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Beholding beauty: How it's been studied - Comments

Skeptic Tank's Avatar Comment 1 by Skeptic Tank

The bigger question, beyond mere 'beauty', is aesthetic experience in general. Nobody has grasped this subject better than the art critic Clement Greenberg did in the last century. Now, as more data pours in from neuroscience, we're finding out just how right Greenberg was all along.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 14:46:37 UTC | #923755

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 2 by Jos Gibbons

What was Greenberg's view?

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 15:15:36 UTC | #923759

William T. Dawkins's Avatar Comment 3 by William T. Dawkins

My not so beautiful guess might be:

Reduction of perceived analogised schemas manifesting as awareness of sensual pleasure.

William

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 15:50:40 UTC | #923763

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 4 by Cook@Tahiti

I recommend John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?' - which makes a compelling case for aesthetic relativism. One person can get the same thrill out of Kylie Minogue's music as another can get from Wagner's operas. High-brow art and low-brow art are just subjective social constructions. If you like Michael Bay and Adam Sandler films, there might be no neurologically discernible difference from a film connoisseur's appreciation of Bergman or Fellini films.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 16:39:09 UTC | #923771

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 5 by Schrodinger's Cat

I have a theory that where B is beauty, e is the charge of the electron, g is the gravitational constant, and A is the fine structure constant....

B = (e/g) ^ 2A

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 16:45:43 UTC | #923773

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 6 by Anaximander

B = (e/g) ^ 2A

Obviously, A is the surface area of a black hole, which is 4 times the entropy. So Beauty is (e/g) ^ 8S. The greater the entropy, the greater the beauty.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 18:32:15 UTC | #923805

aroundtown's Avatar Comment 7 by aroundtown

Symmetry supposedly but I reject the distinction as I do with other proposed absolutes we encounter in society at large. I can be just as impressed with an aged woman or man who has stood the tests in life and show it in their craggy faces. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder I suppose but I like to broaden my perspective beyond the norm.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 19:10:22 UTC | #923824

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 8 by Schrodinger's Cat

Why should that matter? The theory goes that symmetrical features may be markers of genetic quality. Human ancestors evolved to find mates that would pass on good genes to offspring, so they would naturally be repelled by traits that would be detrimental to survival or indicators of poor health.

I'm not clear on how the early hominid retrospectively decides, after mating and ending up with 1 kid compared with the beautiful neighbour's 3, that the partner he chose was an ugly cow he should not have mated with.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 19:46:04 UTC | #923834

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 9 by Anaximander

Symmetry supposedly but I reject the distinction as I do with other proposed absolutes we encounter in society at large.

If it is symmetry, maybe my equation was wrong. Beauty should be proportional to exp(-S), not to exp(S). So that there are more codes that produce less beautiful things. And very few codes produce very beautiful things.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 20:58:11 UTC | #923852

Functional Atheist's Avatar Comment 10 by Functional Atheist

For whatever reason, one doesn't hear much about Desmond Morris these days, but I recall an interesting program he did a few years ago on human sexuality (and The Naked Ape was a favorite book of mine when I was a teenager and there weren't very many books available viewing humans through a zoological lens). I seem to recall him describing humans as the sexy ape, both behaviorally and in terms of secondary sexual characteristics, and he also emphasized the importance of high levels of bilateral symmetry in typical human conceptions of beauty.

And while yes, many individuals can appreciate the particular forms of beauty that come with age and experience, I think the general human bias toward beauty standards based on youth and good health make biological sense. It seems like simple common sense that indicators of fertility--like post-pubescent youth--and indicators of the ability to successfully care for children--like good physical and emotional health--would correlate highly with what most humans find beautiful and sexy.

Fri, 02 Mar 2012 21:10:42 UTC | #923860

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 11 by QuestioningKat

It seems as if beauty and physical/sexual attractiveness has been lumped together. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it seems that we have particular standards of human attractiveness. The social advantages of being attractive are very clear, studies are confirming what people have thought all along. In a nutshell, attractive people get paid higher, are considered more competent and get laid more. Yes, I know some extremely intelligent, competent people who are not necessarily very attractive.

The question really seems to be whether people actually prefer mates that are more symmetrical because they actually have "superior" genetics or whether people prefer mates that are more symmetrical/attractive because it is a social advantage. Certainly, having children that are attractive gives them a social advantage in life. I really would like to see more conclusive evidence that less symmetrical/less attractive people are inferior genetically. Socially disadvantaged - yes, innately less competent, I doubt it. It seems that less attractive people need to work harder.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 00:07:32 UTC | #923912

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 12 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 11 by QuestioningKat

The question really seems to be whether people actually prefer mates that are more symmetrical because they actually have "superior" genetics or whether people prefer mates that are more symmetrical/attractive because it is a social advantage. Certainly, having children that are attractive gives them a social advantage in life. I really would like to see more conclusive evidence that less symmetrical/less attractive people are inferior genetically. Socially disadvantaged - yes, innately less competent, I doubt it. It seems that less attractive people need to work harder.

