Monday, August 13, 2012

Evolving Beyond Darwinian Aesthetics

Adam Kirsch at The New Republic on Art Over Biology:
Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience—not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental. This dimension is defined in many ways—by its love of the hypothetical, of order and symbol, of representation for its own sake, of the clarity that comes from suspending the pragmatic; and it has, perhaps, as much in common with theoretical knowledge and contemplation as it does with sensory enjoyment. The “usefulness” of this whole way of being is what must be explained, if there is to be a plausible Darwinian aesthetics. Even if there were, it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.
On a not unrelated note, here's Josef Pieper on the uniquely human knack for contemplation.
One often reads and hears that, through lechery, a man sinks to the level of a beast - a comparison that should be used cautiously, since lechery (and also discipline) is something exclusively human; neither an angel nor a beast experiences it.  Yet from this distinction the figure of speech does draw a good meaning: an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.  Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake propter convenientiam sensibilium [because they are pleasing to sense]...  Only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.
Seeing all of this puts the human back in the humanities, glad I didn't give up on art history after all.