Movie review: The Red Turtle and some reflections on aesthetic appreciation

The Red Turtle is a 2016 animated fantasy feature from Studio Ghibli by Dutch animator, writer and director Michael Dudok de Witt. It is a beautiful movie and I hope that, if you haven’t already seen it, you see it soon. The film is particularly noticeable because it has no dialogue, just lovely animation with expressive animals, including humans, and scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. I write about it today as a follow-up to my recent Aesthemos post and to consider some issues it raised in my mind, e.g., the difference between aesthetic emotions and those emotions depicted or evoked, aesthetic judgment, and the difference between linguistic meaning and artistic import. Travel on then.

The plot is simple and spare. The movie opens with a man struggling in a stormy sea with no context for how he came to such a dire strait. He somehow manages to land on the beach of an isolated tropical island and frantically discovers that he is all alone and that no other land is in sight. He tries to leave the island several times via a raft and each time something rises up underneath and smashes the raft. He discovers this to be a large red turtle. When it crawls ashore he wreaks his anger on it, killing it, though then the shell cracks open and a beautiful maiden emerges. They join together in a paradisiacal life and have a child, who grows up to befriend other turtles in the sea, help his parents in many things as they age, even saving his father when he is washed away along with much of the island’s forest in a tsunami. Eventually the son swims away with his turtle friends and the couple grow old together until the man dies, and then the woman returns to her turtle form and the sea from which she came.

Other events are important, like the father and later the son falling into a cave, the only possible escape from which is to swim through a narrow underwater outlet to the ocean. Many of the events are witnessed by sand crabs scuttling around the beach with humorous expressions. All told, then, the simple tale stands alone as a symbol with other symbols contributing to its artistic import. I use Langer’s term for the deep structure of artistic communication and not the word borrowed from language, “meaning.” I think there is an important difference between, when after watching this beautiful and somewhat enigmatic movie, you ask what it ‘means’ or what is its artistic ‘import’. Both can be explicated further, but the former presumes a concrete clarity already socially sanctioned and so governed by some semantic standard, while the latter presumes that any linguistic rendering of the emotions, aesthetic, evoked, or depicted, and of the symbols’ compositions and implications, is only an approximation to the vital experience symbolically realized and conveyed. That is the essential difference between Langer’s discursive and presentational symbolic forms.

Aesthetic judgment relies upon, or it should, the feelings and symbolic form expressed. In these modern times, meaning the last 15,000 years, I think the pervading power of our civilizing impulses sometimes clouds these facets. Consider Aristotle’s dictum that art, e.g., drama, depends upon the temporary suspension of disbelief. I have friends who would not bother with this movie because it is a cartoon, which, I presume, places it beyond their suspension of disbelief. I have other friends who focus on the details drawing their critical attention, e.g., it is cartoon and so for kids, it is a realistic live action movie but cartoonish (as if that was a bad thing), the actor did not fit their preconception, or something happens that does not fit together, etc. In the Red Turtle I can tell you the tropical island had a single seal (unreal) and one time the moon set over the ocean facing the wrong way (and the rest of the times its depiction was astronomically accurate), but while noticed, the artistic enchantment held together.

In talking with my more persnickety friends I have come to rely on the phrase ‘critical appreciation’. Some people are so bent on being critical they forget the appreciation and others appreciate without much thought. Most, I believe, combine some level of both, and as naturally happens, when they like something and view or hear it repeatedly, their criticism diminishes and their appreciation dominates until with perhaps too many repetitions, the feelings subside to be recalled again when old and grey.

The Red Turtle (RT), to me, is high art. Using Aesthemos’ taxonomy of aesthetic emotions, RT strongly presents some prototypical aesthetic emotions, e.g., beauty (of several things, events, relationships and nature), fascination with the characters and events, especially the continually composing import of the film as a whole, feeling moved by their isolation and mutual support, awe in the face of nature’s power and beauty, etc. Pleasing emotions are evident with the flippant humor of the sand crabs, the joy of life and their child, and the energy/vitality of their survival. Epistemic emotions also arise with surprises of the red turtle’s changing role in the story, interest in what will happen next and finally, and the challenge to grasp the insight into life offered by this film with no words. Other emotions are depicted, e.g., fear, anger, and evoked, e.g., sadness, isolation, etc.

