Tuesday, 30 December 2008

A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics

OK, I'm posting a massive one this time and I'm kind-of cheating - this is part of a work-in-progress chapter that is going towards my final thesis. I'm sure I'll at least revise it, if not just start from scratch and take some of the ideas.

Some of it assumes prior knowledge, but I think for the most part it should make sense to anyone with an interest in this stuff.


Response to Francis Steen’s A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics

From the outset, my intention has been to employ a model of cinema as a ‘perceptual tool’ rather than as a medium of entertainment, or an ‘ideology machine’ – although these models are by no means incompatible or mutually exclusive. My discussion of the avant-garde from a cognitive framework is an area that has so far only received a modest amount of attention, not least specifically in relation to film. In spite of this, there is no shortage of material available on avant-garde film, some amount written on cognitive film theory, and a vast wealth of material from the wider field of cognitive science.

While much of my research will revolve around synthesising these fields and adding my own observations, I have so far just encountered one essay which seems to directly address the question that will serve as a backdrop to my larger discussion. Put concisely, that question is “what unconscious prerogative underpins the desire to produce and experience avant-garde art?”. An essay by Francis Steen entitled A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics offers a valuable response to this question, and so in the interest of defining my own ideas and objectives I wanted to outline Steen’s proposals and respond to them. It bears mentioning that his field of expertise is literature and mine is film - but we are both looking at guiding principals of aesthetics, and use different mediums as springboards for our discussion.

We begin by levelling the same criticism at theories offered on the emergence of aesthetic principals from within the field of evolutionary aesthetics. There is a tendency towards attempting to offer a ‘cover all’ account of standardised aesthetic practise. Steen cites the book by Voland and Grammar entitled Evolutionary Aesthetics (2003), which principally focuses on adaptations for habitat choice, and the experience of human beauty as part of mate selection. As Steen puts it, “what evolutionary aesthetics has so far failed to provide is a credible framework for understanding the surprising range of aesthetics” (Steen, 2006: 50). I would make the same criticism towards Anderson’s book, The Reality of Illusion (1996). Anderson offers a valuable ecological account of the principals of the human perceptual system as it evolved, in relation to how movie spectators engage with the illusions of cinema. However, there is no account for the variety of styles that one finds in film, not least an explanation for the emergence of the avant-garde. One would think, after reading the book that cinematic practise only works effectively in classical narrative form. For example, Anderson claims that an individual protagonist is “indispensable” to a narrative, and that Eisenstein’s experiments with a collective protagonist were “generally unsuccessful” (Anderson, 1996: 148) – both ignoring the variations by which “success” might be measured by, and also discounting the creative achievements of artists like Michael Snow, Bruce Baillie, Len Lye and countless other artists from the field of the avant-garde who commonly worked without a central protagonist, if any human figures at all.

Another reference that Anderson makes to ‘alternative aesthetics’ is in reference to Last Year at Marienbad in which he states that if the filmmaker does not supply adequate signals for a change in the image’s status (e.g. into or out of a flashback, dream or fantasy), the viewers will feel either bewildered or exasperated if they cannot supply the transitional signals by themselves. This may often be the case, at least for spectators entirely schooled in classical narrative cinema - but the question as to why Resnais intuitively chose to refrain from supplying signals for a change in the image’s status should be addressed. What unconscious prerogatives directed Resnais’ aesthetic choices? While not to discount Anderson’s contribution, an account for the range of aesthetics in film from a cognitive framework is yet to be developed . The variety of aesthetic approaches that exist, as Steen puts it “presents a crucial and delicate challenge when attempting to situate our current cognitive proclivities and capabilities within a renewed narrative of human origins” (Steen, 2006: 57). The variety of aesthetics tells us that a cognitive model which accounts for the range of styles available in the various media has not yet been proposed.

