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Friday, July 13, 2007

The Objective of the Imagination

Today's post is part of an ongoing debate between myself and my friend, Ted Stoltz. We had been debating by email, but its informality led to procrastination (mostly on my part). Ted suggested we take our arguments public so could make ourselves stick to a time table and get some real arguing done. This is better for both of us because you, the reader, get to put in your two cents. The format is that Ted posts on Mondays and I post on Fridays. We respond to particular arguments raised by the other person in 1,500 words or less. We carry on the debate as long as we care to do so. Ted went first on Monday, so this is my first post on the matter. Ted has already gotten more response than for any other post he's done, so this is shaping up to be an exciting and rousing discussion. If you're knowledgeable about art, then I ask you, put in comments. Please, chip in. And remember, this is not just visual art we're debating, but the entire foundation of imagination. So join us, as travelers on the road for truth. That is what any good debate is supposed to be.

My argument is that imagination is objective. I am convinced that we can have good ideas and bad ideas, good concepts of beauty and bad concepts of beauty, and that beauty is a universal we appeal to. I do not mean to limit imagination, only that our minds appeal to what is already good and beautiful and we are only rearranging parts rather than creating that which did not exist.

1. Not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.
2. Being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject.
3. Of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.

Ted's argument is that imagination is subjective:
1. Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
2. Pertaining to or characteristic of an individual.
3. Placing excessive emphasis on one's own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc.

I understand completely where Ted is coming from. When someone writes a book or makes a movie, we say it is "his vision," or "her creation." It is natural to attach such words to what we do. Our minds are very complex, and we are all unique individuals with our own quirks and idiosyncracies. We can conjure thoughts that seem to appear from nowhere.

That being said, we are all still humans. We have the same hardware and it works the same as the person next to you. This is why we can say someone has a short attention span or a high aptitude for concentration. It is why we can say someone has a chemical imbalance. We know that "normal" is not up to our whims, and we make comparisons against our knowledge of the objective truth for the sake of being able to function. If not for the objective, we'd be quivering masses unable to relate to the world. We couldn't tell what we're supposed to do in any given moment or know whether something is right or wrong. Sure, we can say we believe everything's subjective, but we sure don't function that way. And with no ability to share an experience of beauty with another human, we'd be pretty lonely creatures, too.

Let us define beauty: Beauty is commonly defined as a characteristic present in a person, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning or satisfaction to the mind or to the eyes, arising from sensory manifestations such as a shape, color, personality, sound, design or rhythm. At least, that's how the Wiki explains it.

Men find fertile women beautiful because we have a natural instinct to produce offspring. When we are attracted to that which is incapable of producing offspring, that is a problem, not diversity. If all men were conditioned to find infertile women attractive, that would be disastrous. When we tell ourselves that our instincts for curvaceous shapes are wrong, or at least subjective, our eyes may go to other things and cause us trouble. This situation is bad. We must say that. Do people have the right to be attracted to rotting corpses, animals, and inanimate objects? Sure, they can confuse whatever they like, but it's still a confusion and unhealthy. There are reasons why we find certain things beautiful. When we don't, that may indicate a problem. What we find beautiful has impacts and ramifications in all our life.

You write, "I’m not particularly fond of Albrecht Durer because I think his figures are somewhat stiff and lifeless, but there’s no denying the artfulness of his work." Right here you momentarily agree with me. You are saying that his work adheres to some objective standard of beauty or artfulness. I could say his figures exemplify motion and life, and there'd be no ability for debate between us if things were truly subjective. But Durer's figures are lifeless. If they weren't you'd be beating your fists in the air when you said that, and it would be a meaningless statement. His forms are a bit lifeless, and that detracts from their beauty. That doesn't mean his drawings don't adhere to a high standard of beauty, they do. It's just that there's room for improvement, which is only possible when there are objective standards, existing outside of ourselves.

You also write, "To say that no one’s standard of beauty is better or worse than anyone else’s might be a bit blithe—but to say that your standards of beauty are not the same as other standards of beauty found throughout the world is a fact. They are not the same." I agree. I do believe that art of other cultures, be they Russian, Japanese, or Indian, is very beautiful. But they all exist at the same level of beauty. They are merely different in style. I do say that there are people with poor conceptions of beauty, and I have no problem saying that. I believe Orson Welles had superior conceptions of beauty than Ed Wood, and Johann Sebastian Bach than John Cage. When we start debating the merits of Bach and Mozart, that's something else. I hate Mozart's music, I think it's repetitive. But it is beautiful. He had a genius for harmony and melody, even if his structure was a bit thin. But just because it's beautiful doesn't mean I have to like it. I don't fault people for liking Mozart, likes are subjective. But the fact that both composers elevated what they did to high level of beauty is not subjective, it's very objective. And we must be able to tell that. We must see their flaws, and understand them so we can grow.

