“Look at the masterpiece, and not at the frame — and not at the faces of other people looking at the frame.”
“Whatever follies may be committed in art, once they are accepted among the upper classes of our society, a theory is at once elaborated to explain and legitimize these follies, as if there had never been epochs in history when certain exceptional circles of people had not accepted and approved of false, ugly, meaningless art, which left no traces and was completely forgotten afterwards. And we can see by what is going on now in the art of our circle what degree of meaninglessness and ugliness art can attain, especially when, as in our time, it knows it is regarded as infallible.”
As a Popperian, I believe that the distinction between the objective and the subjective (or the relative) has been misunderstood and hyperbolized. Perhaps nothing is objective, but that does not mean that all is subjective. Newton’s proposed laws of motion were, for centuries, “objectively” true; confirmed by all experimental tests, they formed the basis of thousands of discoveries in physics and other fields. These discoveries were themselves experimentally tested, and themselves led to thousands of discoveries in the exponential fashion to which we’ve become accustomed.
But Newton was wrong; his laws were inaccurate. In David Deutsch’s terms, they were very, very good misconceptions, just as Einstein’s better ideas are very, very good misconceptions that will eventually be replaced by even better, more accurate, deeper ideas that explain more with less. This process is progressive: science gets better and better, even though it is purely the creation of “subjective” human conjecture —imagination— tested against reality for utility. We might say that the history of human knowledge is one of conjectures which are never complete or objective but which are ever-improving. To be ever-improving, they must be moving towards something; if they cannot reach it, they approach it as a line does an asymptote. Science asymptotically approaches objective, complete truth, never arriving but getting closer and closer (1) . It is not objective —as the work of humans, how could it be?— but neither is it aimless or subjective.
But what about art? We do not tend to think that art is progressive. Indeed, the attitude of the age treats art as a private utterance, as pure subjectivity, or at best as a personal religion of some entertaining use to others. One epistemological consequence of the democratic ethos, unmoored from axiomatic values, is that we struggle with the idea of objectivity in anything, although we incoherently exempt the sciences from our anxious doubt. But this is a temporary phase, a confusion. It is not the case that art is purely subjective, aimless, without teleology or purpose; it is rather the case that art, like science, improves over time because it asymptotically approaches something. It happens to be the same “something” that science hews to: reality.
Consider the following work of art from tens of thousands of years ago:
From Chauvet, this depiction is among the earliest instances of art; it features a range of animals including, most prominently, cave lions. From tens of thousands of years later, in the 19th century, here is the head of a lion painted by Théodore Géricault:
It’s obvious that this is a better depiction, in part because we can reasonably assume that the intent of these two artists, across so much time, was similar: to capture and convey something essential about the lion. This intent was almost certainly inexplicit for the ancient artist, and may have expressed itself in other ways which recur throughout the history of art. For example, artists have occasionally conceived of their mission in ceremonial, religious, or supernatural terms, imagining that by performing acts in concert with images they might control reality (2). In later centuries, they might consider their art in more subtle religious, political, pedagogical, ideological, or emotional terms. But a sufficiently abstract definition might cover most cases:
Art seeks to virtualize phenomena for human benefit.
By “virtualize,” I mean only that what art offers us it offers on our terms. One can experience tragedy when a loved-one dies; one can know the awe and power of the lion when one sees it enter a cave in which one’s family is camped. Art seeks to make these phenomena, and the meanings they provide, available to you apart from the uncontrollable and contingent world, for a variety of reasons. Through art, we are enriched by experiences with less risk of suffering or injury; experiences are made more portable and reproducible, and are freed from temporality; we can begin at least to portray what we imagine, even if we cannot yet build it; and so on. Art, then, supports the same accelerated development of knowledge that consciousness, metaphor and language, and reason support, and all are related. Whereas we once built knowledge accidentally and slowly, when the inexplicit knowledge of environment and utility embodied by genes would lead to those genes’ replication and spread, we now have a range of means for building knowledge rapidly and at little cost. We can, at our discretion, experience alternative modes of being, the lives of others, worlds we’ve never seen; we can be taken deep within ourselves or so far away that we can no longer remember our names.