Traditional Beauty

By Steen’s proposal, we can begin to account for the variety in aesthetics by tracing the discussion back to the development of our perceptual facilities. He explains that in order to construct a fully functioning brain, one cannot depend on the genes alone. The human mind also depends on information that is present in the environment, he puts it that “we can think of the genes as a series of switches activated by an orderly progression of environmental conditions” (Steen, 2006: 60). Relating this back to the question of an ecological prerogative, it is suggested that if the environment reliably contains the information required to construct the brain, natural selection can be expected to favour mechanisms that easily access this information.

In many cases, the information required from the visual world is ubiquitous – such as the colour red, or circular forms. In one experiment, a group of cats were raised in a controlled environment without vertical lines, and on growing into maturity they failed to develop the capacity to perceive vertical lines (Stryker et al. 1978; Tieman and Hirsch 1982). In all of mammalian history, cats have always been able to depend on the recurring presence of vertical lines. As such, since the necessary information was abundantly present in nature, a relatively passive mechanism for accessing it would have otherwise been sufficient. Evolution hadn’t anticipated a controlled experiment such as this.

This is where art plays its role in the process of self construction. Beyond simple phenomena such as colours or individual forms, more ‘complex orders’ can be presented in art to expand our perceptual faculties. Steen proposes that aesthetic experience serves to supplement genetic information,

“our attraction to beautiful objects and events, and our experience of aesthetic enjoyment, may coherently be understood as the results of a biological need to locate certain types of information in our environments, as a supplement to genetic information, for the purpose of constructing and maintaining our own order” (Steen, 2006: 61)

He goes on to suggest that not only do we use art to supplement our own order, but that natural selection has constructed a motivational system that leads us to seek out these experiences. This proposal that art is used to calibrate our perceptual systems seems entirely compatible with my model of film as a cognitive tool – something we use to construct ourselves. And his discussion of the brain’s dependence on the visual world and other ‘orders’ found in nature to calibrate our perceptual faculties may well be the ‘missing link’ in substantiating my otherwise intuitive claim.

A point of contention in Steen’s claim stems from the fact that there has been such a variety of aesthetics that have emerged over history. Not only do guiding aesthetic principals vary according to geographical specificity, but they are temporally specific as well. Is it possible that the human brain required different aesthetics throughout history in order to maintain its own order? This seems unlikely. However, one possible response to this might be that as Bordwell suggests, where human biology constrains the aesthetic (i.e. sets the parameters), culture-based conventions specify (Bordwell, 1996: 98). Therefore, there is some leeway afforded to spectators across culture and historical place in regards to aesthetic specifity, even if the same biology remains consistent across time and location .

Nonetheless, Steen’s proposal that art serves to bring our senses back to life, and optimize our sensory systems may be usefully employed in my own thesis. But how does his claim fit into film? Perhaps Anderson’s book offers much to account for how film maintains order in the brain and brings our senses back to life by connecting the various aspects of standardised cinematic language (continuity, diegesis, character identification and narrative) to the evolution of our perceptual faculties. Narrative devices that were intuitively cultivated as cinematic language evolved exploit and perpetuate existing human proclivities, ‘maintaining our order’.

The Avant-Garde as Cognitive Strategy

If popular art can be used to construct and maintain our own order, how might the avant-garde be understood as providing an alternative strategy? It should be pointed out that Steen never specifically discusses the avant-garde or employs the term in his essay, and yet his idea seems to fit it with my area of interest pertinently. He suggests the following:

“By proposing new perceptual orders, artists tap into both the core and the unused fringe capacities of the aesthetic response system to explore complex sensory orders that have no precedent in nature” (Steen, 2006: 65)

This may be usefully applied as a backdrop to my own study. In art, one may engage with an artificial environment that cannot be found in nature. Since the human organism no longer operates in quite the same environment for which it was designed to survive, we may now propose new orders in the interest of expanding our perceptual faculties [expanding our aesthetic response system]. Steen suggests that it is not necessary for the orders found in art to replicate natural aesthetics, as long as they “tap into the design of our aesthetic response system” (ibid). Leeway is afforded to the human response system since innovative aesthetics “[exploit] the slack in our adaptive machinery” (Steen, 2006: 70). He continues,