Are there intellects as great as Mozart or Bach that existed in other cultures and wrote entirely different styles of music? Yes! But they knew about beauty, too, and knew that there are certain aspects to different types of consonances and dissonances that have particular effects on the listener. The Greeks knew this, and this is spelled out in Plato's The Republic. When listening to Indian sitar music, I find it relaxing. I should. If I found slow tempo sitar music to be the audio equivalent of caffeine, I'd be a messed up individual. I'd hate to think what would happen if I listened to Metallica.

I believe that if a culture does not revel in beauty, but rather ugliness, we are not obliged to say their standards of beauty are just as good as anyone else's. If an entire people says that watching others get tortured is beautiful we would rightly say they are depraved, not entitled to their own opinion. I use an extreme example, but it serves a purpose. If ugly becomes beautiful, and subjectiveness rules, then how can we make good art, or art at all? The dark means the same as the light, the rough as the smooth, the vast as the cramped, and so none give the impression they're supposed to. It is the objective that allows for diversity! When we call ugliness what it is, it can have the proper effect on us. When I say a tritone is ugly, that doesn't mean that it's not useful. It creates tension in a piece of music which heightens the sense of relaxation when it resolves to a consonance. But I do not call a tritone beautiful, though it leads to beauty. If I called it beauty, there would be no tension or resolution and a piece of music would go nowhere. It would not be interesting.

Also, our skill sharpens our sense for what is beautiful. A carpenter may see an untrue angle that I don't. Does that mean when I do see what he sees, the piece of furniture is less beautiful than it was before? No, it means that I am coming to recognize an objective quality that I didn't see. When I train my ears to hear out of tune notes, does that mean that I am removing beauty from what was beautiful? No, I am recognizing an imperfection and an error, and am conforming to an objective standard. Rather than this being constricting, this elevates my senses and I can enjoy things more than I ever have. Because my mind gets acclimated to what is without and external, it gets the "right" ideas.

The point is, all these qualities are imposed upon us from without, and don't emanate from within. If imagination were subjective, we'd be able to do literally anything, and I'd bet no two people would find the same things beautiful. The fact of the matter is, we make judgments, and we share interests. This, to me, points to an objective world of imagination from which we draw, rather than humans being the wellsprings for what is considered beautiful.


Blogger Graham said...

I have two comments, and they can't be summarized.

One is about subjectivity v objectivity and can be found here: http://zarvoc.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/on-the-so-dilemma/

The other concerns the nature of beauty and can be found here:

I will be posting about "objective standards" in Western music and the "technique v concept" idea in a couple days, I'll keep you informed.

My argument is specifically this: While we are "hardwired" the same, in that we have systems of neurons that map reality to our perception, our brains are incredibly versatile and develop systems of thought that need not have any resemblance to each other, because they are based on our contextual experiences which are necessarily completely novel. For example: I find the dissonant soundscapes of Edgar Varese absolutely breathtaking. On the other hand, I don't like Bach's work at all; I can tell what he's doing (being a trained musician), understand the rules he's following, but it is entirely uninteresting and typical. I also know that a sizable portion of musicians and non-musicians feel this way as well.

My viewpoints stem entirely from my life experiences, which are not only novel, but also entirely valid. "You cannot deny the experiences of others." Keep in mind that the Western system of music is both contextual and designed by man, but I'm getting ahead of myself: much, much more on this come Monday.


4:05 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

Other thoughts / part two:

"If not for the objective, we'd be quivering masses unable to relate to the world. We couldn't tell what we're supposed to do in any given moment or know whether something is right or wrong. Sure, we can say we believe everything's subjective, but we sure don't function that way. And with no ability to share an experience of beauty with another human, we'd be pretty lonely creatures, too."

I would also point out that I am an entirely subjective creature; I function based off this property. My moral system is built from one basic perception; life is precious. From this I derive my entire set of behavior, although other systems are indeed valid. I also believe that humans have no way to directly share an experience of beauty, per my discussion of beauty above. Considered from a biological/neurological perspective, there's logical way that a "shared experience" can exist. You can get close, though, but we're not playing horseshoes.


5:39 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Well, just like Ted, this has garnered the most comments ever!
Thanks for posting, Graham, and I'll check out your blog when you've updated. Sounds like we're getting into a three way, here.

11:26 AM  

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