And from this, we learn. From art, from the virtualization of phenomena far removed from our practical realities, we derive values, politics, and purposes, in addition to whatever assortment of facts and information the art carries with it. Some essential values we seem incapable of arriving at any other way, especially in the absence of axioms or authority: compassion and empathy, for example, depend on the recognition of the humanness of others but are hardly logically compulsory propositions; art is unparalleled at conveying, in experiential and therefore broadly-intelligible terms, the bases of such moral notions, even to the ignorant and resistant. (3) Art is where we find meanings we cannot reason and experiences that we cannot otherwise have; that we recognize the value and utility of these experiences and meanings but cannot yet rationally justify them doesn’t mean that they’re purely subjective. The fact that our ancestors didn’t understand the stars by which they navigated didn’t make those stars subjective either. They were simply little-understood, but their utility was evident to all. The same is true of art and culture, emergent phenomena we dismiss because of weaknesses in our contemporary philosophies. What we cannot reduce we pretend doesn’t exist.
The consequences of purpose
If we say that “art seeks to virtualize phenomena for human benefit,” we can begin to critique art apart from distracting historicisms. This liberates us from, among other traps, referentiality and academic preoccupations. We can attempt to discuss art concretely in terms of its aims:
An important note: art makes virtualized reality possible both for external sense experiences like seeing a lion or a landscape and internal, phenomenological experiences like emotional states or even qualia. The virtualization of meaningful human phenomena might involve nothing representational —music often does not— or taken from the world outside of us. A work of art which captures, provokes, or explores something like sorrow, hope, love, or fear might be highly abstract, impressionistic, unusual, just as our internal life is.
Artists are technologists
I’ve mentioned qualia twice, once implicitly noting that some do not believe they exist and once by noting that art captures them well. Qualia were first described by C.I. Lewis in 1929:
There are recognizable qualitative characters of the given, which may be repeated in different experiences, and are thus a sort of universals; I call these “qualia.” But although such qualia are universals, in the sense of being recognized from one to another experience, they must be distinguished from the properties of objects.
Another way of putting it: when you look at a red sign, the “redness” you see doesn’t exist anywhere. The sign is an almost entirely-empty latticework of vibrating particles. Photons bounce off of some of these and enter your eye at a wavelength, but that wavelength is a mathematical description: it has no color in it, and photons themselves are colorless. Your mind experiences “redness,” but you might also say that it “creates” or “invents” redness when prompted by certain light phenomena which themselves have nothing to do, now or ever, with “redness,” which doesn’t exist. Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel-prize winning quantum physicist, put it thus:
The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.
That one of the founders of modern physics didn’t believe a physical or physiological explanation for qualia would be forthcoming is arresting. But more to the point, while scientists and philosophers try to determine what “redness” or “sorrow” really is, as a quale, artists are virtualizing qualia and catalyzing them in audiences. Indeed, much of the personal quality that art has consists in its relationship to deep, individuated qualia we ourselves hardly comprehend.
For millennia art outstripped the sciences in its ability to understand and recreate qualia, virtualize reality, and provide ennobling, edifying, educational, and entertaining simulations for humans. Indeed, art pushed science, demanding better technologies which required deeper understanding in dozens of fields. The demands of art pushed architecture, and therefore engineering and chemistry and materials sciences; art required new resources for colors and sculptures, shaping societies economically; the musical arts were constrained awfully until technology turned music from vanishing performances into enduring, widely-distributed works.
All of which is to say: artists are natural technologists. Historically, they’ve pursued the newest and best techniques, materials, and forms. When the methodology for achieving perspective became clear, few resisted it on the basis of a calcified iconographic style considered to be “high art,” or if some did they’ve been suitably forgotten. And had new inks, better canvases, or some unimaginable invention given superior means to the impressionists to capture washes of light and mood —like, say, film— they’d have used whatever was available. The purpose of painting isn’t paint, after all; nor is the purpose of writing a book. (4)
The purpose is instead to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans. The best techniques for doing so do indeed change; the schools of thought that shape artists wax, wane, wear out; intellectual movements, critical and popular reaction, and technology are all part of the contingency in which we work. But the orientation of art should not be towards the ephemeral (except in exploring ephemerality itself, permanent and vexing) but towards deeper, universal, clarifying aims.
In elementary school, we were taught about Europe’s cathedrals. Centuries of fatality- and error-filled construction and engineering innovation on the edge of recklessness produced spaces intended to virtualize the experience of heavenly light, spiritual elevation, credence in the sacred. A peasant from the fields could enter one and immediately understand; he’d not know Suger’s theories or the tradeoffs involved in the buttresses, but the purpose and effect of the art were somehow not lost on him. The same would likely have been true had he seen Michelangelo’s David or been permitted to hear Mozart or Hildegard of Bingen. With exceptions, of course, art has aspired to universality.
