Our innate artistic preferences

I happened across this interesting Ted talk last night, featuring Steven Pinker discussing his then current book, “The Blank Slate.” He has some provocative thoughts about the arts, alleging that the decline in high arts during the 20 century was influenced partly by the popularization of the idea that human behavior is determined entirely by the environment and is not innate. If you accept this theory, you might theorize that since humans have no built-in preference for classic artistic concepts like patterns or repetition, they can be “programmed” to like anything including atonal music and non-representational art (think Jackson Pollock.) However, the blank slate hypothesis has largely been debunked — humans do have innate tendencies, including preferences for patterns and repetition etc. (I’m not sure that’s actually been proven without a doubt, but seems intuitively true.) Thus, art that flies in the face of these preferences will fail.

(I was recently reading about the theory that humans prefer uncluttered, non-busy forms of visual art because they remind us of the open savannas we lived in for most of our evolutionary history, savannas that gave us ample opportunity to see approaching predators.)

That seems to be exactly what happened with atonal music. Humans seeking discernible patterns in the music cannot find any in atonal compositions and thus the music is popular with only a tiny subset of people. (Occasionally, I find it quite interesting in a “horror music” sort of way, but it would probably drive me up the wall if it was the only thing I listened to.) 20th-century non-representational art seems a little more welcoming. I find some of it interesting look at in the same way it’s interesting to look at clouds or fields of plants in nature. But, nonetheless, it’s fair to say most people prefer art that “looks like something,” and gives their eyes something to hook into.

I’d have to read Pinker’s book to really think through the ramifications of all this, but I’m always interested in the way that ideas in the sciences can affect the art world, which tends to hold itself as being above such distractions.

On a complete tangent, I’ve noticed that Flo, the Progressive Insurance girl, is looking a bit peaked in recent commercials. I hope they’re not working her too hard.

1 Response to “Our innate artistic preferences”


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