The reason people prefer symmetric people may be simply down to economy of brain design. It surely must be easier to 'code' the brain to like a simple symmetric design than to code it to like variants on unsymmetric designs. All the more so as the coding will itself be held in DNA which is itself symmetric and would thus itself code symmetry more easily.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 01:07:12 UTC | #923923

CEVA34's Avatar Comment 13 by CEVA34

Re comment 4 "I recommend John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?' - which makes a compelling case for aesthetic relativism. One person can get the same thrill out of Kylie Minogue's music as another can get from Wagner's operas. High-brow art and low-brow art are just subjective social constructions."

Rubbish! Have a look at what our respected leader, Dawkins, says about relativism. The person whose musical taste aspires to nothing better than Kylie Minogue, simply has inferior aesthetic judgement. Before you say I'm being non-PC, consider - most of us here are materialists, believing that our identity resides in our brain. We regularly accuse whole swathes of the human race of being pig-ignorant and stupid, and it's true. If it's acceptable to say people's intelligence is inferior, why is it unacceptable to say their aesthetic judgement (which resides in the same brain) is inferior? Besides, where does this relativism stop? Is the sports page of the Sun literature, no worse or better than Tolstoy? Speaking for myself, I love trashy movies - the kind that's "so bad it's fun". I enjoy them, but I know damn well they ARE trashy.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 03:14:17 UTC | #923945

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 14 by Cook@Tahiti

CEVA34: Dawkins talks about epistemological relativism, not aesthetic relativism.

By what objective criteria can you say artwork A is BETTER than artwork B? Or that your enjoyment of artwork A is 'superior' than someone else who makes the same claim for their favourite artwork? People who dance in a club to Kylie may have more measurable dopamine/neurological activity than some octogenarian season ticket holder nodding off in the opera.

Once you narrow the criteria and say that artwork A 'is more complex than' artwork B, or 'contains more ideas' or 'is more popular than' or 'is more valuable than', 'or had lasted longer through time' or 'has more citations' etc, then, yes, you can make comparisons. But these will be arbitrary criteria and there'll always be too many exceptions to any hard-and-fast rules you can impose on aesthetics in art. But you can't simply declare say A is better than B, therefore people who like A have taste, and people who like B have no taste.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 09:56:45 UTC | #924004

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 15 by Anaximander

People who dance in a club to Kylie may have more measurable dopamine/neurological activity than some octogenarian season ticket holder nodding off in the opera.

Maybe, but that could partly be because they dance. To compare just the artworks themselves, we should maybe just listen to them (and alone in a laboratory), without doing other things that complicate the measurement.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 13:38:49 UTC | #924039

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 16 by Cook@Tahiti

Classically educated Oxbridge types will no doubt prefer Shakespeare to superhero movies, but there's an entire culture of ComicCon aficionados that live and breathe comic books and don't respond to Shakespeare at all (even though both genre's protagonists typically wear tights).

To 'Comic Book Man', The Dark Knight may speak to them as a profound meditation on the modern human condition. To Oxbridge Grad, Hamlet's or Lear's soliloquies may do the same thing. One has to be careful how one makes an objective comparison. Number of ideas expressed per unit of time? Dopamine flux? Popularity? Box Office? Longevity? Critical acclaim? Column inches of ink in appraisal?

Just to say one 'is better' than another is too blunt. I don't think it can be justified, no matter how it feels that it must be so in your gut. And if you try to impose arbitrary criteria (e.g. number of ideas) than there are plenty of artworks that aren't about quantity of ideas that are still deemed worthy (e.g. abstract or expressionistic art).

As much as I'm inclined to resist it, I'm forced to accept aesthetic relativism. It doesn't feel right to say that liking Mahler's 9th is just the same as liking the Beach Boys, but if they both induce similar emotional responses in millions of people, then I have to reject the high-brow v low-brow hierarchy.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 18:11:00 UTC | #924103

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 17 by QuestioningKat

If it's acceptable to say people's intelligence is inferior, why is it unacceptable to say their aesthetic judgement (which resides in the same brain) is inferior?

