The Beautiful the Difficult and the Costly

Runaway theory and sensory bias theory are not fully satisfying as explanations of human aesthetics. Runaway cannot explain why we have just the preferences that we do. Our sensory biases may be shared with other apes, but they show little evidence of our aesthetic tastes, so sensory biases do not appear to explain human aesthetics. Perhaps fitness indicator theory can do a better job of illuminating human aesthetics. According to this view, maybe our aesthetic preferences favor ornaments and works of art that could have been produced only by a high-fitness artist. Objects of art would then be displays of their creator's fitness, to be judged as such. As with the sexual ornaments on our bodies, perhaps beauty boils down to fitness.

To be reliable, fitness indicators must be difficult for low-fitness individuals to produce. Applied to human art, this suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find attractive those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time. Also, like bowerbirds, Pleistocene artists must have been physically strong enough to defend their delicate creations against theft and vandalism by sexual rivals.

The beauty of a work of art reveals the artist's virtuosity. This is a very old-fashioned view of aesthetics, but that does not make it wrong. Throughout most of human history, the perceived beauty of an object has depended very much on its cost. That cost could be measured in time, energy, skill, or money. Objects that were cheap and easy to produce were almost never considered beautiful. As Veblen pointed out in The Theory of the Leisure Class, "The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive articles." Our sense of beauty was shaped by evolution to embody an awareness of what is difficult as opposed to easy, rare as opposed to common, costly as opposed to cheap, skillful as opposed to talentless, and fit as opposed to unfit.

In her books on the evolution of art, Ellen Dissanayake pointed out that the human arts depend on "making things special" to set them apart from ordinary, utilitarian functions. Making things special can be done in many ways: using special materials, special forms, special decorations, special sizes, special colors, or special styles. Indicator theory suggests that making things special means making them hard to do, so that they reveal something special about the maker. This explains why almost any object can be made aesthetically: anything can be made with special care that would be difficult to imitate by one who was not so careful. From an evolutionary point of view, the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive. This challenge arises not only in the visual arts, but also in music, storytelling, humor, and many other behaviors discussed throughout this book. The principles of fitness-display are similar across different display domains, and this is why so many aesthetic principles are similar.

Anthropologist Franz Boas insisted that in most cultures he studied, the artist's virtuosity was fundamental to artistic beauty. In Primitive Art, he observed that "The enjoyment of form may have an elevating effect upon the mind, but this is not its primary effect. Its source is in part the pleasure of the virtuoso who overcomes technical difficulties that baffle his cleverness." For Boas, works of art, were principally indicators of skill, valued as such in almost every culture. He added, "Among primitive peoples . . . goodness and beauty are the same." Whatever people make, they tend to ornament. He spent a good deal of Primitive Art trying to show that most of the aesthetic preferences of tribal peoples can be traced to the appreciation of patience, careful execution, and technical perfection. In his view, this thirst for virtuosity explains our preferences for regular form, symmetry, perfectly repeated decorative motifs, smooth surfaces, and uniform color fields. Art historian Ernst Gombrich made powerful arguments along similar lines in his book The Sense of Order, which viewed the decorative arts as displays of skill that play upon our perceptual biases.

Beauty conveys truth, but not the way we thought. Aesthetic significance does not deliver truth about the human condition in general: it delivers truth about the condition of a particular human, the artist. The aesthetic features of art make sense mainly as displays of the artist's skill and creativity, not as vehicles of transcendental enlightenment, religious inspiration, social commentary, psycho-analytic revelation, or political revolution. Plato and Hegel derogated art for failing to deliver the same sort of truth that they thought philosophy could produce.

They misunderstood the point of art. It is unfair to expect a medium that evolved to display biological fitness to be well adapted for communicating abstract philosophical truths.

This fitness indicator theory helps us to understand why "art" is an honorific term that connotes superiority, exclusive-ness, and high achievement. When mathematicians talk about the "art" of theorem-proving, they are recognizing that good theorems are often beautiful theorems, and beautiful theorems are often the products of minds with high fitness. It is a claim for the social and sexual status of their favorite display medium. Likewise for the "arts" of warfare, chess, football, cooking, gardening, teaching, and sex itself. In each case, art implies that application of skill beyond the pragmatically necessary. Anyone who wishes to imply superiority in their particular line of work is apt to style themselves an artist. The imperatives of fitness display allow us to understand the passion with which people debate whether something is or is not an art. A claim that one's work is art is a claim for sexual and social status.

By this point in my argument, scowls may have crossed the faces of any readers who happen to have read Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment of 1790 on their last summer beach holiday. Didn't Kant argue that beauty cannot be reduced to utility, that aesthetic enjoyment must be disinterested, that "one possessed by longing or appetite is incapable of judging beauty"? Yes, but Kant recognized that in addition to "ideal beauty" (disinterested) there is "adherent beauty" (biologically relevant and personally interested). He pretended to have a philosophical proof that ideal, disinterested beauty exists. But it is hard to tell Kant's "proofs" from idealistic assertions about human psychology. If we can find an evolutionary function for an aesthetic taste, then it is "interested," and if we can find functions for all tastes, then ideal beauty was a figment of Kant's celibate imagination. If you want a philosopher who understood the biological functions of beauty, read Nietzsche instead.

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