Aesthetic judgment is a complex process joining aesthetic apprehension and experience of aesthetic emotions, critical appreciation, the comprehension of plot, characters, and emotions depicted and evoked, and above all, the successful reception of the presentational symbol conveying the felt vital experience. Regular readers here know I am fond of Joyce’s taxonomy, drawn from Aquinas, of aesthetical appreciation of beauty: the integrity of the whole, the coherence of its elements, and the illumination the art from provides. Joyce goes further to say high art comes to a static resting place, i.e., nothing else is desired and the consumer rests in the light provided; that is the Joycean epiphany. Lower art is dynamic, i.e., the consumer is left aroused and wanting, as in didactic or pornographic (loosely defined to include car chases, explosions, and scary scenes as well as sex) art. That art, both its expression and reception, is an intellectual endeavor of great scope and depth is, I hope, evident here today. Amidst all the activities of daily life and society’s functioning (maybe over estimating that given our current politics), art as a prominent and essential feature of our humanity is often lost (and some even abandon it) amongst the dynamic welter of what we still call civilization. Remember, though, William Carlos Williams’ lines from his great poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

 

Once again I come to one of the main motivations for this blog: understanding our humanity, especially our art, as a biological phenomenon. I am preparing a series of posts in celebration of publishing this blog now for 4 years; never thought about going this long but I learn too much to let it go fallow for long. Travel on.

Aesthemos? I like it.

I really do like Aesthemos, a newly constructed self-report measure for aesthetic feelings about a work of art. The authors, mostly European (no surprise), published an extensive report on PLOS about their development of this instrument, the Aesthetic Emotion Scale  (see: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178899). They reviewed much of the literature on this topic and then gathered questionnaire items from other questionaires and some theoretical considerations, then tested the items to find which ones were most valid and tapped into what they thought was pertinent. This is a brilliant, rigorous and important piece of work, no small undertaking, and one that will help move our understanding forward.

They came up with questions assessing an art consumer’s responses (what word would be better here? Art appreciators?) in several areas: A) Prototypical Aesthetic emotions, e.g., feelings of beauty, fascination, being moved, awe; B) Pleasing emotions, e.g., joy, humor, vitality, energy; C) Epistemic emotions, e.g., surprise, interest, challenge and insight; and D) Negative emotions, e.g., ugly, bored, confused. They worked hard to develop an instrument that could be used across many types of art, visual, dance, music, literary, etc., and that was manageable, i.e., not too long or difficult for ease of administration.

These areas and the specific questions are quite interesting and I am sure I will write more about them later, but for now I want to note what a great literature review they offer, what a cogent theoretical basis for their analysis they have, and one place where I think they could learn from Susanne Langer (you knew that was coming, right?).

Oh, to be young and a library rat (analogous to gym rat) again. One of the great joys in my earlier life was to find a good article or book and then immerse myself in the stacks reading select items from the reference list. Being distant from academic pursuits I must find sources wherever I can these days as I work the farm, and I did not know about many of the journals and books they cite. I had better get busy over the winter when my farm task list shrinks and read about emotion and empathy in aesthetic experience, reactive and reflective models thereof, the pleasures of the mind and sense-making, and how this all relates to our sense of beauty. Lovely, isn’t it?

The first sentence of the abstract says much about their theoretical approach: “Aesthetic perception and judgment are not merely cognitive processes, but also involve feeling”. I knew this was going to be a great read. The introduction starts, “How does beauty feel? The notion that aesthetic appeal is more felt than known has a substantial tradition in philosophical aesthetics.” My variegated readings in psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience suggest that such a tradition has not carried forward very far into aesthetics as a biological phenomena, though the authors here have found some. Indeed, their development of Aesthemos is intended to facilitate the inclusion of a consumer’s emotional responses to art into more experimental paradigms, and that is very exciting.

