Harmonic Society (1/4): Art as Family Resemblance + Cool Kid Theory

Note – The full essay’s title is: Harmonic Society: 8 Models of Art for a Scientific Paradigm of Aesthetic Qualia

The following essay was recently published in the Berlin-based art magazine Art Against Art (issue).

The essay offers eight different models of art: models 1 through 4 have been discussed in academic literature and the current intellectual zeitgeist, while models 5 through 8 are new, original, and the direct result of recent insights about consciousness as uncovered by modern neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and the work of the Qualia Research Institute.

Below you will find the abstract, introduction, and the first 2 (out of 8) models of art. I will be sharing 2 new models each week until I’ve shared all 8 of them.



Contemporary writing about art is in exactly the same place as writing about nature was before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there was no single intellectual matrix upon which to fix all of these impressions and ideas. There was no way of organizing all of that information. And this seems to me to be the situation we are in with the arts, as well.

 

– Brian Eno, “What is Art Actually For?” (2012)

Abstract

We start by assuming that there are real stakes in art. This motivates the analysis of this subject matter, and it focuses where we place our gaze. We examine a total of eight models for “what art might be about”, divided into two groups. The first group of four are some of the most compelling contemporary models, which derive their strength from fields such as philosophy of language, economics, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. These models are: (1) art as a word only definable in a family resemblance way with no necessary or sufficient features, (2) art as social signaling of desirable genetic characteristics, (3) art as Schelling point creation, and (4) art as the cultivation of sacred experiences. These four models, however enlightening, nonetheless only account for what David Marr might describe as the computational level of abstraction while leaving the algorithmic and implementation levels of abstraction unexamined. They explain what art is about in terms of why it exists and what its coarse effects are, but not the nature of its internal representations or its implementation. Hence we propose a second group of four models in order to get a “full-stack” view of art. These models are: (5) art as a tool for exploring the state-space of consciousness, (6) art as a method for changing the energy parameter of experience, (7) art as activities that induce neuronal annealing (which implements novel valence modulation, i.e. surprising pain/pleasure effects), and (8) art as an early prototype of a future affective language that will allow diverse states of consciousness to make sense of each other. These frameworks address how art interfaces with consciousness and how its key valuable features might be implemented neurologically. We conclude with a brief look at how embracing these new paradigms could, in principle, lead to the creation of a society free from suffering and interpersonal misunderstanding. Such a society, aka. Harmonic Society, would be designed with the effect of guaranteeing positive valence interactions using principles from a post-Galilean science of consciousness.

Introduction

We shall start this essay by making the assumption that there are real and substantial stakes when it comes to art. Not all of my readers will agree with this point, and those who do might in fact secretly worry that they are overvaluing art for selfish reasons. I come here to suggest that there could be very real and substantial stakes in art, and that to realize this you do not need to buy into sentimentalism, fanaticism, wishful thinking, or traditionalist attitudes. You could start with the sheer amount of human attention that is devoted to art in one way or another. Art seems to make a lot of people do things, and do them with a lot of their energy and focus. Indeed, many people point at their intimations with art as personally defining moments. Some say their best self is expressed in their creation, consumption, or participation in art. So what is all of this fuss about?

Alas, most things of grand significance have been analyzed by countless people. The sheer magnitude of certain human activity is not a justification for caring about it at the margin, considering the often corresponding sheer magnitude of other people already analyzing and scientifically probing the field. That is, of course, unless you have a reason to think that you have something that everyone else has been missing all this time. And this is the case for you and me right now. The new perspectives on art on this essay come from thinking very deeply about consciousness, qualia, and the possible implementations of the pleasure-pain axis, aka. valence. We will see how investigating these questions cashes out in novel insights about art. In turn, these models, as well as the empirically testable predictions they generate, might have the ability to reframe what is going on with art in a way that allows us to predict how and when it will bring about good and desirable effects.

The 8 Models

  1. Art as family resemblance (Semantic Deflation)
  2. Art as Signaling (Cool Kid Theory)
  3. Art as Schelling-point creation (a few Hipster-theoretical considerations)
  4. Art as cultivating sacred experiences (self-transcendence and highest values)
  5. Art as exploring the state-space of consciousness (ϡ☀♘🏳️‍🌈♬♠ヅ)
  6. Art as something that mess with the energy parameter of your mind ()
  7. Art as puzzling valence effects (emotional salience and annealing as key ingredients)
  8. Art as a system of affective communication: a protolanguage to communicate information about worthwhile qualia (which culminates in Harmonic Society).