The extraordinary present circumstance in which art is not expected to be intelligible, to have any “benefit” beyond the meaninglessly subjective “enjoyment” of the “consumer” is an aberration. That art is denied its progressive success at virtualizing greater and greater parts of reality, conveying ever-more phenomena with ever-greater fidelity to ever-more people, is the result of a philosophical disruption and a subsequent error. We found God dead; we asked what had god-like authority and reeled to realize that nothing can. But we’ve accepted that somehow, science exceeds merely moody paradigms. It works. It gives us control over the universe and ourselves, reduces contingency and accident, allows us to be what we think we should be.
Art is part of the same process, and can be evaluated similarly. In allowing us to virtualize and experiment with realities and phenomena, and, gradually, to live in those realities, it is part of the same epistemological and creative process as science. We are simply at an earlier stage, and just as someone might have surveyed the globe in 500 CE and concluded, “There is nothing objective about the so-called sciences; it appears that every culture and every society simply invents its own ideas and none is really any better than the rest,” so we now struggle to understand how aesthetics and morality might someday be understood teleologically, not as expressions of “taste” but as forms of knowledge-generation, experimentation, and even reality-building.
Perhaps we are transitioning from artists-as-depictors and artists-as-catalyzers (5) to artists-as-world-makers. To create something, you must first understand it; to create a world for humans to experience, you must first understand how humans experience the world. Once you can reliably replicate any sense-perception, you must think of how such sense-perceptions are experienced in the mind: as qualia. Then you must think of how to generalize or objectify qualia, or how to catalyze them. This is not a task for science alone, though whether it is not yet or not at all I cannot say. It will involve art, however, particularly in the form it takes when it wants to extend itself into life: design.
Design is art which cannot ignore the outcome it pursues, which uses every technology or tool it can conjure to succeed, and which accepts the judgement of audiences. In this way, one can understand why so much of the vitality of art now resides in the commercial space: there, the artists still care about audiences, still have aims apart from themselves, still seek resonance, utility, universality. My anxieties about art stem mostly from this concern: if purposive, deliberate, universal art becomes the province of commercial design, art’s values will gravitate towards market values. The hope: those values will evolve intelligently through self-correction. But it seems safer to me to have a cultural space which accords art precisely the same sort of respect we pay science so that the arts can pursue their ends purely —ends far deeper than markets, capitalism, any historicism, incidentally— just as science exists apart from technology and its commercialization. But I doubt whether such a space is possible so long as we insist that all art is subjective, no teleology is imaginable, and there is no such thing as progress. Such an insistence is, in my view, both materially incorrect and snobbish, arising more from nostalgia for older forms or aristocratic art-culture than any real analysis of the present. We live in a world in which more people read, listen to music, and experience works of art than ever before. This is both art’s triumph and a prelude to its expanding role. From its earliest efforts to virtualize reality through its portrayal and later attempts to produce specific experiences in audiences, art aspires to the creation of worlds. As it converges with technology —in video games, for example— these worlds will grow to support the range of experiences and meanings humans desire, as art always has.
Much of the confusion about subjective and objective sorts of knowledge comes from this simple fact: that we cannot have authority in knowledge means that nothing can be “final”; nothing is beyond interrogation, nothing is exempt from revision and improvement. That does not mean that all is equivalent, comparable, meaningless, a matter of preference. There are “criteria for reality,” in Deutsch’s terms, and they’re perfectly adequate to the actual epistemological tasks at hand, particularly in the sciences, where academics haven’t managed to confuse everyone’s sense of purpose yet. ↩
As it happens, using virtualizations of reality to control reality seems likely to play an important role in humanity’s future. ↩
The invention of new therapeutic diagnoses for the insufficiently empathetic, and their subsequent ineffectual medication, is a likelier course of action for our society. ↩
The mistaking of a temporary medium —and all media, even those that endure for thousands of years, are temporary— for the purpose of art itself is precisely the sort of confusion that happens when ends vanish and means must suffice. If you cannot believe that art has a purpose deeper than its forms, its forms seem really important. But if you think the purpose of art is to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans (or the glorification of God or Marx), it’s not hard to accept that we might read off of screens or never care about painting again. If art matters, the texts on screens will do for us what oral traditions did for the Greeks and tomes did for the Enlightenment. The chapter of visual art obliged by technological-limitation to ignore movement will come to an end, or, if it can still open us to experience, teach us, console us, will continue. ↩
Perhaps the mayhem of the successive schools of non-representational art can be understood both in terms of internecine disorder during the revaluation of values and as the working-out of experimental methods and techniques for orthogonal approaches to virtualization. Experimental art can, of course, be vitally useful. ↩
“One of the things we’ve really learnt over the last 20 years is that while people would often struggle to articulate why they like something, as consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design and when there is cynicism and greed.”
“The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera… is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which… grips the actor before the camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity.”