Reflecting on this article I realized two things. First, that Aesthemos and the theory underlying its development is based upon art appreciation and not art creation, and that the emotional processes serving artistic creation are bound to be very different and more difficult to understand. This is natural because the response of the art consumer is much more amenable to study than is the creative intuition of the artist inspiring the work and its crafting thereafter. How to study that is a challenge for the future (probably, but we should keep it in mind).

Second, Aesthemos is based upon emotions and feelings as a counter-balance to more cognitive approaches, but it still relies on a vocabulary from those latter restrictive ones. Here is where Langer can help with the discussion. Aesthemos found one area of emotional response the authors noted as ‘epistemic’, i.e., “emotions that have been connected to the search for meaning and insight”. They rightly point out that art is not utilitarian; it is not a means to accomplish an end (unless you count symbolic communication and the sharing of vital experience as the goal) but is more of an end in itself. The essential importance of art is its symbolic communication of the artist’s experience, necessarily personal, somehow intimately parsed from the self’s vital life that then inspires the creation of the art work.

The problem with “meaning and insight” is that these terms are loaded with other philosophical, psychological and religious connotations. We gain meaning and insight into how our life has progressed and how we want to live it into the future in many ways, not all of them aesthetically based. Plus, the label of ‘epistemic’ and use of the word ‘meaning’ comes from the discursive realm of knowledge as more or less logically abstract and impersonal (like declarative memory more than episodic) and to this old linguist, that relies on the deep and surface structures of language because meaning there is a conventionalized and internalized system of sematic units expressed by and recoverable through syntactic transformations between deep and surface.

Langer recognized the difference in the deep and surface structures between the two types of symbols, discursive, e.g., language, and presentational, e.g., art, in her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key, and she continued to develop the notion of artistic ‘import’ as analogous to linguistic meaning in 1953 Feeling and Form. I like her very succinct presentation of the term in her 1957 Problems of Art. Over the 4 years of this blog I have written about this several times (for example see 9/23/17, 9/13/2016, 2/17/16, and 11/4/2015). Briefly, from a previous blog, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements that bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

Going further, presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, the elements of which depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically). In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’, following ideas set forth by Ernest Nagel and other philosophers.

This distinction between meaning and import carries two implications about the issues Aesthemos explores. The first, more theoretical than empirical, is the basic difficulty of verbalizing about a work of art; translating a work of art from one medium to another or giving a rendition of it in the context of critical appreciation or even a literary work from one language to another ranges from fraught with difficulty to impossible. Thus, Aesthemos uses words, i.e., discursive symbols, to report feelings about a artistic work, i.e., presentational symbol. These feelings are part of the process of apprehending and understanding the art work, but are not the import, which is really conveyed when the expressive form is gathered in in its entirety. Langer says the import is an idea of felt experience that “gives us the forms of imagination and the forms of feeling, inseparably; that is to say, it organizes and clarifies intuition itself” (Feeling and Form, p. 397). The artist does this intuitive work in his art production, and the import which the consumer manages from the artwork must likewise follow the intuitive processes of a presentational symbol, its form expressing a complex synthesis of vital experience. I take from this that understanding art is or rather will be an important aspect of understanding the non-conscious processes of intuition, difficult on both the expressive and receptive ends.

The second issue is directly addressed by the authors as they cited the known difficulties of self-report measures, the reliability from one moment to the next for any individual and the necessity of assaying an experience once it is over and when the consumer’s emotions and understanding changed continuously during the artwork’s performance or reading or viewing and then change afterwards with the integration of many past experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This is especially so, I should think, in exploring our aesthetic feelings, but such measures can be very useful in studying human minds and I hope Aesthemos has a long and happy career as a useful measure helping us understand how we produce and receive art.

I have much more to say here; their article started me wandering down several paths of thought. Next up I think will be a reflection on the nature of critical appreciation and artistic import, using a review of a beautiful movie as the platform. I hope everyone has seen or has a chance to see (take it) The Red Turtle.

Travel on, of course, and remember Mammalian Heritage Day on November 2. After that I plan a series of posts as I celebrate the fourth anniversary of this blog on December 5. The farm is frosted and I have time and energy.

bonobo1

We are the champions, my friends.

bonobo2

A rousing tune but champions? All of us? I just don’t know how I feel about that.