“through art, an individual can not only acquire a certain type of self-knowledge about his own aesthetic preferences, but also use the art itself to propose new orders. These new orders can then be selectively incorporated into his own perceptual system, in effect teaching him to perceive and sense the world in new ways.” (Steen, 2006: 65)

This material is rich with points of discussion which I can address in the course of my thesis. For example, the “self knowledge” that Steen speaks of suggests that there are inherent similarities in calibration between individuals with similar aesthetic values. I, for example gravitate towards the mythopoeic rather than structuralist films (to use Sitney’s terms), in spite of the fact that I am familiar with the viewing procedures necessary when engaging with the Structuralist films, as proposed by Peterson in Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order. Is it therefore likely that I was born with a calibration which inclines me towards the kinetic, sensual style of the mythopoeic over the colder, conceptual style of the structuralist film? Were other adherents to the mythopoeic style born with a similar mental design?

A deeper examination on how new orders are incorporated into the perceptual system is something that could also be discussed. In a sense, “incorporating new orders into the perceptual system” is another way of saying “developing a taste” - but this could be looked at in more detail from a cognitive perspective.

A final point of discussion Steen raises here is how the ‘world’ is experienced differently after the spectator has acquired information that is unavailable in the genetic coding or the environment. It is easier to consider how the spectator’s engagement with art might be adjusted or stretched, but whether that changes the person’s engagement with the larger world is an interesting question, but one that is outside the scope of my line of enquiry.

One point of divergence between myself and Steen is in his faith in the average spectator’s appetite for novel orders:

“the proposed adaptive design of the aesthetic response engine is to detect and acquire information in the environment that is not present in the genes or in its own structure, for the purpose of wiring the brain” (Steen, 2006: 65)

What I feel needs to be addressed in this claim is that if human spectators hanker for information in the environment that is absent in genetic coding, surely the best source would be within the avant-garde – and yet the appeal of the avant-garde remains marginal. If the aesthetic response engine continually sought novel experience, wouldn’t fringe aesthetics be more popular? Public taste appears to seek novel experience within fairly strict parameters .

However, whether or not the general public seek radically new orders or not, the avant-garde nonetheless emerged as an artistic strand in the late 19th Century, and with this strand comes an alternative strategy that artists and spectators may employ in calibrating their perceptual facilities – a strategy that was at play beneath the horizon of conscious awareness.

Conscious Awareness & The Aesthetic Response

Two final themes that Steen discusses in his essay that I wanted to pick up on was question of the biological function of aesthetics and the aesthetic response system - both of which, according to Steen are undetectable to the conscious mind.

Before encountering Steen’s article, I already developed the belief that one’s aesthetic values were based on tacit knowledge – in other words, the spectator isn’t consciously aware of every human computation that takes place in perception of aesthetics. Therefore the human spectator cannot fully verbalise or account for their own preferences to themselves or others. Similarly, Steen suggests that “the conscious mind does not need a conceptual model of the distal purpose and function of aesthetics, nor does it need access to the complex internal logic of the operation of this function” (Steen, 2006: 62), and this is also accounted for:

“the biological function of aesthetics is complex in principle and execution, and from the standpoint of selection, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by clogging up the limited bandwidth and processing capacities of the conscious mind” (Steen, 2006: 62)

So evolution did not provide the conscious mind any awareness of the computations or the biological purpose of aesthetics, which may account for why this has been largely ignored in critical theory in film, while textual readings are pervasive. The “inferred but invisible underlying order” (Steen, 2006: 63) in art, as Steen puts it remains elusive to the conscious mind.

