Friday, June 21, 2013

Steven Pinker on Aesthetics

Sometimes I tell people that all the interesting Canadians are from Montreal and offer as evidence jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, actor William Shatner and songwriter Leonard Cohen. I just noticed that another name I can add to the list is Steven Pinker, currently a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of some challenging books such as The Blank Slate. He was recently interviewed by Steve Sailer for UPI and made the following comments about modernism and high culture:
Q: You argue that the modernist high culture and post-modernist criticism have, on the whole, failed to engage humanity's interest because they ideologically rejected basic truths about human nature. What are some of modern art's flaws?
A: My quarrel isn't with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor.
Q: Why, in contrast, did popular culture become so much more, well, popular?
A: Popular culture, to become popular, had to please people, and (at least at its best) it perfected engrossing plots, catchy rhythms and melodies and gorgeous fashions and faces.
I think that these points are ones that I have made pretty frequently on this blog. If you replace the concept of beauty with that of technical innovation, then you get modernism. Note that I say "replace" as in instead of beauty, we seek innovation. Anton Webern is an excellent example. If we do happen to perceive beauty in some of his music that is almost an accidental byproduct.

I tried to get back to a more beauty-oriented theory of aesthetics by reflecting on an essay by David Hume in this post.

One contemporary composer that was not afraid to revive the concept of beauty in his music was Philip Glass:

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