 

 

WP on art and the brain

So we have a wonderful audiovisual piece on art and the brain from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/your-brain-on-art/ . I think it gives a good accounting of how our brains do art, though of course I have some quibbles. This work gets right its emphasis that art connects us to something larger, that it uses the mirror system, that narrative is important, that key elements serve to evoke emotions and that when those elements are congruous, the emotions are evoked more strongly, and that art serves a shared consciousness.

They understand that empathy is an important component to this process. We mirror emotions just like we mirror the ballet dancer’s movements and the quality of those movements convey different emotions. Though cited without any explanation or hint as to its complexity, metaphor is deemed critical to art. They understand that we feel more strongly (by some measure—I could carry on about this a bit but not now) with tragedy. They even speak about how a “performer’s separate motions [are] one psychologically rich phrase”, which is a dim echo of Langer’s discussion of art and rhythm. Perhaps the strongest message here is that while art is “the domain of the heart” science can and should help us understand the phenomena. And I would add that understanding only increases appreciation.

Being quite prejudiced, I noticed several instances where acquaintance with Susanne Langer’s philosophy would have clarified and emboldened their explication. In a silly pique I took exception to the phrase “wordless language of symbols” when Langer gives us plenty of conceptual support to talk about presentational symbols apart from discursive linguistic ones and I think the difference is important, as you know if you have followed this blog much at all. Likewise Langer talked about artistic import (vs. linguistic meaning) emphasizing the rhythmicity of the artistic gestalt and its elements, the interplay among different artistic forms, e.g., why happy dance and sad music might not kindle the same strong emotion as sad dance and music would but then art is not about purity of emotion, is it? Perhaps most importantly she emphasized the unity of the artistic piece and the rendering of personal experience into a vital experiential gestalt; the artistic form regardless of the medium must be unified, coherent and luminous. Oh, how I wish we would understand how our scientific understanding of the roots of our humanity is traveling towards what Langer has already elucidated; progress would be surer if we followed her guidance.

One more quibble, and please remember that I do appreciate this report more than almost any other I have seen for a long time, is that this story brings forth the notion of ‘neuroaesthetics’. Yes, neuro stuff is all the new sexy rage, but I am old school, really old school and a bit cranky at that, and so make two points. One is that ours is an embodied mind, as in my basic concept here on this blog of soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN, and so art, as a symbol of vital experience, is also embodied in its operations. Sure, our brain and MEMBRAIN are mighty conductors of communal experience but that experience is lived in the soma, i.e., the body. Watch dance, ballet, modern, flamingo or otherwise without body awareness and you will have missed the point.  Parsing the soma out of art is just another example of cognitive distortion towards the discursive and rational excluding emotion and irrationality.  This brings me to my second point which is that we never should have segregated aesthetics from its biological role in the first place; then we would never have the need to for it to be neuro because of course it is—it is biological. So, just ‘aesthetics’ will do nicely, thank you very much, because I understand the biological context of human culture and its roots in empathy and symbolization. Travel on (and look at the Post piece).

art: solitary and social

I am reading Richard Ellman’s 1948 biography of WB Yeats. I have read smaller pieces before but this is more comprehensive and details his life events in relation to his literary output. Good stuff. I was struck by JB Yeats, Willie’s father, and the cogency of his philosophizing about art. JB made a go of it as a portrait painter. His paintings were well received but his family was continually poor because he completed so few commissions as he fussed over perfection. Yeats and siblings spent much time in Sligo with his mother’s family, the Pollexfens, who were well-to-do. JB gave his son much advice and direction, most of which was later spurned, while mostly educating him himself at home. It is telling that Willie did not attend Trinity College as his father planned because he seems not to have been able to pass the entrance exams.