Steen also claims that the aesthetic response system is inaccessible to the conscious mind. What is made available to the conscious mind is a “phenomenology of aesthetic” which is rich and delightful, inherently motivating and it “confirms the exquisite order of the world and indeed our place within it” (Steen, 2006: 62). Inversely, when the senses are deprived of an aesthetic order we experience boredom and a dissatisfaction with the quality of our sensory environment. But again, the details of the aesthetic response remains elusive to the conscious mind:

“The elementary guiding principle of artistic creation is to trigger a controlled series of sensations that awaken an aesthetic response… the detailed characteristics of our aesthetic response system are unknown to us” (Steen, 2006: 65)

however, it is possible that the details of the aesthetic response system have in fact already been identified. Ellis describes a network in the brain called the RAS (Reticulate Arousal System ) which is believed to be the centre of arousal and motivation in humans. The RAS carries information from the outside world to the higher brain for stimulation by means of its connections with the cerebral cortex – which plays a central role for a variety of brain functions including attention, perceptual awareness and consciousness. The cortex and RAS are “intimately connected and stand on opposite sides of a balance, with the RAS exerting an arousing influence on the body system generally and the cortex inhibiting the RAS” (Ellis, 1973: 89). The point here is that it is optimal arousal that we seek, not maximal. But what’s important to my discussion is that this may offer some insight into the characteristics of the aesthetic response system that have eluded Steen – the nature of pleasure during an aesthetic experience, so to speak. When the spectator experiences a work of art that he is captivated by, he is at an optimal level of arousal. When the spectator is under stimulated, he will compensate by allowing his mind to wander. When he is over stimulated – if the sensory input is overwhelming, he might escape from the situation, or attend only to parts of the input. But in avoiding under stimulation, Ellis also suggests the following:

“the crucial factor [seems] to be [the] presence of meaningful stimuli. A hissing or white noise may generate the same quantum energy in the ears, but the subject cannot generate from it patterns of input that can be attended to” (Ellis, 1973: 87)

I would add to this that rather than simply a presence of meaningful stimuli, the spectator must be mentally equipped to both detect a meaningful pattern, and feel suitably challenged by it. When a work of art fails to arouse an aesthetic response, I would propose three possibilities as to why this may be the case:

1) the work of art is impenetrable, i.e. the spectator’s aesthetic values aren’t configured in such a way that accommodates the characteristics of the work. In Steen’s words, the spectator cannot detect the ‘inferred but invisible order’
2) the art is redundant, so the spectator is well acquainted with the form and/ or perceptual procedures of the work but feels under challenged
3) the spectator would enjoy the work on a formal level, but it doesn’t fall within the cultural sphere within which he aligns himself and so resists any potential aesthetic enjoyment

the third of these propositions is an unusual case since it requires a wilful act, so we can just focus on the first two.

In staying with Ellis’ auditory example, Patrick Hogan essentially argues the same point as myself – which is that rather than being the presence of a meaningful stimuli, the spectator needs the correct relationship with the information – the order should be neither impenetrable, nor redundant. Hogan cites W. Jay Dowling (a prominent cognitive theorist of music), who describes the experience of listening to music as “perceiving pattern invariants in musical events” (Downling, 1988: 126), and states that while the average adult would be unable to detect meaningful patterns in Shoenberg’s Second String Quartet (even though they are detectable to the trained ear), Barney the Dinosaur’s I Love You; You Love Me quickly becomes insufferable to adults in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that the pattern invariants are abundantly, excessively apparent (Hogan, 2003: 9). A less sophisticated infant could listen to the song endlessly, it would seem because an infant can find the appropriate level of stimulation in the work. But this is less likely to be the case for an adult.

So Steen’s orders, Ellis’ meaningful patterns and Dowling’s perception of pattern invariants all appear to point towards the same concept. With the order in place (in its multitudinous forms available), the spectator depends on having a set of aesthetic values instilled that are compliant with the stimulus on offer. If the spectator and the order are ideally compliant, the RAS exerts an arousing influence on the body to an optimal level. Failing that, the spectator will experience boredom, irritation or feel overwhelmed.

