A place for new ideas to settle.

14 December 2014

Art, beer, and emotional homomorphism

I went to my first Drunken Philosophy meetup at the behest of friend and fellow blogger Kayla (one half of Crows Against Murder dot Tumblr dot com), and it was really great. One of the more interesting questions, not coincidentally posed by her, involved the nature of art. This is a topic over-ripe with potential, but we eventually digressed from Kayla's initial question ("When an artist makes better art over time, what exactly is the thing that's getting better?") to the nuanced categorization question of What is Art? Specifically, we were interested in figuring out what distinguishes Art from Propaganda and Craft. And for that we asked whether beer brewing is an Art.

We agreed that it is not, at least not what most people think of as beer brewing. When a brewer makes a beer, they are aiming for a specific taste-sensation (hereafter "taste")—this is a mental experience that is obviously tied to an external physical stimulus. That is, if a brewer wants to make a stout that tastes of chocolate, they don't need to actually put chocolate into the beer. In fact distilled spirits and wines are a better example of this: most of the flavors you get in wine or whiskey, for example, aren't actually from the things you think they're from. There's no actual vanilla or apple or coffee, it's a trick of the taste receptors.

But beer brewing is not merely the mechanical stimulation of taste receptors: that is a relatively deterministic matter of fitting the right-shaped molecules to the right-shaped receptors. Rather, it's a Craft: there's no computer formula to hit a specific taste in one's beer (though I could easily see computers aiding in the brewing process), it has an element of human intuition and experience.

Art is even different from that, though: most people would consider a beer to be a work of Art, at least not in a serious way. Even a very well-crafted pint of beer does not have the same quality as a work of Art. The reason, that several of us arrived at, had something to do with what the artist is doing mentally. An artist is trying to induce an emotional reaction, usually based off of their own personal experience: the example we used was a particularly sublime sunset. The artist experiences some complex emotional state on viewing the sunset, and seeks to invest a work of Art with (something like) that emotional state. The idea, then, is that most people viewing the Art will also experience (something like) that emotional state.

The distinction, then, is that emotions are entirely internal to ourselves. Yes, they have physical causes (brain chemistry and all that) but we don't naively act as though our bodies are that complex. We tend to think of our internals as being harder to influence than our externals—flesh, sensory organs, and so on—and so to induce an emotional state is taken as more rare a skill than inducing a sensory state. This lines up with the more general psychology of scarcity—and we did agree that Art has a quality of preciousness or rarity about it.

More complications arose from there. Commercial qualities debased art, we agreed: but the great Renaissance artists were commissioned for almost all of their work, and yet it's commonly accepted that Michaelangelo was a great painter and sculptor even though his most famous works were paid for and dictated. It wasn't like they let him into the Sistine Chapel and said "have at, you artist you"—they expected that his completed work induce the emotions of piety, reverence, and awe before the glory of God and Church. Religious art, or religious advertisement? Only history has given us the distance to judge. Perhaps future generations will see certain Superbowl commercials as great art.

The idea that artists create a channel between [their experience] -> [their emotional state] -> [ART] -> [your experience] -> [your emotional state ~ their emotional state] made me think of mathematics, specifically the concept of a homomorphism. In math you study objects or spaces with various "structural" properties. A simple example is how multiplication works with integers. (Some spaces don't have the same "multiplication"!) If you can find a rule that takes things from one space (configurations of a tetrahedron, say) to things in another space (special kinds of matrices) while preserving that structure, you have what's called a homomorphism ("same shape").

Is Art really the creation of (something like) a homomorphism between the space of the artist's emotions and the space of your emotions? And at the deeper level of cognition, is our conception of Art related, in analogous fashion, to our concept of mathematical elegance? It's probably not a coincidence that Bertrand Russell referred to mathematics this way:
"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry."

He implies a hierarchy even within Art there—sculpture and/or poetry somehow on a different level than paintings or music—and I'm not even going to go there. In fact I'm going to leave it right here, before the art-math connection gets too far out of hand. In the meantime, contemplate some art. And drink a beer.