JB thought about art and psychology a good deal and imparted that to Willie along with his disbelief in religious objects, e.g., gods. Ellman quotes JB as saying, “Art is the social action of a solitary man.” And this resonated with my biological view of art. I work here from two perspectives of artistry, one involving everyone who makes art incidentally as they live life where art is ancillary to any role and the other where the life is of an artist, where the role is to make art. I have written before of Ellen Dissanayake’s notion that the origin of art is “making special”, i.e., we make an object beautiful less from a symbolic aesthetic and more from giving that object our own special flavor (see post 5/16/16).  Art here is perhaps more decorative but it is also an expression of an individual self’s vision or inspiration. Art is an accompaniment to the person fulfilling his or her roles, so we have a person acting socially but giving it a personal touch, e.g., a worker decorating his or her tool, beautifying the home, or even painting a mural on a wall.

This is distinct from a person’s role as an artist, i.e., someone making art for art’s sake, as it were, professionally, or at least as central to their intent and not incidental as in ‘making special.’ The role of an artist is somewhat exotic in its seeming lack of utility. Art here is not made in fulfillment of a social role yet it still contributes to society. It is more the expression of an individual’s inspiration to render their experience aesthetically (thereby using the tools of art according to their aesthetic purpose) and so share a complex understanding of life with others. The role of artist is isolated from utilitarian life yet the aesthetic production participates fully in the cultural life of the group. Art here is a social action of a very circumscribed scope from a solitary perspective because it is so intimately involved with one self and that self’s aesthetic, i.e., symbolic expression of a presentational sort and not discursive, following Langer (as always; try posts 2/17/16 & 9/13/16 for example).

somabrainm1-e1495106206341.jpg

Given my construct of a soma with a brain and its MEMBRAIN (see posts 5/17/15, 8/11/15 & 4/17/17), we can see the self develop through three stages. At the level of the soma, the self develops through a sense of agency. Somas do things to sustain themselves, including reproduce to continue their genetic line. With the development of the brain the self develops through its retention of experience, i.e., the soma’s autobiography (this rises to a new level with the hippocampus; search for many posts like 5/27/16, 9/8/14, 12/24/15, 5/31/16 & more). With the development of the MEMBRANE (posts 11/14/14, 4/7/14 & 1/8/15) the self becomes socially defined in divers ways: through the empathic understanding of one’s own subjective domain and the objective mystery of the other’s subjective domain, the intimate roles of family, the familiar roles of cooperation, and the social mores regulating transactions with those known only through commerce and joint projects. Within each MEMBRAIN some activity is personal, i.e., self-involved, and some impersonal, i.e., defined solely by the roles characterizing the interaction or about abstract information. We mark this difference when we talk about wisdom vs. knowledge. We learn differently about death when a loved one passes from learning about numbers or metabolic processes; the former is self-involved, the latter not so much. An artist, by sharing a personal, subjective, and individually constructed symbolic work, acts socially in an intimate manner outside of any of the usual roles and relations. To paraphrase JB Yeats, an artist is a solitary person acting in a most social and intimate manner by sharing the symbolic rendition of a self’s deep experience. That is a special role indeed and not far afield from a spiritual realm.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.

White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography

Connectome

Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/03/connectivity-between-brain-hemispheres-boosts-creativity-study-finds. This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.

Review: Homo Aestheticus

I finished Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why (1992) about two weeks ago and have been pondering over what to write. It seems an important book and I wondered why I did not find it sooner. I first became aware of her and her writings in a more recent book, The Origins of Music, which I have mentioned here before (see posts 1/11/16, 3/12/16, 3/26/16). I appreciate several of her ideas but am puzzled (at least) by one aspect of her thought, and she is dismissive about Susanne Langer for some reason so of course I have a quibble there. Onward.

Her central hypothesis is that art is best conceived as ‘making special’ and that art is an important evolutionary factor in our successful adaptation. She brings forth many examples from her own and others’ ethological studies to show that art is a phenomenon of everyday life, or has been until recently (very recently in our evolutionary past) when we began to segregate art into some category of fine art produced by few and enjoyed by a few more of the privileged. Not just making special, I guess, but making extra special (or all too precious, isn’t it?). Western culture, especially I think in the more mercantile, industrial and commercial aspects, e.g. USA, has minimized the importance of the arts, looking down on artistic activity as a lower form of intelligent activity or as simply a financial transaction. Of course, this is nonsense and Ms. Dissanayake does a wonderful job of correcting it.

