Archive for the Steven Pinker Category

Why is art failing in this country, in this world?

According to author and Harvard psycology professor Steve Pinker in his essay A Biological Understanding of Human Nature, the art world, as it has developed in the modern and post-modern era, is not fulfilling a societal obligation, and that is at the roots of its failure.

In the twentieth century, modernism and postmodernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that our predilections for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any schmo could afford a Mozart CD or go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. So art became baffling and uninterpretable—unless you had some acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don’t think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. …many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend.

Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are the very themes that fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate. The sciences of the mind can reinforce the idea that there is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.