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Refactoring Aesthetics

John Dewey, the 20th Century educational philosopher, wrote a book called ‘Art as Experience,’ which has been largely forgotten by history. It happens to contain a more-or-less complete philosophy of aesthetics, the comprehensiveness and usefulness of which has never been matched. Dewey’s writing can be somewhat dense to newcomers,1 so I’ve tried to write a primer on a few of the most important ideas in it. I can’t promise the full ecstasy of the source, but I hope it can offer some of the revelatory qualities that Art as Experience has offered me.

Dewey’s first claim is that museums shape our beliefs about what art is, and convince us that art is primarily about ‘looking,’ or about physical objects. Instead, Dewey claims we should be looking at not the physical work (an urn, a painting) but the experience of engaging with it. For an urn, this may mean the experience of carrying water; for a painting, it means the experience of looking. If we’re examining the experience produced, rather than the form, we can compare the qualities of different works on a level playing field, even across mediums.

I want to be specific about a distinction between experience and recognition. Imagine that you’re in a dark room, and lightning strikes. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall is illuminated for a sharp instant—just long enough for you to see it. In that instant, it is in your mind, it has been recognized, but no time has passed to allow inspection or reaction. This is to say, you have perceived the painting, but: you do not experience it in that instant. If we unfreeze time there’s an unfolding—it ‘hits you,’ and then you begin to process it, both compositionally, and in what terms of what it means for this room to have a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The moment frozen in time is recognition; the unfolding afterwards is the experience.

This is all to say: all experiences take place over time, and no experience can be instantaneous. For music and movies, what this means is very clear, but it remains true with, for example, paintings—though they are physically, static objects, they’re experienced through the exploration of the composition over time.

There’s one more categorical claim we can make about experiences: they have order. We can take a movement from Holst’s the Planets, and have an orchestra play it backwards, but it doesn’t really stand up as a piece—it’s interesting, and it maintains many of its qualities, but as it stretches past about the first 30 seconds, it begins to feel directionless and odd.2

Almost universally, people enjoy music when played forwards more than backwards, even though the notes are the same, the information content is the same, and so forth. Obviously, we can’t put a book in reverse order by mirroring the direction of the letters, but it’s easy to imagine there’s a reason that it is more common for people to tell stories beginning at the start, and ending with the end, than starting with the end and proceeding with a series of ‘previously’s.

We might look at narrative to find an explanation of this phenomena, as we have many ‘theories of narrative’, which explain the orderings that are enjoyable in stories. The most popular in the west is Freytag’s Pyramid:
Exposition → Rising action → Climax → Falling Action → Denouement

But there are many others—Jo-ha-kyū, for example:
begin slowly → speed up → end swiftly

Introduction → development → twist → conclusion

Though these models individually are very imperfect, they all have a certain sort of asymmetry—most time is spent on a building motion, with a short plateau and a short unwinding.3

Dewey explains this by analogy to the experiences of a living creature. I’ve translated this to a rough and sketchy evolutionary-psych explanation—

  1. Creatures, animal and human, are always struggling to maintain their evolutionary fitness. They continually slip in and out of the state of being comparatively evolutionarily fit— they get hungry, they eat; mates are found, mates slip away; they are threatened by predators, they escape.
  2. These dramas happen at the micro-scale (a bird spots a worm and then catches it) all the way up to the hyper-macro scale (a mate is won-over through a multi-year effort to increases status in the tribe). Fitness is a continuous scale, which we can understand as a growing and shrinking delta between a complete unity with the environment—that is, the ideal state for the creature—and the actual state of the creature.
  3. Narratively-satisfying emotion is produced by the rhythm of that delta growing and shrinking over time, as equilibrium is lost by new challenges, and actions are taken in order to restore it.

This pattern of need → effort → fulfillment → satisfaction is found in the vast majority of the experiences that any living creature will have. 4

This explains the third facet of experiences that are desirable—they generally come to a kind of consummation, with the desires and tensions of the work being fulfilled. We largely judge experiences not on the basis of whether they’re enjoyable, but whether they’re fulfilling. This is why people get very upset over what they perceive as unsatisfying endings to games and TV shows (ex, the last episode of LOST), even though they’ll happily engage with works that produce uniformly low-quality experiences (Facebook, for example).

That satisfying experiences comes from the process of taking actions that have the effect of improving fitness, may be unintuitive. Most hold the model that comfortable creatures are happy, and uncomfortable creatures are unhappy. Dewey’s model suggests that if you're the process of evolution, it’s better to reward the creature for doing its best to improve its station, not whether it's happens to be comfortable at a given time. 5

I haven’t yet explained how, for example, an abstract painting can feel compelling—to do so, we must also develop a model of mapping between the base associations of living to stimuli, which I hope to address in another post. I have, however, provided an explanation of some aspects of the shared structures common to all successful aesthetic experiences.

  1. Art as Experience is, in my opinion, uniquely difficult to summarize—the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy only manages to summarize at great length, with a section for each of Dewey’s chapters. Wikipedia takes the same approach, but doesn't even manage that; the last four chapters have headings, but no body.

  2. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that works are ordered, or that experiences are canonically ordered. The artist has many approaches available to them—a work may have a modular form, or offer many types of experience—but the emotional unfolding of an experience is fundamentally ordered.

  3. A careful reader may note a similarity to models of the human sexual response cycle.

  4. To provide a concrete example: A bird becomes hungry. (A shift away from fitness.) The bird begins to search for a worm. (For this span, the bird gets hungrier, steadily shifting further from fitness, but the search itself holds a shift towards fitness, based on the expected outcome.) Finally, the bird sees a worm (a sharp increase in fitness), dives for it, and successfully eats it. (Fitness is moved back towards equilibrium.) Fitness moving back towards equilibrium produces narratively-satisfying emotion.

  5. It’s also worth considering Roy Baumeister’s research on a meaningful life in this context, as it aligns similarly. See, ex, http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/somekeydifferenceshappylifemeaningfullife_2012.pdf]