More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners.  Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook:  does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)?  That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item?  (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests:  yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group?  Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics?  And if not — are there any features they share?  And significantly:  not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or:  “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at?  Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from courses in marketing research.  For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor they prefer;

b) that the populations of those groups are spread across the globe — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily:  for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth:  Poland and the UK;  not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, and one large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment);  the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like:  people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way:  many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences; and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own; and swimming within that sea are — “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, understood by the blind who see less and, in a sense, baffled by everything.

[Next lecture:  taste as a speciating factor]

When looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Sufferingist Theory of Art

Yesterday on a radio show a Herr Professor talked (in connection with K. 466) of his frustration with Mozart as insufficiently deep; and of the Piano Concerto No. 20 as having the saving grace of the minor key, which, he says, at least offers some hope of spiritual depth.

Though his view (that things sad/upsetting are deep — and, conversely, things happy and content are shallow) was not shared by other participants of the program (it generally is not), it is very widespread; it receives much support from the millenia-long association between much beautiful (or just important) art and Christianity and her macabre obsession with putrefying wounds and cold sores; and reinforcement from the romantic notions of the salutary effects of struggle.

And it frustrates me.

It frustrates me in part because it seems to be an invitation to make and contemplate ugly art — the horrible Suffering Mary Magdalene by Donatello, or the mentally disturbed prophets from the campanile del duomo in Firenze, etc. (and everything which has followed in their wake) which are somehow supposed to be deep because they are disagreeable (ugly); whereas to most normal, happy people they are merely disturbing.

But mainly because it slights my own spiritual experience — which I now personally perceive as one of great depth — in response to works of art which are peaceful, calm, and pleasing.  Indeed, raised in a Christian and romantic nation as I was, I had long lived in the throes of the sufferingist theory of art and was, as a result, long blind to the experience of depth of contentment.  I have only been able to discover it after many years in (blessedly un-Christian and un-Romantic) Asia and — another decade by the sea (sea, O sea, with her oceanic-ecstasy-inducing hypnotic powers). The eventual discovery of the notion of upekkha — held up by Buddhism as a state of spiritual advancement — finally clinched it for me, providing at last the intellectual justification for the pleasure I receive from calm and peaceful art.

Or, in other words:  the pleasure I receive from… pleasure.

The subtle connection between sufferingism and meaningism

[Incidentally, Her Professor’s sufferingist view often goes hand in hand with the meaningist theory of art (i.e. that art is only, or principally, good because it means or symbolizes something and “makes us think”).  This theory is often embraced by linguistically gifted people suffering from aesthetic atrophy. (Many of such people are brainy and ugly:  subconsciously, they find the concept of beauty unsettling and prefer theories of art which focus on information processing instead).]

The failures of sufferingism

The sufferingist theory of art neglects what is to me an obvious fact that struggle is not a good in and of itself, but only as a means to a goal which transcends it, and that that goal is — well, not-struggle, i.e. upekkha — i.e. contemplation of contentment.  The sufferingist view brands contentment as shallow and is thereby not only cruel (because it seeks to prevent those capable of experiencing calm from embracing it and tells them instead to go out and suffer), but also self-denying (because it denies the very purpose of any struggle — i.e. victory).

On beauty and sadness

Though Christianity bears much blame for buttressing the sufferingist view of art, the association between beauty and sadness, on the other hand, isn’t Christian. It is universal:  it can be observed in all sorts of settings across the world:  the ueber-un-Christian Japanese say that the cherry blossoms are never more beautiful than when they begin falling — and wipe a tear when they say it; Orhan Pamuk’s un-Christian heroes invariably are overcome with inexpressible sadness as they cross the Galata bridge; and Lisboeta Fado manages to sound sad even when it is in major key.  Perhaps great beauty makes us sad because it is mortal:  when looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us.  Or, perhaps, a glimpse of beauty drives home the misery and pity of our everyday existence and makes us despair at our own condition.

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