February 29, 2008

Artistic Beauty

An interesting article in today's Boston Globe makes me re-think the whole concept of artistic beauty. We often think that artistic beauty is an objective standard: that there are some things, a landscape by Constable or Van Gogh that just have as part of their inherent nature, beauty. That's true to an extent. The article in the Boston Globe though draws attention to research that casts doubt on the status of artistic judgement or rather on what it is actually judging. The study involved people judging the respective merits of various types of wine- the people were invited to rank the wines in order to merit. They did, and the orders of merit followed the prices that they were told that the wine cost, but what the scientists didn't tell them was that all the wine cost exactly the same ammount because they were exactly the same wine. Consequently the right judgement was that the wine had the same degree of merit because it was the same wine.

But why did people judge it differently? Well lets go backwards a little, why do we find anything artistic beautiful. Its quite clear why I find a beautiful woman beautiful (and others might find a beautiful man beautiful)- there is a clear evolutionary reason and though types of beauty change over time, I don't need to be taught that. But I do need to be taught about art, about music and about wine. We all learn about that, whether its through school, the guides at museums or art galleries or even friends and families- our taste is inherited from other people. And our taste is a way of communicating with other people- we tend to respect people who see the same piece of art in the same way as we do. I do it with books: one of my best friends from Oxford is a friend who I realised I had to know when she spoke about how much she loved Jane Austen. Many of my other friends are friends because of what they and I mutually like- that I'm sure is true of some of the readers of this blog and some of the blogs I also visit regularly. Shared appreciation is a means of communication.

So lets come back to the wine. To what extent are we, when we respond to art, responding not so much to the art, as attempting to say something about ourselves. There are genuine likes and dislikes- we all have them. Part of those likes and dislikes are disagreements about what in the real world constitutes a desirable value- your well written sentence and mine may be different entities. You may applaud say William F. Buckley's perambulations through language, I may like the plainer style of George Orwell. The point though is that to some degree our artistic judgements are also social. They are judgements about conventions. In that sense the people, who were studied by the scientists in the study reported by the Boston Globe, acted perfectly rationally. Price is a conventional market of quality- it is what a person will agree to pay for something and the higher the price, the higher the conventional merit assigned. So when I say to you that conventionally this wine is thought to be better than this, there are strong reasons for you agreeing. As recognising artistic beauty is in part a means of showing you 'get it', then recognising the beauty of the higher priced wine and its superiority to the lower priced wine, shows that you 'get it' and are part of the group that 'gets it'.

I'm not suggesting that all judgements like this are social judgements- just that in part they all are. What is interesting about this study is that it shows how far the idea of artistic beauty is a language with which we demonstrate our taste and personality to others. Its a signifier of what we beleive ourselves or want ourselves to be.


technomist said...

That's interesting. I am not sure from this piece what the previous thoughts you held on the subject were. Does this hold true of abstract concepts?

Do you think you would have changed these thoughts on art and beauty if the article had been in, say, the Waltham Forest Guardian, or someone's blogsite, rather than the Boston Globe?