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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 15, 2024

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From a redditor:

When you try and make the hips bigger, it makes the hands massive.

More just dumb than clearly some ideology. Unless the ideology is merely that ugliness is desirable.

They don't think it's ugly. They actually prefer it. They are the ~1% approve at the end of any poll about do you prefer building A or building B.

People like Ozy really exist. They really do have actual disdain for things a statistically normal person finds beautiful. From Ozy's own self-description:

"One could very reasonably make the case that the natural human aesthetic sense prefers realistic paintings of beautiful landscapes with water, trees, large animals, beautiful women, children, and well-known historical figures"

"However, art of this sort leaves me cold"

"The first time I saw it, Joan Miro’s The Birth of the World moved me to tears from its sheer beauty. I make a special effort to visit it every time I am in New York City, including taking my husband to see it on our honeymoon so he could understand my aesthetics better. "

This is Joan Miro's The Birth of the World

To them uglyness isn't ugly. It's genuinely mindnumbingly beautiful.

In Malcolm & Simone Collins "A Pragmatist's Guide to Sexuality" they model sexuality with two polarities, one for intensity and one for Yes/No. So most people have an inborn strong intensity towards Bloated Corpses and that is often paired with a disgust reaction. Makes sense evolutionarily. But evolution is a blind idiot god without context. So sometimes the intensity meter stays the same but for the Yes/No marker the 1 becomes a 0, and they become sexually attracted to Bloated Corpses with all the intensity that most people are repulsed.

Do you not differentiate between what's beautiful in nature and what's beautiful in art? I guess I am in your 1% since I vastly prefer that Miro image to a typical watercolour of a pretty landscape. But that doesn't mean I don't find nature and the other things people have evolved to be attracted to incredibly beautiful (or that Miro doesn't agree or Ozy don't agree, for that matter). It's just that representing one's preferences in 2D in such a basic way seems crude, unimaginative and close-minded.

I'm really sorry if this post is too long. I hope it will be at least interesting. I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'representing one's preferences in 2D'. But if you find me crude, unimaginative, and close minded perhaps this post will be morbidly fascinating for you. Regardless, I'm thankful for your pushback.

I think what people find beautiful has a basis that is like 80% human nature, 20% human culture. An extreme example of the influence of culture. Japanese teeth blackening!

But I would find it strange if every human culture recreated it. Black teeth don't touch on the human nature nerve ending. It's a cultural influence on aesthetics that seems to die out when not constantly reinforced.

Meanwhile on the human nature aspect I think each person's aesthetic sense is the same filter that applies to nature as it applies to art. Thing's arn't beautiful and then we discover them. It's the reverse. We have beauty preference that reward or discourage us when we find them. These preferences reveal to others what our individual dispositions towards the environment are.

In the beginning there is an advantage for living near running water. That advantage builds into a reward signal for things that indicate running water, like shinyness. "Find running water" is too complex but 'happiness chemical reward for seeing shiny thing' is simpler to build into our nature. So now we have a preference for shiny things and we encounter Jewels. It's a worthless hunk of rock but that doesn't matter. It activates the same 'reward shinyness' part of the brain that is contextless.

It's the old AI joke. "Instead of programming AI to make people happy, why not program people to like Hydrogen. Afterall, there's a lot of hydrogen."

There is a reason we don't get happy about hydrogen. And it's the same reason why people worldwide like shiny things.

So what's beautiful in nature vs what's beautiful in art? Well if our aesthetics are our human nature with individual variation, mediated by culture, then the answer is nothing. Its the same sense organ applying to both objects.

which is why autistic people love Brutalism.

see the following image

On the left is a heat map showing where someone with a typical brain will focus their attention. On the right is how someone with ASD views the same house. Here's what Sussman and Chen state in the article:

Notice how a person on the autism spectrum, at right, avoids details like windows (which might suggest eyes) while a typical brain instinctively goes straight for them, without conscious awareness.

Pause here for a second and imagine Jane Jacob's eyes on the street concept. It's comforting for me to walk down a street full of windows and houses with front porches and pleasant symmetry. I generally welcome the interaction with my neighbors and, while not creepy about it, can't help but glance over now and then to see if I can catch their eye. I think that is typical.

Now imagine that your brain doesn't work that way. Imagine that your brain is completely overwhelmed by the eyes on the street. It's too much to take in, even just the buildings. Or it's an uncomfortable reminder that someone (unfriendly) may be tracking you. Now, is it possible you'd find some comfort — or perhaps just a noticeable reduction in tension — passing a building that instead looked like this?

So there is an instance of nature very strongly affecting preferences. Normal people like buildings that align with our caveman brain's constant search for faces. Austistic people hate making human eye contact. So now the whole world gets to endure Brutalism.

But then there is culture! It can't be thrown away entirely. Turns out we can break people's brains with enough repeated influence. My sincere apologies for the extended quote but it bears repeating in full. Bold parts were added in by me.

In Architectural Myopia: Designing for Industry, Not People we find that

, Gifford et al. (2002) surveyed other research and noted that “architects did not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings, they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when they were explicitly asked to do so.” The researchers traced this disagreement to well-known cognitive differences in the two populations: “Evidence that certain cognitive properties are related to building preference [was] found.”