Thank you! Many people have inferior aesthetic judgement. I believe some of it is cultural while some aesthetic inferiority comes from poor or uneducated observation skills. Some people just are not exposed frequently enough to quality. I recall a conversation, not sure is it was here, about experts needing to be superior in some sort of pursuit in order to be able to properly see if something or someone is lacking in an area. People may lack the ability to see their own shortcomings and naively or arrogantly inflate their abilities. I recall going to a championship figure skating competition. Without a TV commentator reviewing and replaying the skater's moves, I could not tell why one skater rated so poorly while the other had higher marks.

IMO, each and every area of art, each and every style, genre, ability, etc. has objective criteria in which it can be judged. Yet very few people are at this skill level themselves in order to be able to judge it. Some forms of art require superior observational skills, hand-eye coordination, sense of color, proportion, design, etc. while other art forms have a completely different set of criteria. I have met plenty of artists who are better at talking about an overflowing bucket of water and cannot even draw.

People's choices in style and aesthetics reveal much about them. Your choice in shoes, car, color, hairstyle, tell the aesthetically educated person about your level of income, education, preferences, culture, attitude, where you live geographically, etc. Like it or not, some people have a hierarchy of acceptability and quickly and maybe subconsciously rate you based on their views. Sales marketing knows who you are and what you like and don't like. Choose Bach or Beach Boys and you are pegged.

I recall a TV talk show from long ago about some woman that was an admitted "gold digger." The producers planted a multimillionaire in the audience to see if she could find him. She searched a little in the audience and then stood examining one particular man. Interestingly, I did not his manner of dress to be telling, but she correctly identified him.

What's my point? If you're not an expert, if you're not highly skilled or capable, stand back and let those who know what they are doing continue on. Nobody wants to admit or even think that they have a poor sense of style (or beauty), but too bad, you probably do.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 22:12:13 UTC | #924158

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 18 by QuestioningKat

Comment 4 by Rtambree :

High-brow art and low-brow art are just subjective social constructions. If you like Michael Bay and Adam Sandler films, there might be no neurologically discernible difference from a film connoisseur's appreciation of Bergman or Fellini films.

The ability to APPRECIATE or feel JOY probably has no discernible neurological differences, but my guess is that what caused the choice between Fellini and Sandler most likely would reveal neurological differences.

Sat, 03 Mar 2012 22:22:59 UTC | #924162

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 19 by Anaximander

Suppose X is worse than Y. Isn't it then the case that those who can (or have learned to) enjoy X have higher taste or skill? Anybody can see beauty in the most beautiful thing, but to see beauty in less beautiful things...

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 00:20:43 UTC | #924205

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 20 by QuestioningKat

I think so, wabi sabi.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 01:18:24 UTC | #924222

rjohn19's Avatar Comment 21 by rjohn19

I personally don't find this worthy of study. There is no answer.

As Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court said when unable to define the line between art and porn, "I know it when I see it."

Sophia Loren's face was a jumble of errors that happenend to work- in no wise symmetrical. Julia Roberts has her lips upside-down but were she to hit on you in a pub, you'd not sent her packing home alone. Beauty cannot be quantified or measured. Perfectly symmetrical faces land modeling careers with mass chain because they do not detract from the clothing. They never become stars.

And please do not even try to make a case for high-brow art. Some of it is a scam, pure and simple. The Emporer's New Clothes comes to mind here.

If you are in need of a giggle, subscribe (it's free) to the Sotheby's art auction site. I have seen things on there go for millions that I could have painted (I have trouble drawing stick-men) and things I could not imagine how the artist captured go for a pittance.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 04:02:05 UTC | #924248

the great teapot's Avatar Comment 22 by the great teapot

some one once said to me when i was about 20 and i have carried it for the next 27 years , beauty is an evolutionary con trick to keep us in love with life. That includes love of a fellow human and love of a beautifull landscape.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 11:45:15 UTC | #924284

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 23 by QuestioningKat

Comment 22 by the great teapot :

some one once said to me when i was about 20 and i have carried it for the next 27 years , beauty is an evolutionary con trick to keep us in love with life. That includes love of a fellow human and love of a beautifull landscape.

I totally agree. Appreciation, reverence, special meaning, giving importance are results of identifying something as beautiful. When we deem something as worthy, I think we are also more likely to take care of it, want it... We can look out over a vast landscape and see the majesty of it all. Yet, I think there is a fine line in which we humans cross over from deep appreciation to worship.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 15:05:02 UTC | #924319

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 24 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 13 by CEVA34

Re comment 4 "I recommend John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?' - which makes a compelling case for aesthetic relativism. One person can get the same thrill out of Kylie Minogue's music as another can get from Wagner's operas. High-brow art and low-brow art are just subjective social constructions."

