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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Philosoraptor Considers Art

Society spends a tremendous amount of time in engaging with art. We sit in front of screens with tubs of junk food basking in the glow of fictions. We slobber some paint across a canvas or go to galleries to observe others’ slobbered offerings. We put on our hipster chinos and head down to groove to the latest anointed band from Pitchfork. But though the existence of our aesthetic urges seems to be universal, the standards of taste which determine how these urges are expressed seems to vary maddeningly between cultures and across times. Its doesn’t seem like the parochial forms of popular art described above share much at all with the beauty that is manifest in Japanese Tea ceremonies or Masai body painting. Nor even within the Western tradition are these similarities necessarily found—Homer Simpson isn’t much at all like Homer of Ancient Greece. Observations like these typically lead to the suggestion that standards of aesthetics are pretty much culturally relative and contingent on the societies in which they appear.

But this piece of folk wisdom isn’t as resilient as you might think. A striking challenge comes from the work of artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. In the early 1990s they produced a painting which they claimed captured some essential artistic universals. What was in the painting? They had found that people in vastly different cultures gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals. What they produced was calendar art—the kind of picture that is so familiar that it takes pride of place in motels and waiting rooms all over the world. It turns out that people just like a generic, lushly forested scene of hills surrounding water whether they be from Iceland or Kenya, New York or New Delhi.

One explanation of this phenomenon is that we have been socially programmed into preferring these kinds of images. Perhaps this is a consequence of the powerful calendar lobby exerting their corporate power in a globalising world. But a more intriguing possibility is the idea that these images point to some innate aesthetic preferences that are cross-culturally robust and really reveal something about the structure of our minds and our engagement with art. For if there truly are some tastes that we all share, this would undercut the notion that art and beauty are endlessly culturally relative. It would allow us to place the common artistic urges we all seem to share against a backdrop of some basic universal standards of art. Culture might sketch in the details, but humanity at large paints with the broad brush that makes art beautiful in the first place.

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