Models 1 through 4 are already present in the memetic ecosystem of today. They focus on external aspects of art, such as why it reproduces and how it impacts social behavior. From the point of view of Marr’s levels of analysis, these four models focus on the behavioral/computational level of analysis.[1] Namely, what art looks like from the outside, and how it reproduces. Models 5 through 8 are novel perspectives that arise out of examining artistic experiences in light of Marr’s algorithmic and implementation-level accounts of consciousness. That is, how the internal information-processing and implementational features of brains give rise to art. In turn, these four models give rise to a new understanding for when art does or does not do its job.

1. Semantic Deflation

This model says that asking “what is art?” is, more often than not, an utterly confused question. Perhaps in antiquity it would make sense to talk about the essence of art, expecting there to be a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be art. According to the semantic deflation model of art, starting out with the expectation of finding a crisp set of requirements for something to be art is starting off on the wrong foot, for believing that there is an essence of art is to simply not pay attention to the large set of inconsistent use cases for that word, which challenges the existence of such an essence.

The semantic deflation model is supported by key insights from 20th Century philosophy of language, such as found in the works of Russell, Frege, Carnap, Quine, and especially those of the late Wittgenstein. Of particular relevance when it comes to defining art we could point at Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. Developed in his book Philosophical Investigations, the concept of family resemblance posits that many words which seem at first to point at something with a core essence are, in fact, pointing to referents which have overlapping similarities but no universally shared attributes.

Like the concept of a game, which refers to activities as diverse as checkers and cellular automata, and which cannot be easily defined in terms of e.g. point systems, physical movement, number of players, etc., we likewise cannot expect art to be definable in terms of media, intent, social effects, or craft. All we can aspire to is to identify common and characteristic features.

According to this view, the models of art that take objective beauty seriously on Platonic or traditionalist grounds are fundamentally misguided. Callbacks to retraditionalize society to preserve its past – more genuine – aesthetics are perceived as parodies of themselves, trying to undo an intrinsically irreversible process of cultural learning. Nowadays few people seriously believe that art should be conceived of as a tool exclusively for the glorification of traditional values and religious symbolism. It is also not fashionable to think of art in sincere non-ironic ways. Those who wish to earnestly engage with art must remind themselves that the days in which its meaning could be grounded on universally agreed definitions is gone.

Although sobering and clarifying, I argue that this view leaves a lot of value on the table. Sure, art has no common essence, but that does not mean that all of the uses of the word are pointing at things of equal value. Semantic deflation does not provide us with guidance for identifying and promoting good art. Indeed, as Wittgenstein might put it, “[p]hilosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language, it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.” (Philosophical Investigations, pg.49).

Interestingly, the semantic deflation model of art can itself be conceived of as an aesthetic. This aesthetic rewards those who can help others transcend narrow conceptions of what art is. Exemplary movements like Dadaism and Pop Art could be thought of as pushing the aesthetic of semantic deflation to the limit.

Art is what you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol.

But what if there is something worth preserving, reifying, and defining clearly in art? Semantic deflation should perhaps be thought of as a first step in figuring out what is valuable about art, rather than a final destination. To move beyond it, one should avoid reviving a naïve essentialist view of art, and instead identify conceptual focal points that genuinely enrich our conception of art. Rather than destroying preconceptions, we could instead refactor, discover, and build new and enlightened ones. Transcending absolutist deflationary views of art is indeed more appealing when there is an alternative in sight that is both better and more real than what you get by merely deconstructing and breaking down naïve views. And this is what we will attempt to do as we move on to other models of art.

