A New Approach To The Arts
March 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
I just finished reading “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker, which spends about 400 pages debunking that theory and argues in favor of a evolutionary explanation of human nature. It was an easy read and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a mild interest in the human mind. My next few posts will be inspired by ideas laid out in that book.
Modernism and Postmodernism
Like most lower middle class Americans (and most Americans for that matter) I have a rather jaded and suspicious opinion of what critics have called “art” since about the 1970’s. As it turns out, the 1970’s represented the further degradation of what was already a downward spiral in the arts. Modernism, which arose sometime in the late 19th century, was a new philosophy accepted by most of the most influential artists and critics during this time period. It was based on a rejection of human nature and thus any objective (or scientific) explanation of beauty. Pinker describes the changes Modernism brought to Western art:
In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes…In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and casual sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose…In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window and buildings were “machines for living” made of industrial materials in boxy shapes. Modernist architecture culminated both in the glass-and-steel towers of multinational corporations and in the dreary high-rises of American housing projects, postwar British council flats, and Soviet apartment blocks.
The modernist movement was in part a reaction to the “naive bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order” but more importantly a rejection of universal concepts of beauty and thus the idea of innate human nature. The postmodernist movement, which picked up steam in the 1970’s, took these ideas and ran with them. This led to some absurd works of art. For great examples of this in academia, see here.
The scientific explanation for objective and universal human concepts of beauty (and thus art) is simple. All organisms derive pleasure from things that increased the fitness of their evolutionary ancestors. It isn’t an accident that humans love the taste of certain foods, the experience of sex, or the presence of their children. These are all traits which increase the likelihood of their genes being passed on to the next generation. Organisms which have these traits, all other things being equal, will have a better chance at procreation than those who don’t. Which…duh. If you don’t find sex pleasureful you’re less likely to have sex than someone that does.
The same is true for visual stimulation. Theories of evolutionary aesthetics claim that the basic aesthetic preferences of humans evolved for the same reasons as the pleasure of sex and taste. Studies have shown that humans across the globe universally prefer paintings of open expanses of natural habitat. Open prairies and panoramic views are universally preferred, likely due to the fact that such settings represented a low predatory threat to our primitive ancestors. Likewise, peaceful rivers and streams are visually attractive because they represented a source of fresh drinking water.etc etc
The theory that human beings find certain types of images universally attractive not only contradicts the concept of a “blank slate”, but it flies in the face of everything that modernist and postmodernist art is meant to represent. It reveals the common man’s distaste of contemporary art to be more of a natural impulse rather than a philistinic misunderstanding. As Pinker points out, an avid interest in the arts is one of the best examples of conspicuous consumption, and art is as much about status and power as it is creativity and self expression. So it isn’t necessarily anti-intellectual to point out that much of what western culture has considered “art” since the early 20th century is mostly nonsense perpetuated by a misunderstanding of human nature (in fact a rejection of human nature).
Pinker mentions a number of artists, both literary and visual, who are rejecting the postmodernist movement and the ideologies that give it life. Movements like Derriere Guard and natural classicism. Of course, the old guard of postmodernists have dubbed some of these groups as “crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitters” which provides a clear example of just how hostile academia is to criticism (also how loosely certain buzzwords are thrown around).
And for what it’s worth, I’ve been noticing an increasing number of my favorite electronic/indie rock bands incorporating natural and traditional aspects into their music videos. Bands like Phantogram and Alt-J come to my mind. Take a look at these videos to see what I mean:
Then again, maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my own inability to appreciate real art.