Tagged: gary cutting

Novelty in the Age of Criticism

Lower Manhattan Panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ tonight.
Lower Manhattan panorama because I am in Jersey City, NJ as I write this, with an awesomely aesthetic view.

Gary Cutting from Notre Dame and the New York Times knows how to incite an intellectual riot, as demonstrated by his most recent The Stone piece, Mozart vs. the Beatles. “High art” is superior to “low art” because of its “stunning intellectual and emotional complexity.” He sums up:

My argument is that this distinctively aesthetic value is of great importance in our lives and that works of high art achieve it much more fully than do works of popular art.

But what makes up these notions of complexity and distinctive aesthetic value? One might try to enumerate those values or create a list. Or, alternatively, one might instead claim that time serves as a sieve for the values that Cutting is claiming make one work of art superior to another, thus leaving open the possibility for the enumerated list approach to be incomplete but still a useful retrospective system of valuation.

I previously argued in a 1994 paper (published in 1997), Complexity Formalisms, Order and Disorder in the Structure of Art, that simplicity and random chaos exist in a careful balance in art that reflects our underlying grammatical systems that are used to predict the environment. And Jürgen Schmidhuber took the approach further by applying algorithmic information theory to novelty seeking behavior that leads, in turn, to aesthetically pleasing models. The reflection of this behavioral optimization in our sideline preoccupations emerges as art, with the ultimate causation machine of evolution driving the proximate consequences for men and women.

But let’s get back to the flaw I see in Cutting’s argument that, in turn, fits better with Schmidhuber’s approach: much of what is important in art is cultural novelty. Picasso is not aesthetically superior to the detailed hyper-reality of Dutch Masters, for instance, but is notable for his cultural deconstruction of the role of art as photography and reproduction took hold. And the simplicity and unstructured chaos of the Abstract Expressionists is culturally significant as well. Importantly, changes in technology are essential to changes in artistic outlook, from the aforementioned role of photography in diminishing the aesthetic value of hand renderings to the application of electronic instruments in Philip Glass symphonies. Is Mozart better than Glass or Stravinsky? Using this newer standard for aesthetics, no, because Mozart was working skillfully (and perhaps brilliantly) but within the harmonic model of Classical composition and Classical forms. He was one of many. But Wagner or Debussy changed the aural landscape, by comparison, and by the time of tone rows and aleatoric composition, conventional musical aesthetics were largely abandoned, if only fleetingly.

Modernism and postmodernism in prose and poetry follow similar trajectories, but I think there may have been a counter-opposing force to novelty seeking in much prose literature. That force is the requirement for narrative stories that are about human experiences, which is not a critical component of music or visual art. Human experience has a temporal flow and spatial unity. When novelists break these requirements in complex ways, writing becomes increasingly difficult to comprehend (perhaps a bit like aleatoric music?), so the efforts of novelists more often cling to convention while using other prose tools and stylistic fireworks to enhance the reader’s aesthetic valuations. Novelty hits less often, but often with greater challenges. Poetry has, by comparison, been more experimental in forms and concepts.

And architecture? Cutting’s Chartres versus Philip Johnson?

So, returning to Cutting, I have largely been arguing about the difficulty of calling one piece of what Cutting might declare high art as aesthetically superior to another piece of high art. But my goal is that if we use cultural novelty as the primary yardstick, then we need to reorder the valuations. Early rock and roll pioneers, early blues artists, early modern jazz impresarios—all the legends we can think of—get top billing alongside Debussy. Heavy metal, rap, and electronica inventors live proudly with the Baroque masters. They will likely survive that test-of-time criteria, too, because of the invention of recording technologies, which were not available to the Baroque composers.

The Orchard of Belief

CherriesOne of the most important impacts of the “new atheists” was to break religious discussion out of its silos. Before their recent rise, it was easy for the sophisticated secularist to laugh at the Pat Robertsons because they seemed absurd caricatures of Christianity in America. It was equally irrelevant to the Catholic theologian what analytical philosophy was up to in worrying over the meaning of meaning. And Muslims largely kept to their mosques. But with the critiques of the new atheism came a new willingness to hold remarkable, frank, and intelligent discussions about religion and modern life.

Take Andrew Sullivan’s article in Newsweek that attacks a range of Christian movements within the US through the critical lens of the Jefferson Bible. Sullivan promotes the sermon-on-the-mount Jesus as a radical guru focused exclusively on love. The surrounding texts and their subsequent grafting onto church doctrines are the source of strife both within Christianity and in its interactions with other peoples down through history.

And so as Andrew Sullivan cherry picks on Jefferson’s intellectual plantation, Gary Cutting of Notre Dame points out that there is not much fruit on the vine in the New York Times:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.

The moral messaging is just too diffuse for Cutting to be able to render into a ethical road map: Should we try to maximize happiness or focus on individual rights? Is the state the proper vehicle for charity? Is democracy better than totalitarianism? These are all contemporary notions that are beside the point in the orchard of Sullivan’s love.

We can contrast this sparring with Ross Douthat at Slate in his ongoing debate cycle centered on his new book, Bad Religion, that picks at the same line of criticism as Sullivan with regard to some of the current strains of evangelism in America. In his debate, however, he descends into a familiar line of attack against the non-religious:

Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

Much of 20th Century Continental philosophy was built around trying to find a place for human striving in a world that no longer seemed to reflect the simple metaphysical certitudes of traditional life and religion. Isn’t it intellectually repugnant to not try to understand the world without recourse to that certitude?

Moreover, we can easily find justification for absolute human equality in the broader web of enlightenment and scientific reasoning and create a simple enough algorithm:

  1. I don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  2. Those around me appear to be like me and say they don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
  3. Don’t harm others or treat them unfairly.

We can also start to explain why using evolutionary theory and our understanding of how non-zero-sum cooperation lead to social interactions. We can also bind this all up in the enlightenment liberalism that he critiques: liberty, equality, fraternity. In other words, we get human dignity through reasoning about what others are like and what we can do to make society better. Should there be moral fervor around that? Absolutely, especially when it is driven by a belief that someone is not being treated fairly.

Now it is up to Mr. Douthat to explain why that is not enough and how not applying that algorithm to everyone (including gays) is somehow more metaphysically sound, better for society, and justified by his orchard of cherries.