She also resurrects what she says is an antiquated notion of ‘aesthetic empathy.’ Art, i.e., making special, involves not the pleasure of perceived forms but the pleasure of the feelings evoked or carried by those forms and more especially, making those forms. Regular readers here will understand when I say I did not know the concept was antiquated. I am not up on art theory or criticism but evidently, like so much of our cognitively oriented theorizing, the idea that feelings or emotions are important is also downplayed there, even shunned. As I have done here in the past she poses the parallel between the surface and deep structure of language (sound and meaning) and the surface and deep structure of art, e.g., music or painting or dance and their import.

What puzzles me is that Ms. Dissanayake rather insists that art need not be symbolic. In its inception ‘making special’ is akin, to use one of her examples, to a male bower bird’s nest making in which he ornaments his bower with stones, shells, and other found objects; the ‘prettier’ the bower, the more success he has in mating and passing on his (and her) genes. And much of our art is ornamentation, whether it be shaping a tool to a pleasing state or decorating skin etc. Likewise singing can be an enlivening accompaniment to activity with little seeming import though it seems to me still to express feelings.

I have written before about bower birds (see post 11/12/14). Consider this: when does a bowerbird know the nest is finished? For that matter, when do any birds know when their nest is finished? I have never heard this being discussed before but I suspect that the birds fuss about until the eggs are laid, or at least the mate selected, because after that the effort would have little payoff. Human ‘making special’ covers many creative activities in a variety of modalities the boundaries of which, i.e., the beginning and finishing of the action, come from within the mind of the artist. Does the ornamentation indicate social status or tribal membership or its workman or does it result from whiling away a moment? At some point early on in the development of this way of acting, i.e., making special, form (and necessarily the more or less complete rendition from a mental gestalt) became important, and that form expresses some complex of feelings and thinking. This is not the empathic or kinesic communication of current emotional states or even the signal of reproductive vitality, but the symbolic rendering or representation of something more complex, a conveyance of subjective experience. I am sure that even ornamentation does this for humans; I am not so sure that some proto-symbolic process does not operate for bowerbirds—that is the message of Frans de Waals most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.

bird bower

A few more shells placed just so and I can put this nest on the market.

It seems to me that two different definitions of symbol are at play here. One is that idea of an art symbol, e.g., a cross symbolizes the crucifixion, Jung’s archetypes, Godot whoever he is, Eliot’s wasteland the human condition, Picasso’s screaming horse in Guernica, etc. These are really like tropes (verbal or otherwise) where elements are used artistically to represent or signify particular ideas or feelings. The other definition of the symbol comes from semiotics, say from C. S. Pierce on to Ernst Cassirer and modern linguistics. These are symbols that result from neuropsychological processes to represent ‘things’ and thereby allows us to control abstract information mentally and to communicate specifics either linguistically or artistically. I think maybe Ms. Dissanayake talks more about the first type when the second is the more relevant.

This issue brings up what I think Ms. Dissanayake misunderstands about Langer when she says that, for Langer, “aesthetic experience is a response to ‘presentational symbolism’.” (page 237) No, for Langer, aesthetic experience is rendered and communicated through presentational symbols. The symbol’s import is an aesthetic experience, i.e., the symbolic elements composing the symbol are the felt significances of the colors or sounds or words in the composition. These are not ‘responses’ but symbolic forms a person has composed from his or her subjective, vital and particular experience so that others may comprehend this work of their subjective space, i.e., their mind. Sounds without meaning are not words and tones or colors or forms or body movement without import are nothing special. And yes, this is clearly an evolutionarily important biological trait of our species, at the least.