Training to See a Parallel Reality.

Training is required to induce “architectural myopia” in a student, as the research suggests. The reason is that the peculiar industrial aesthetic now considered normal within architecture runs contrary to our physiological needs (Salingaros, 2006). We humans have evolved inside a complex, fractal, structurally hierarchical environment, so that our neurophysiology responds positively to and receives sensory pleasure from natural environments. Traditional architecture and urbanism in all of their multiple variations manifested over millennia and across geographical distances precisely follow this natural geometry, which is why our brains recognize them and respond to them.

Training adds additional layers of preference on top of our instinctive, evolved responses. Architecture school invests several years conditioning the student to respond preferentially to abstract industrial forms and surfaces. At the same time, this industrial aesthetic is touted as superior to all previous, traditional expressions of built geometry. Elaborate theories of history and technology are given as apologias for this now-correct aesthetic, solely appropriate to this wholly unique climax period in history (Banham, 1960; Giedion, 1941; Gropius, 1965). All of this effort creates individuals that see things differently from the rest of us.

This long-term program of psychological conditioning, has, since its development in the original Bauhaus, turned out to be extraordinarily effective. An architect experiences the world in a very different manner to any person who has not undergone the same training. By internalizing preferences derived from abstract images that override our neurological structure, over time, responses become automatic and crowd out other, more innate responses. The result of this aesthetic hegemony is the phenomenon of “architectural myopia”, an interpretation of reality that conforms to ingrained beliefs.

In those situations where emotion isn’t triggered instinctively by human physiology, our evolutionary makeup is not decisive and can be bypassed. Thus, in front of drawings or designs on a computer screen there is sufficient emotional isolation, and an architect judges the industrial, minimalist, “contemporary” designs positively as isolated objects possessing a pleasing clarity and monadic legibility.... At the same time, anything that resembles the complexity of traditional architecture is automatically judged negatively (its meaning is supposedly associated with reactionary or philistine culture) and it is rejected without any reflection.

In summary, yes. What's beautiful in art is what's beautiful in nature. It's the same instinct, influenced by culture. When you reveal a beauty preference you unavoidable reveal an aspect of how you perceive the world. All that's left is to discover is what percent of that is your predisposition or cultural molding.

Thanks for posting that architecture writeup. It links to this debate which has some nearly supervillain-tier speechifying from the pomo side.

PE: Why does Chris need to feel comfortable, and I do not? Why does he feel the need for harmony, and I do not? Why does he see incongruity as irresponsible, and why does he get angry? I do not get angry when he feels the need for harmony. I just feel I have a different view of it.

Someone from the audience: He is not screwing up the world.

PE: I would like to suggest that if I were not here agitating nobody would know what Chris's idea of harmony is, and you all would not realize how much you agree with him ... Walter Benjamin talks about "the destructive character", which, he says, is reliability itself, because it is always constant. If you repress the destructive nature, it is going to come out in some way. If you are only searching for harmony, the disharmonies and incongruencies which define harmony and make it understandable will never be seen. A world of total harmony is no harmony at all. Because I exist, you can go along and understand your need for harmony, but do not say that I am being irresponsible or make a moral judgement that I am screwing up the world, because I would not want to have to defend myself as a moral imperative for you.

CA: Good God!

Wow, I just read that debate, and it's truly fascinating and somewhat distressing. A lot of the anxiety I have about culture at large comes from the idea of post-modernism, something only truly accessible and enjoyable to a select few, but forced on the many. And somehow it has come to prominence due to the fact that the aforementioned select few are often in places of prestige and power. And more than that, it's self-sustaining; not, as is said in the notes on that debate, simply within the circles, but in society at large. A lot of people are swept up in liking, or at least defending, these inexplicably ugly tastes, which is much more offensive than those styles merely existing.

How would you apply this model to music, where the direct imitation of nature is naturally more of a niche thing (though it can be quite nice in some cases)? And why are rugged, mountainous locales so popular in landscape painting -- maybe that too is a cultural idiosyncrasy and things like the Lascaux cave paintings represent art in a more pristine state? What makes symmetry pleasant?

Teeth blackening is unusual in that it resembles "naturally" blackened teeth, which are disgusting. Most art fads aren't like that.

I think you give nurture short shrift. The thing is, so does post-modern art, which by prizing novelty (and sometimes ingenuity) over all else, simultaneously rejects the fruits of both biology and culture.

Interesting and a lot of the story as you tell it I agree with, but there is a bit of a perspective of 'overriding what's natural = bad' in your post that I don't agree with.

I can't reply at length right now, but just a few thoughts:

-We are constantly learning to like things we might 'naturally' dislike, and that's good if we're not blind to how we're being changed. (Kids don't like coffee.)

-Watery, glittery beautiful landscapes (real ones) are essentially unfakeable. Their rarity and the knowledge that they are real healthy ecosystems that have developed over millions of years and offer our bodies and communities good things is part of their beauty. Pictures of the same are available in plentiful supply and these days are entirely disposable. I think the abundance of such images is a large part of how they strike us. Looking at a beautiful lake is a sublime experience but looking at a painting of one usually does little for me; the latter has a copied, possibly manipulative nature that is just as loud as if it were covered in neon graffiti – it overwhelms any latent aesthetic appeal the image may once have had.

