that “art created in the absence of a well-articulated conception of the good is likely to be arid and ephemeral.” This falls in line with Tolstoy’s view that artistic value is achieved only when an art work expresses the authentic values of its maker, especially when those values are shared by the artist’s culture or community.
But he tempers this with a focus on the individual, again worth quoting at length:
Nevertheless, absolute seriousness of purpose comes ultimately from an individual, not just a culture, and most great artists, musicians, and writers demonstrate a rare and often obsessional commitment to solving artistic problems in themselves. With Shakespeare, Beethoven, Hokusai, and Wagner we have artists for whom the art itself is the transcendental good and not a reflection fo anything else.
It seems fair to say that the great works have been animated by purpose. Fourth, Dutton highlights “distance” and explains thusly: “the worlds [great works of art] create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us.” The author wastes no time in revealing this statement for the broadside against the Dadaists he has fought elsewhere in the book and an entire fusillade follows against the kitsch they have engendered. The short discussion on kitsch is excellent, the best summary I have read. Still, the normally reserved Professor unleashes vituperative that can only come from a man who dearly loves the classics:
Kitsch shows you nothing genuinely new, changes nothing in your bright shining soul; to the contrary, it congratulates you for being exactly the refined person you already are. …readymade knockoffs such as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde smell suspiciously of kitsch, as does the turgid prose of critics who take them seriously. But then kitsch, money, flattery, and careerism are inevitably linked in the art world. Kitsch as pretentious, self-serving tripe can show up anywhere….
I love it. I think that the sad reality is merely as I have stated in previous posts: the market in traditional art forms, due to Dutton’s numerous arguments from “seriousness of purpose” to “cross-cultural aesthetics,” will always remain larger than the kitschy stuff. But kitsch has a place. It can help illuminate the very levels of intentionality Dutton discussed in the “uses of fiction” chapter: how many levels are we willing to tolerate or consider? Is that related to how much computation we are willing to do on price tags (in other words, why they usually end in .99 or .95)? It also is subversive in ways that can help us consider our relationship to art. I suppose the middle ground here which makes sense is: kitsch is interesting and important, but will never rank amongst the works that lift us to sublime heights.
This is a bit of an aside regarding The Art Instinct. There’s an interesting note in the book regarding the relationship between the form of art works and our senses. Dutton argues that “not every human sense organ provides a sensory basis for a developed art form… and… why some sensory experiences developed into high arts may remain forever unknown to us.” The prime example of the former is smell. Although our “sense of smell is acute and highly discriminating” and “there is for human beings more potential cognitive information in a single smell than you’d normally expect from a single color or a single sound,” smell has never given us any “grand art tradition.” Dutton argues primarily that it is because repeatability, balance, and pattern. Further, that this precludes smell from giving us any kind of imaginative stimulation.
I really think the argument here is a mixed bag. Much of what Dutton says is doubtless true, but I think it has more to do with cost of production than demand. ( You guessed it: I think a microeconomics explanation works best. ) We are not exactly sure what the demand for aesthetic smells are, beyond the very wide and expanding market for colognes and perfumes. But I am reminded of a presentation I coordinated in 9th grade when I sought to engage all the senses of the viewers by also bombarding them with smell. The main problem? Cost. Purchasing enough of the substances I wanted to create the smell was way beyond our budget. The same would go for aesthetic smell “performances” in the Pleistocene as it would today. Back then, the opportunity cost of devoting time, energy, and possibly very scarce resources to such performances would be massive — possibly including developing skill with some rudimentary musical instrument or epic poem / story-telling memorization. Further, it is not hard to imagine an artist in the future taking advantage of substantially decreased costs of production to develop strictly smell aesthetic performances or indeed to complement masterful orchestral compositions with them.
Dutton has another problem for smell’s capacity to be used aesthetically: “[Smell’s] failure to evoke or express emotions beyond those of personal association and nostalgia.” And yet, just accepting the assertion as true for a moment, the domain of experiences of personal association and nostalgia are limitless in the human mind, so it proves very little. I’m really not sure that the imaginative sense is best limited to transporting one into some sense of the other. Much art resonates with people precisely on the grounds of association and nostalgia, or memory. Now, I’m not saying I’d pay $7 for a smell performance when I could go see Star Trek again at the theater… I shudder to think. I merely say that nothing is proved here and indeed, as costs go down, there may be an entire aesthetic universe awaiting exploration.
Dutton believes that “every known medium that can be manipulated, utilized, or adapted to the basic requirements of an art form has already been turned toward making art.” I sense a little bit of fine arts myopia here. This cannot be true, for it could logically be shown that technology improvements and decreasing costs have fostered new mediums for art forms and that they may do so again. Economists cannot predict the exact form of the future, but at the very least, they can explain obvious cause and effect, such as when the minimum wage goes up, employers must discriminate against workers with the least valuable skills and therefore workers with the least valuable skills suffer from the minimum wage. Just so, if costs to the production of smell sense-data goes down, the chances of being able to get repetition, balance, and pattern in smell performances goes up.
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:
- With lower barriers to entry, more artists enter the market.
- 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.
- Competition heats up in traditional art markets, fostering innovation with old forms.
- 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):
- Stories provide low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience.
- Stories– whether overtly fictional, mythological, or representing real events– can be richly instructive sources of factual information.
- 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.
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.
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.