Ms. Dissanayake writes that “Langer does not consider art as a selectively valuable behavior in human evolution”. (page 242) This misstates Langer’s position a good deal; following Feeling and Form in 1953, she spent decades writing a 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, arguing that art is one of the highest forms of biological activity. Her effort was premature historically, i.e., she was ahead of her time and developments since then have changed our paradigms a great deal. Just before she died she half finished volume 3 in 1982, a few years after Jacques Monod made the case in Chance and Necessity for molecular biology as the exclusive basis of life and several years before E.O. Wilson and others laid the basis for sociobiology. Furthermore, she was also too early to incorporate the profound developments Chomskyian linguistics and information science and technology engendered in our understanding of psychology and neuroscience. (This makes all the more remarkable Langer’s elevation of virtual information back in the 1950s). So, yes, Langer did not understand modern evolutionary theory but she certainly did understand that the human mind was a biological product of evolution. Likewise she did not understand that the human mind, while distinctive (or species-centric in Dissanayake’s term), is not that different from the minds of other animals. As I heard Frans de Waal say on the radio last week, it is not that human intelligence needs to be lowered but that we need to elevate the place of other animals’ intelligences.

Finally, the last chapter in Homo Aestheticus presents a refutation of sorts to post modern art theory and criticism. I was mystified by some of the concerns here; it is not within my ken, but I think I understood from her account that post-modernism is rather sterile, elitist, and counter to any view of art as vital, organic and evolutionary. If that is so, I certainly hope her refutation is taken seriously, and I hope I can keep better company than those who espouse such poppycock.

Anyway, read Home Aestheticus. Ms. Dissanayake aptly discusses that the variety of ways humans make art, think of art, and consider the world is truly spectacular, that art is clearly an important biological result from evolution, and that art is, after all, following Langer, one of the highest organic responses. Travel on.

Re-read 4.0: Susanne Langer on Music

If you have followed this blog the past few months, you know that I have been reading and thinking about the neuroscience of music. If you have followed this blog for a bit longer, you know that one of the best benefits of my retirement is to re-read some books I read long ago. And many also know that I revere Susanne Langer in this regard.

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As a child her family called her “Waldhexe” or ‘witch of the woods’ for the time she spent wandering there.

So last week with a snow storm in progress I re-read 3 chapters on music in Susanne Langer’s 1953 book, Feeling and Form, in which she developed a theory of art, basing it really upon the aesthetics of music, from her 1942 book, Philosophy in a New Key. The key here is symbolism. She would later in the 1960s and 70s carry her philosophical ideas towards biological realms. In Feeling and Form she developed the concept of virtual images into a highly potent philosophical concept, this before the age of computers and at the dawn of modern neuroscience. As it turns out, she was helped by a 1920s essay by Basil de Selincourt, “Music and Duration” in which he “distinguished, clearly and explicitly, between the actual and the virtual,” i.e., we listen to music both physically and mentally. Seems an obvious beginning for a path to understanding.

What a flood of memories rushed upon me when I read the following passage as she discussed the organizing principle of rhythm in life and music: “The most characteristic principle of vital activity is rhythm. All life is rhythmic; under difficult circumstances, its rhythms may become very complex, but when they are really lost life cannot long endure. This rhythmic character of life permeates music, because music is a symbolic representation of the highest organic response, the emotional life of human beings.”

This struck me in 1970, as it strikes me now, as profoundly true and obviously so. Ah, I was younger then and naïve; I am older now and less naïve and so can hope that we can raise our appraisal of art to match that of what might be considered our colder activities, and indeed, current neuropsychology increasingly demonstrates that even these ‘colder’ intellections are based upon feelings, upon intuitive impulses arising from our mind’s depths. This is my motivation for repeatedly discussing here Langer’s distinction between discursive, e.g.,language, and presentational, e.g., art, symbols and to pursue further understanding of how empathy and symbolization contribute to our humanity, e.g., the neuroscience of music. In 1970 Chomskyian linguistics was replacing the sterile paradigm of behaviorism and cognitive psychology was participating in the incipience of information sciences, its algorithms, modules, etc. Art then, as it had often been and is still viewed by many, was considered ‘messy’ and less of an intellectual product (and to reflect the chauvinism then and now, a feminine thing), but Dr. Langer’s writings, her intellectual life’s work actually, demonstrated the opposite, that art is one of humanity’s highest intellectual achievements and one with deep biological roots. Thanks again, Dr. Langer. Some will travel on from here now, but I will rest and enjoy the glow (and watch the snowpack melt).

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