Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Looking at etchings" meets Darwinism: more on quantifying aesthetic response

Just yesterday, I was musing on the difficult necessity of quantifying aesthetic responses. Well: this morning via 3 Quarks Daily, I ran across a review of Geoffrey F. Miller's book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. This little passage from the review gave me pause:

It is not surprising that our theories of the arts are impoverished, argues Miller, because our theories of the mind are impoverished by metaphors designating the mind as primarily an information-processing computer. The better model for the mind is an entertainment center, and the arts are its natural output. Certainly, natural selection shapes our bodies and minds, but sexual selection is equally influential, and much more visible in the array of artistic productions. The novel, the film, the quip, and the code of conduct are the human equivalents of the peacock's tail, elaborate examples of ornamentation that advertise fitness through their very excess and flagrant lack of utility.
My astute readers (of which I have many) will note that this model for "aesthetic response," if we at my college were to attempt to quantify it in our rubric, would make for blush-inducing but compelling reading in ways that, no offense intended, the vast majority of our institution's research is not.

"Correlation between the the artwork's flagrant lack of utility and its encouragement in the viewer of the desire to engage in activity of a potentially procreative nature" would be about the most innocuous (if long-winded) way to phrase it, no? The documenting of pregnancy rates after engaging with the artwork would be exceedingly scientific and objective as all get-out, but that would capture only female responses and cannot capture the male "aesthetic response," there being no physiological equivalent for men. Moreover, we'd have to be very certain that there was a direct causal relationship between the woman's engagement with the artwork and the subsequent conception; however, such certainty would require a frankness from the woman that she might consider intrusive, no matter how much in agreement she might otherwise be with the fact that her frankness would accrue to the college's Institutional Research division's considerable benefit regarding the completeness of its statistical data as a result.

My college is also interested in its students after they leave us as well; I see the possibility here for both a (very) long-term research project and a way to retrospectively trace a male's aesthetic response to an artwork. By measuring the aesthetic proclivities of the above-mentioned offspring conceived as the direct result of its mother's engagement with an artwork, we could perhaps be able to enrich the data we had on the mother's aesthetic response and, at the same time, be able to draw some inferences with regard to what the offspring's father's responses were as well. There are problems with that second area of inquiry, though: the father would also have to be a student of the college; it may also be, in view of, again, the need for a certain frankness to ensure that the college's capture of data be as complete as possible, that even if the father were a student of the college, he (or the mother) might for various reasons be reluctant to reveal his identity. Still, it's possible that we could gather a group of participants large enough to be reasonably certain that the data gathered was statistically reliable.

There is the further problem of this rubric's inability to measure responses in men and women that are sexual but non-procreative in their nature or intent. One could make the claim, I suppose, that such behaviors are the very model of Miller's phrase, "excess and flagrant lack of utility" (and maybe are in fact analogous to Kant's formulation that art have purposiveness without purpose); but, as implied above, the institution seeks to measure those things in students which have long-term effects, and you can't get much longer-term than pregnancy and its assumed result of viable offspring.

So: there are a few bugs to work out regarding the gathering of this data, but I look forward to raising this virginal, possibly-fertile area of statistical inquiry to the attention of my colleagues, ever on the search as they are for yet more data for self-assessment and for material for double-entendres that would have the added excessive and flagrantly unutilitarian benefit of enlivening our coming discussions of how we conceive (of) self-assessment. Wish me luck. I'll let you know whether all this in fact bears fruit.

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Winston said...

Oh my, John... Either this is too deep or I am not yet alert enough ... or perhaps both. I certainly need a re-read or two to digest it. Until I better understand and internalize the premise, I will use one of my stock responses, which you may edit out if you wish: bullshit.

In spite of my cloudy state, the last paragraph pulled me in and made me smile. After that lengthy, serious treatise on choice of sexual partner as an art form, your summarizing statement includes:

...virginal, possibly-fertile area of statistical inquiry...
...discussions of how we conceive...
and ends with
...bears fruit...

You old word devil you... heh...

Gwynne said...

The novel, the film, the quip, and the code of conduct are the human equivalents of the peacock's tail...flagrant lack of utility

With such a faulty premise, it's easy to see how absurd the test results might you proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. ;-) The fundamental difference between the two is obviously that the peacock cannot redesign its feathers if it wanted to, mate or no mate. No wonder it's so hard for the arts to receive funding.