Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Art, perceptual deployment and triviality

Works of art are designed to be observed through a particular perceptual apparatus deployed in a particular way. A music CD may be shiny and pretty to the eye, but this is orthogonal to the relevant aesthetic qualities which are meant to be experienced through the ear. A beautiful painting made for a trichromat human would be apt to look ugly to people with the five color pigments (including ultraviolet!) of a pigeon. A sculpture is meant to be observed with visible light, rather than x-rays, and a specific set of points of view are intended--for instance, most sculptures are meant to be looked at from the outside rather than the inside (the inside of a beautiful statue can be ugly). So when we evaluate the aesthetic qualities of a work of art, we evaluate a pair: "the object itself" and the set of intended deployments of perception. But "perception" here must be understood broadly enough to include language processing. The same sequence of sounds can be nonsense in one language, an exquisite metaphor in another, and trite in a third. And once we include language processing, it's hard to see where to stop in the degree of cognitive update to be specified in the set of deployments of perception (think, for instance, about the background knowledge needed to appreciate many works).

Furthermore, for every physical object, there is a possible deployment of a possible perceptual apparatus that decodes the object into something with the structure of the Mona Lisa or of War and Peace. We already pretty much have the technology to make smart goggles that turn water bottles in the visual field into copies of Michelangelo's David, and someone could make sculptures designed to be seen only through those goggles. (Indeed, the first exhibit could just be a single water bottle.) And if one insists that art must be viewable without mechanical aids--an implausible restriction--one could in principle genetically engineer a human who sees in such a way.

Thus any object could be beautiful, sublime or ugly, when paired with the right set of deployments of perceptual apparatus, including of cognitive faculties. This sounds very subjectivistic, but it's not. For the story is quite compatible with there being a non-trivial objective fact about which pairs of object and set of perceptual deployments exhibit which aesthetic qualities.

Still, the story does make for trivialization. I could draw a scribble on the board and then specify: "This scribble must be seen through a perceptual deployment that makes it into an intricate work of beautiful symmetry." On the above view, I will have created a beautiful work of art relative to the intended perceptual deployments. But I will have outsourced all of the creative burden onto the viewer who will need to, say, design distorting lenses that give rise to a beautiful symmetry when trained on the scribble. That's like marketing a pair of chopsticks as a device that is guaranteed to rid one's home of mosquitoes if the directions are followed, where the directions say: "Catch mosquito with chopsticks, squish, repeat until done." One just isn't being helpful.

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