2. Cool Kid Theory

In his book “The Mating Mind”, Geoffrey Miller discusses art in light of evolutionary psychology. In this view, art, rather than being a thing, is a culturally sanctioned activity devised to allow people to display their genetic fitness, by showing off above-average features of their phenotypes. Art is, in this view, at its core, an outlet for courtship. Incredible performances like those of Liszt and Rachmaninoff are not just for the pleasure of music. The incredible difficulty of performing the musical compositions is itself the show. The difficulty is not a side-effect of discovering new soundscape frontiers that produce blissful and extraordinary experiences to degrees that couldn’t be possible without the difficulty of execution. Rather, the difficulty of performing the musical pieces is part and parcel of what makes them so extraordinary. They are indeed erotic displays of fitness traits (cf. Lisztomania) crafted to cause an impression in fertile ground.

Indeed, we are constructed in such a way that we can emotionally hack and be hacked by others to assess each others’ suitability as potential family, friends, and neighbors. Unfakeable fitness displays typically require prodigious amounts of waste. As Geoffrey puts it: “Every sexual ornament in every sexually reproducing species could be viewed as a different style of waste.” (The Mating Mind, pg. 128. cf. An Infinite Variety of Waste) Only extremely fit organisms can afford to spend resources on non-survival tasks.

Fashion, too, in this light, is a sort of collective activity of systematic waste. Keeping up with the latest trends shows that you have a lot of free time (which, contrary to popular belief, is perceived as more sexy than the alternative). Only the wealthy, disciplined, or well-organized can manage to sustain energy- and time-consuming hobbies for years and years.

This theory of art has a problem, though, which is that on its own it does not explain art as a cultural institution. We could very well imagine that aesthetics-based displays of genetic fitness would be circumscribed to individual efforts but in practice we see groups of people coming together to work out the potentialities, possibilities, limits, and implications of particular aesthetics. We don’t only generate extraordinarily wasteful works of art ourselves, but do so contextually within art movements and aesthetic languages. Why is this?

I believe there is a layer of organization above individual signaling displays. To fully grasp it, we need to talk about what I have named “Cool Kid Theory”. This theory postulates that above-average and particularly well-rounded individuals, aka. Cool Kids, figure out ways of enticing others to show their peacock feathers, so to speak. Being a Cool Kid is not to excel oneself, but rather, to have the precise kind of strategic mediocrity that gives others the urge to show how they can improve upon your craft. At its extreme, a Cool Kid commands a group of people who practice a particular type of craft, which ultimately becomes an artistic gang. If you are a Cool Kid you can decide who is cool and who is not by choosing what challenges to measure the performance of people with.

Who wants to be a Cool Kid? The answer is, for the most part, anyone who can get away with it. It is so evolutionarily adaptive to be a Cool Kid that we have a number of psychological programs that can be triggered with a sequence of social cues that can make almost anyone into a Cool Kid.

Part and parcel of being a Cool Kid is to know how to induce the fear of missing out in others. It is about detecting when a particular challenge is headed towards an imminent dead end and course-correct to keep people engaged.

Here is an example. If you ever encounter a group of dancers in public transportation, you will notice that there is a Cool Kid who binds them together. The Cool Kid selects for people who have unique talents, and collectively accumulates a solidly impressive bag of tricks. Everyone in the group takes turns showing their best trick. For instance, the group might have someone who sings, someone who plays an instrument, and someone who owns a subwoofer (sometimes that’s all it takes). You might also see that there is a guy who can do the weird elbow twist thingy, the one who can break dance and do nine spins on his back, the one who can beat-box to the tune of the song, and the one who moonwalks while playing a harmonica. An effective Cool Kid is one who can corral all of these specialists and be the artistic glue who controls the overarching aesthetic. And this aesthetic is what defines a set of challenges used for impressive fitness displays.

The art world can be thus conceived of as a large super-cluster of Cool Kid gangs cornering the economy of attention. The competitive nature of Cool Kids is sure to produce a constant stream of novel stimuli, endlessly varied trends and fashions, as well as competitive and indeed sometimes even virulent attacks between aesthetics. For he who controls the aesthetic, controls your ability to be popular.

To be continued…



[1] Marr’s levels of analysis is a framework to analyze information-processing systems. First we have the computational level, which describes what the system does from a third-person point of view. This level is concerned with questions like what the system is capable of, and how quickly it can succeed at it. Second is the algorithmic level of analysis, which focuses on the internal representations and operations used to transform the inputs into the outputs. And third is the implementation level of analysis, which is concerned with the physical realization of the algorithms described in the second level.

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