Bringing this discussion back to the avant-garde, a slightly different set of rules are at play to those already discussed. While arousing the spectator through detectable orders operates as a prerogative of art, the desire to incorporate new orders into the perceptual system requires the spectator to deny themselves the direct arousal of which is the underlying strategy found in popular art. In the avant-garde, at worst the art will more likely be impenetrable, and thus under stimulating. At best, it will allow the spectator to expand their perceptual skills and understand a broader range of aesthetic approaches – and this is something that is tacitly understood by adherents to the avant-garde and fringe aesthetics.


The starting point for my discussion began with what I saw as an incongruity between the ecological account of the emergence of film aesthetics that Anderson provided, and the emergence of the avant-garde. My goal is to offer a proposal that makes the ecological approach compatible with the fact that the avant-garde exists as an aesthetic strand. Using Steen’s theory of aesthetics as a tool of self-construction, I’ve proposed that the avant-garde unconsciously provides its adherents with an alternative strategy for self-construction to that of mainstream work. Within that debate, I’ve also attempted to provide an explanation as to why the process of self-construction is an unconscious one, and why the avant-garde – while providing benefits in self construction that might make it preferential over mainstream work, remains largely ignored by the general public.

It is possible that I should adopt a more moderate view of the difference between the mainstream and the avant-garde. It may be more appropriate to characterise these two aesthetic approaches as poles operating on a sliding scale, rather than being binary opposites. To one extent or another, every work of art supplements genetic information to optimize what’s already there, and every work also strives to create new orders (all art requires some degree of novelty) - but there is a difference in emphasis between these two approaches depending on where on the scale between the mainstream and the avant-garde the work is placed.

With the broader discussion in place, in the following chapters we can now examine more closely how ‘new orders’ are proposed to spectators of the avant-garde through the denial of and appeal to commonplace perceptual procedures. Maya Deren, for example denied the human propensity to seek out causally linked events and worked through metaphor and evocation instead – while still employing human agents and standard visual compositions. As a retinal experience, her films were relatively conservative. Fischinger, on the other hand abandoned the representational in his work and worked with abstract shapes. But he ‘softened the blow’ by synchronising the shape’s movements with music – why this made it easier for the audience is something that will be discussed. Amongst other techniques, Stan Brakhage pushed the boat further, so to speak by employing erratic camera movements as part of the expression of his work, and resisting synchronised sound – both being necessary asceticisms as part of the expression of his work. These perceptual procedures and others may be further examined during my thesis.

Research from the field of visual perception will form a major part of my discussion of the avant-garde, and also processes discussed in cognitive science such as cross modal analogy and cross modal verification. I also wish to go into more detail in examining the roles of the artist and that of the spectator, and the role that the genome plays in the development of an artist’s personal aesthetic and a spectators aesthetic preferences. In doing so, I hope to shed light on avant-garde film from a line of attack that has so far received little attention.


Anderson, J (1996) The Reality of Illusion Southern Illonois University Press
Bordwell, D (1996) Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision In Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carrol, University of Wisconsin Press
Bordwell, D (2006) The Way Hollywood Tells It University of California Press
Dowling, W (1988) Tonal Structure and Children’s Early Learning of Music in Generative Processes in Music: the Psychology of Performance, Improvisation, and Composition ed. John Sloboda, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Gombrich, E (1984) The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art Phaidon Press Limited
Hogan, P (2003) Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts Routledge
Peterson, J (1994) Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order Wayne State University Press
Sitney, P (1979) Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943 – 1978, Oxford University Press
Steen, F (2006) A Cognitive Account of Aesthetics in The Artful Mind ed. Mark Tieman, S., and Hirsch, H. (1982) Journal of Comparative Neurology, 211, no 4
Turner, Oxford University Press
Stryker, M et al. (1978) Journal of Neurophysiology, 41, no 4
Voland, E and K Grammer, eds. (2003) Evolutionary Aesthetics Berlin: Springer

1 comment:

Karen Burke said...

Reflecting on the point about Barney the Dinosaur and Shoenberg’s Second String Quartet, I would be interested to read more on our need to seek and experience the repetition of our unconscious aesthetic patterns (where the focus is the repetition).