But Is It

This fitness display theory of aesthetics works much better for folk aesthetics than for elite aesthetics. Folk aesthetics concerns what ordinary people find beautiful; elite aesthetics concerns the objects of art that highly educated, rich elites learn are considered worthy of comment by their peers. With folk aesthetics, the focus is on the art-object as a display of the creator's craft. With elite aesthetics, the focus is on the viewer's response as a social display. In response to a landscape painting, folks might say "Well, it's a pretty good picture of a cow, but it's a little smudgy," while elites might say, "How lovely to see Constable's ardent brushwork challenging the anodyne banality of the pastoral genre." The first response seems a natural expression of typical human aesthetic tastes concerning other people's artistic displays, and the second seems more of a verbal display in its own right.

Elite aesthetics follow the same signaling principles as sexual selection, but follow them in cultural direction specifically designed to contrast against folk aesthetics. Elites, free to enjoy all manner of costly and wasteful display, often try to distinguish themselves from the common run of humanity by replacing natural human tastes with artfully contrived preferences. Where ordinary folks prefer bright cheerful colors, elites may prefer monochromes, subtle pastels, and elusive off-whites. Where folks prefer good technique and manifest skill, elites may prefer expressiveness, randomness, psychoticism, or a childlike rejection of skill. Where folks prefer realism, elites prefer abstraction. With these preferences, elites can display their intelligence, learning ability, and sensitivity to emerging cultural norms. But to an evolutionary psychologist, the beauty that ordinary people find in ordinary ornamental and representational art says far more about art's origins.

The fitness indicator theory can explain some embarrassing questions that ordinary people ask when they are admitted to modern art museums. A common reaction to abstract expressionist painting is to dismiss it by saying "My child could have done that," "Any idiot could have done that," or "Even a monkey could have done that." Instead of condescending at such comments, we should ask what sort of aesthetic instincts they reveal. To say "My child could have done that" could mean "I cannot discern here any signs of learned skill that would distinguish an adult expert from an immature novice." The "Any idiot" comment could mean "I cannot judge the artist's general intelligence level from this work." The "Even a monkey" comment could mean "The work does not even include any evidence of cognitive or behavioral abilities unique to our species of primate."

Interpreted from a signaling theory viewpoint, such comments are not stupid. Most people want to be able to interpret works of art as indicators of the artist's skill and creativity. Certain styles of art make this difficult to do. People feel frustrated. They have efficient psychological adaptations for making attributions about the artist's fitness given their work, but some genres of modern art prevent those adaptations from working naturally. Having paid the museum's admission fee to see good art, they are instead confronted with works that seem specifically designed to undermine judgments about quality. Art historian Arthur Danto has observed that "We have entered a period of art so absolute in its freedom that art seems but a name for an infinite play with its own concept." This extreme artistic freedom makes it difficult for people to judge an artist's talent. This is not to say that all art should be easy, or that elite art is invalid, or that we should feel comfortable acting like Philistines. The human tendency to regard works of art as fitness indicators is being used here as a clue to art's evolutionary origin—not as a prescription for how art should be made or viewed.

When we talk about the evolution of art, perhaps we are really talking about the evolution of a human tendency to make material objects into advertisements of our fitness. When we talk about aesthetics, perhaps we are really talking about human preferences that evolved to favor features of human-made objects that reliably indicate the artisan's fitness. This view suggests that aesthetics overlaps with social psychology. We possess a natural ability to see through the work of art to the artist's skill and intention. Seeing a beautiful work of art naturally leads us to respect the artist. We may not fall in love with the artist immediately. But if we meet them, we may well want to find out whether their actual phenotypes live up to their extended phenotypes.

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