My teacher set the same test every year for the art exam: “please using the materials provided depict to the best your ability… a bee in a flower”. David Deutsch in his video lecture: Why are flowers beautiful? seeks to assuage my schoolboy doubts about this aesthetic misadventure and in doing so offers a provocation to current paradigms of cultural interpretation and transmission. Forgone is the radical relativism of contemporary post-modernity; the discourses of power, language and irony interrogated by crisis and ideology and in comes a strange and seemingly anachronistic supposition – ‘objective beauty’. Not the ancient hymn to body and soul of yesteryear, however but a trans-species encoding that shares a basic foundation with both ‘natural’ and ‘sexual’ selection and the sciences.
Deutsch posits; artists and scientists do the same things. The two cultures of progress persevere via a cycle of conjecture, error and correction, ultimately leading to greater knowledge and understanding and aren’t science and art both about information anyway? ‘The opposite of beauty is not actually ugly but rather boring’, Deutsch insists, ‘ugly is distinctive, only a matter of one reinterpretation away from beauty’. Oscar Wilde or Charles Baudelaire might indeed have to concur. But what separates a masterpiece from banality or kitsch? ‘You don’t have a choice in what is or isn’t an artistic improvement, any more than you have a choice as to what’s true or false in mathematics’, asserts Deutsch and running throughout Deutsch’s often bewildering and challenging assumptions about the nature of beauty is the theoretical distinction between ‘objective beauty’ as opposed to a temporary, cultural or psychologically derived beauty. This final calculation rests not with the beholder but with reality itself: outside all texts, beyond all individual consciousness and across species, flowers are beautiful because they have evolved with the participation of insects in the evolutionary process, they need to say things to survive as a species and we appreciate that evolutionary effort also; humans acknowledge ultimately ‘where the explanation is created’, outside our own temporary and mutable criteria. Beauty jumps minds, it bridges the gap between species and genetic histories, it’s simple a matter of agreement with the organic way of things and according to Deutsch, in the future there may be ‘unlimited aesthetic progress’ because of this ‘objective’ character to beauty – new senses producing new computations and new sensations ‘qualia’ for a post-human experience that we cannot predict accurately but know will happen.
In his lecture Deutsch is optimistically expansive about the possibilities offered by ‘objective beauty’ but also very clear that ‘objective beauty’ is not a cultural attribution of the past. Beauty is not self-expression (too subjective) or propaganda (too social) or skilful (too perfectible). Arts proper destiny according to Deutsch is with open ended, engagement with experiment and originality (just like his own theoretical science perhaps?). But is this new characterisation of beauty just a simple reassertion of what every art teacher knows already; that students make both mistakes and manifest improvements over time, that assessment can be impartial and that nature offers the best models for the student to imitate or is his thesis a radical recalibration of the enlightenment project, moving away from historical readings in which power and language are a central concern? Whatever our views on the politics of Deutsch’s unlimited aesthetic future, he seems to suggest, first prize at the cosmic flower show should always be awarded for computational intelligence and that aesthetic human culture is a significant and necessary component of the natural world.
[SYMPOSIUM] is a monthly reading group on the intersections between art practice and critical theory. Please visit the website for more information and to book your place.