-Architectural myopia may be real and bad. But that doesn't mean just making buildings the way we used to is better. There might be learnings from traditional and learned notions of beauty that can be combined into something better that would not read as plain mimicry.

-We live in a world where screen-based imagery is cheap and increasingly has no limit in its abundance or ease of production. Living in this visually unprecedented world is constantly updating our sense of what is visually pleasing, whether we like it or not, and we can constantly learn from this experience. This is the process of becoming visually literate in 2024. Which is different from the process as it was in the time of Rembrandt, and again from the same process in the time of Miro. While I like the Miro image, I also find the idea of being moved to tears by it completely ridiculous, but I accept that it may have hit differently in decades past. Being able to actively learn from imagery around us in its full social context can open up new worlds and communicative possibilities, at least if we are alive to what is happening inside of us and don't just internalise a false ideal (as I tend to think some brutalist architects of the past did).

I find your comments intriguing, because I have the opposite reaction you describe. To me a well rendered painting or drawing of a landscape is often more attractive than an actual landscape. Or if not more attractive, more pleasing in a slightly different dimension. Have you ever felt a desire to be inside a picture: not literally, but to be in the place the picture is depicting? That the art is trying to communicate something higher and better than anything we can actually find our our normal existence? That the artist is taking what is beautiful and good about a landscape but crafting it in a way that no real landscape can match up to, throwing out the small bits of ugliness that is inherent in any landscape we can actually see and replacing it with the ideal? Because that's something like 70% of my aesthetic preferences. I want art to be more beautiful than life, more transcendent, more glorious and inspiring.

What do you see attractive about something like Miro painting? To me there's no real attraction at all. It does not show me anywhere I would want to go, any emotion I would want to feel, any state of being I would want to inhabit. I don't find it repulsive, but I don't see the point of it at all. What's the draw for you?

I'm not immune to the idea of a landscape that draws you in and in the past have liked such. These days I'd mostly prefer the landscape to be quite unusual or presented in the right context. I kind of like the Lo-fi girl videos because they seem especially well calibrated for the mood they are trying to create; I loved Scavengers' Reign because of the continual newness of its alien landscapes and wildlife. Whereas simple beautiful photos of earth's landscapes have been so abused for the purposes of marketing, screensavers, etc that they have in general lost their charm for me unless curated/displayed just so. Or else I feel that they are trying to suck people in to look at them as distraction, instead of in relation to the place where they're displayed (a pet peeve is places that display photos of the cities where they actually are, like a London cafe that has photos of London on the wall, a sure sign that you are in a crappy tourist spot.).

As to why I find the Miro piece attractive, hmm, hard to articulate, but I guess I like its choiceful colour combos, its combination of crisp shapes with rich more naturalistic textures. It feels like it abstractly represents elements of thought being observed, like when you close your eyes tightly or meditate. I find in it a sense of soft motion and microscopic scale interaction, like we're in some kind of primordial soup or subatomic field that could run on peacefully for millions of years. But I ain't gonna pretend this doesn't sound a little pretentious. In the end it just feels like Miro caught onto a certain wavelength and was able to share it at a time when it hadn't been captured so well before.

Kids don't like coffee.

Yeah, but they're right to dislike it (that's why everyone puts cream and sugar in it). It's actually kind of strange that energy drinks (that are just... better coffee/tea) took so long to appear on the mass-market, since aside from maybe Jolt they were very much a creature of the mid to late 2000s. Which is unfortunate, since there were far more drink companies and varieties to choose from whereas now it's all just Monster.

at least if we are alive to what is happening inside of us and don't just internalise a false ideal

The thing about beauty is that creating it requires serving others (if not created, simply possessing/being something other people want). Thus, those who think they know best cannot create beauty; that is why the master morality modes generally create ugly things (brutalism, Christian Rock, Steven Universe, etc.). It's just cognitive differences: servants specialize in creating the beauty, leaders specialize in refining it. These modes of cognition aren't equally represented across/between genders.

Living in this visually unprecedented world is constantly updating our sense of what is visually pleasing, whether we like it or not, and we can constantly learn from this experience.

Well, that and our art is more beautiful (our tools to make it are way better, we can spend more time on it due to post-scarcity, and unlike Medieval artists we have photos and videos as reference material), so much so that it's just background noise. Scream just doesn't really fit on a body pillow the way anime girls with... similar expressions do and I'd actually rather look at the latter than the former. Yeah, something something superstimulus, but all beauty inherently exploits that.

The thing about beauty is that creating it requires serving others (if not created, simply possessing/being something other people want). Thus, those who think they know best cannot create beauty; that is why the master morality modes generally create ugly things (brutalism, Christian Rock, Steven Universe, etc.).

I agree with this. Equally, though, a subservient mode of creation is just going to generate more of what people already like, and ultimately end up disappointing them. I feel like the most genuinely pleasurable experiences come from creators who serve both an inner master and the public too.