Let’s say I need directions to a location across town, but for some reason Google Maps only offers two scales: 1000 miles per inch and 10 feet per inch. That’s the difference between national borders and half of a house.
In reality, most searches are for directions to area businesses like Walmart or Starbucks, which require scales roughly between 2 miles and 1000 feet per inch. Our hypothetical Google Maps isn’t wrong, but it isn’t helpful either.
For most human needs, neither is the study of aesthetics.
Philosophers draw and redraw national borders by squabbling about what qualifies as art, while neuroscientists peer at isolated building blocks, investigating how brains process stimuli like shape and color.
But when ordinary people reach for a concept to explain their experience of a movie, meal, or sunset, it isn’t there, so they default to words like “awesome” or “sucked” or “meh.” Even professional critics use language that is more poetic than exact.
Given the poor correspondence between the richness of aesthetic experience and the available maps of that experience, it’s no surprise that aesthetic judgments cause heated arguments.
Aesthetic experience isn’t inherently mysterious; it’s as real as your local Walmart. It’s just really hard to measure.
What would be required to map aesthetic experiences like we map streets? To resolve aesthetic arguments as easily as we resolve arguments about the location of Walmart? First, we’d need access to advanced neuroimaging technology. Then, assuming sufficiently high-resolution scans, we’d have to figure out which patterns of neural activity correlate to various experiences. Solving the technical problems of scanning the brain would be just the beginning. Disentangling cause and effect could take decades.
Which brings us to the project of this blog. While others are naming aesthetic continents and studying individual blades of aesthetic grass, we will try to identify landforms like mountains and rivers. Someday we might get to Walmarts.
Aesthetics obviously also has a social dimension. What we choose (Walmart or Starbucks?) is information about who we are. But, confoundingly, who we want to be also affects what we choose. Both affect what becomes popular or stays obscure. We will explore the dynamics therein.
Some questions we hope to tackle:
- What people like is notoriously variable, but not infinitely variable. Some experiences are almost universally desired, others reviled. What causes human preference to cluster in the space of possible experiences?
- Some experiences are primarily sources of sensation, while others attempt to describe reality. Is there a bright line between the two? What criteria limit effectiveness in either category?
- Good reductionism entails carving reality at its joints. Where are the joints of aesthetic techniques? Is it possible to compare techniques along objective criteria? To establish which is a degraded or more functional version of which?
- How do people use aesthetic experiences? Which uses are commonly considered high or low status? What makes a particular use more social than personal? What does it mean to have a “fetish”?
- How does taste work? Why are some people said to have better taste than others? Is there a universal hierarchy of taste?
- What is the value of connoisseurship? All else being equal, what advantage does a connoisseur have over a non-connoisseur besides “they get to enjoy more stuff”?
- Aesthetic judgments are extremely abstract representations of real (objective) internal events. Given unequal knowledge of the processes underlying those events, is it possible for A to furnish a more accurate description of B’s experience than B?
- Mass-production lets more people experience more things, but often at a lower quality. What does “quality” mean? Is it illusory? What factors affect its distribution?