This whole approach seems to me absurd, and the case is not 'compelling' at all. Simply making the aesthetics relative begs the question of how anyone possibly knows that the 'thrill' is of the same kind or quality.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 15:46:05 UTC | #924324

the great teapot's Avatar Comment 25 by the great teapot

schrodingers cat, Pop music is often orchestrated, it usually sounds corny as a result, but non the less it would stand up on it's own in the orchestrated world if we hadn't already heard the pop original.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 21:02:25 UTC | #924408

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 26 by Schrodinger's Cat

There are feelings evoked by music that, I have to say, I find very hard to see have any evolutionary use. And if music is simply about 'feeling good' then how does one explain music where it feels good to feel bad....so to speak. What possible evolutionary use is there in sad music ? And why do people enjoy watching horror movies ? It's a puzzle that people can sit down and enjoy the very things they spend most of their time trying to avoid.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 21:55:07 UTC | #924433

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 27 by QuestioningKat

Perhaps creative people have simply found a way to tap into our evolutionary "drives." The art evokes responses that have/had evolutionary use. We humans are surely a manipulative species.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 23:09:14 UTC | #924456

Functional Atheist's Avatar Comment 28 by Functional Atheist

One simple, objective point regarding attempts to quantify qualitative measurements of artistic value is durability through time. If significant numbers of people are still listening to a composer long after he or she is dead, that is an objective and suggestive data point. The same might be said of writers, painters, sculptors, and scientists. The likelihood that Shakespeare, or Leonardo, were truly brilliant in something like an objective sense is greater than the likelihood that Vladimir Nabokov or Jackson Pollack were. All of these people are dead, but Shakespeare and Leonardo have been dead much longer.

Time also provides context, and allows for faddish style points to become less important. Part of the esteem heaped on the Beatles can be attributed to the fact that large numbers of people are still alive who experienced the frenzy of Beatlemania, but within a few decades that will not be the case. My bet is that Beatles music will still be revered past the death of their last first generation fan, but right now that is a probabilistic hunch rather than a demonstrated fact.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 23:09:24 UTC | #924457

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 29 by Cook@Tahiti

Comment 28 by Functional Atheist :

One simple, objective point regarding attempts to quantify qualitative measurements of artistic value is durability through time. If significant numbers of people are still listening to a composer long after he or she is dead, that is an objective and suggestive data point. The same might be said of writers, painters, sculptors, and scientists. The likelihood that Shakespeare, or Leonardo, were truly brilliant in something like an objective sense is greater than the likelihood that Vladimir Nabokov or Jackson Pollack were. All of these people are dead, but Shakespeare and Leonardo have been dead much longer.

Time also provides context, and allows for faddish style points to become less important. Part of the esteem heaped on the Beatles can be attributed to the fact that large numbers of people are still alive who experienced the frenzy of Beatlemania, but within a few decades that will not be the case. My bet is that Beatles music will still be revered past the death of their last first generation fan, but right now that is a probabilistic hunch rather than a demonstrated fact.

Fair enough. That's one criteria: popularity over time. If a bawdy beer-drinking song is still sung in 200 years by 1001 people, it's a 'superior' piece of music to an obscure Wagner opera that's the same age, but only enjoyed by 1000 people.... ? The term 'instant classic' is an oxymoron then. We must withhold judgement on all new release artworks, considering them equally valid until age wearies some of them. Certainly there are plenty of Best Picture Oscar winners from the 1950s and 1960s that no one watches now, and other movies that were ignored at the time are now cult classics. That criteria forces one to take interesting positions, rejecting paintings of great technical virtuosity if they languish in unseen galleries.

Mon, 05 Mar 2012 00:08:40 UTC | #924476

Cook@Tahiti's Avatar Comment 30 by Cook@Tahiti

Comment 24 by Schrodinger's Cat :

Comment 13 by CEVA34

Re comment 4 "I recommend John Carey's 'What Good are the Arts?' - which makes a compelling case for aesthetic relativism. One person can get the same thrill out of Kylie Minogue's music as another can get from Wagner's operas. High-brow art and low-brow art are just subjective social constructions."

This whole approach seems to me absurd, and the case is not 'compelling' at all. Simply making the aesthetics relative begs the question of how anyone possibly knows that the 'thrill' is of the same kind or quality.

I gave a few examples... you could survey a statistically significant random sample of people and ask them to rate the work on a 10-point scale, or you could measure neural activity (dopamine) when the artwork is being viewed/heard.

Not perfect, but more reliable than some self-appointed critic declaring that 'Shakespeare is superior to Dickens'

Mon, 05 Mar 2012 00:11:54 UTC | #924477