Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Art and Emotion

I was reading Wittgenstein (lawks! He's so fancy!!) by which I mean violently, numbly, clubbing my way through a short book of his notes recently. He made what struck me as an interesting observation. To be fair he made more than one, but this is the one I want to address.

We commonly attempt to explain the value of music specifically, and Art generally, in terms of its ability to evoke emotion. The value of Beethoven's 9th is how it makes us feel this way and that way as we listen to the various movements and themes and odds and ends flowing by. Similarly, the value of a Monet is to be located in, or at least next to, the emotional response it evokes. The fact that it looks a bit like a lot of water-lilies might be pointed out, but honestly doing so would mark you as a bit of a dunce.

Wittgenstein's point, if I understood it correctly, could be expanded to something like this: what if someone invented a pill, or an injection, or even piece of gum (pace Roald Dahl) which induced precisely the same sequence of emotional response as Beethoven's 9th symphony. Perhaps even, by some chemical witchcraft, it tailored the sequence to you, in your current emotional state, accurately recreating what you at this exact moment would feel if you were in the concert hall?

In no way would we consider the pill, injection, or gum to be an adequate replacement for the symphony.

Ok, maybe some fringe weirdos would, but they probably drink Soylent and take a lot of Adderall because they think it makes them smart. But the majority of normal humans would stare at you if you proposed this equivalence. Of course the pill isn't the same thing as the symphony. No, no matter how accurately it recreated the emotional roller coaster. No. And yet, this is supposedly the value of the thing, isn't it?

This is the obsession Wittgenstein is working through in these notes (The Blue and Brown Books.) He's interested in the idea that many things have symbolic content, many things signify something, but it seems that they always leave something. The emotional content of Beethoven is real and important, but there is something else, there is more. There is, in fact, something essential which is not described by the emotion, or by the musical notation, or an analysis of the harmonic progression, or the repetition of themes, or anything else.

Any attempt to carve away superfluity, or conversely to surgically locate an essential core, will inevitably fail. We recognize it as failure the moment we even pose the question. "Of course that won't work, of course there's something else there" even when, perhaps especially when, we seem to have analytically removed the entirety of the thing.

The only reason we accept the idea that emotional response is really the thing, when it comes to Art, is because we're not thinking about it very hard. I have certainly accepted it, and probably even said it, but it's clearly wrong if you think about it in terms of Willy Wonka's gum and the sad sad fate of Violet Beauregarde.

I haven't got any answers here. Monet's water lilies are more than the emotional response they induce, and also they're more than swooshes of paint on canvas, and they're more than representation of water and flowers. I can't tell you, tbough, what they actually are. Just... not that. At least, not merely that.


  1. Now if we apply this same to the generic AI artstyles' original reference material, and then products thereof... It's not much visually interesting to me but /knowing/ feels sufficient to find a difference of mattering in what is often formally indistinguishable.

    I kind of like "lifeworld" though I'm not sure where I picked it up, The word "context" feels too analytical, a word that just refers to a description of the immediate facts, but sometimes I find myself asking: What are all of the numerous things that e.g. a painting brings with it and sort of float in relation to it, some of which we experience -- knowledge we carry when we see it; some kind of visual power it might hold to people due to it standing out among the usual visual experience/forms common to a culture or style of painting (maybe it's exceptionally vibrant or something, or maybe it has that Cezanne-style glowing look that wowed folk); the artists' name, which sometimes carries such power as to be able to take on its own little body of meanings associations and feelings that tinge whatever is near it (e.g. the mood brought about by a reference to Poe). All that other stuff you've mentioned specific to Monet. They seem to be "living" connections, never e.g. ancient inscriptions on some long-forgotten tomb whose meanings have to be carefully picked out, but more like the closest thing something like information can be to its own autonomous entity residing in and shared between the minds of we who perceive and become aware of them (I'm thinking of how a knife we know to have been used in a murder might have some kind of "feeling" about it -- it's totally psychological and yet such an object seems to have that kind of mental power over people, tinges how it /feels/ to interact with it).

    I try not to be sappy but there's a reason grandma's baking is "so good" and it might not be an interesting reason but it's a much more vital one, because those cookies might have actually been just 'fairly nice' but god I miss them.

  2. "In no way would we consider the pill, injection, or gum to be an adequate replacement for the symphony"

    Not so sure about that (says the fringe wierdo...). We already accept sound recordings as a substitute for attendance at a concert hall, and small reproductions as a substitute for travelling to Giverny, neither of which is remotely the same experience as "the real thing" (better, TBH, in many ways, too -- nobody ever caught Covid from a CD, or had to listen to some pompous fool "explain" a painting to his companion).

    Aren't they one step down that road? (I'm not going to invoke Walter Benjamin and his ridiculous "aura", although I suppose I just have..).

    At the other extreme, consider this:




    1. There are pills (and other consumable substances) that are a more than adequate replacement for a symphony, either the real thing or a recording thereof, in terms of providing a rich and profound experience, also terrifying and devastating in a life-changing way, that very, very few artistic expressions can begin to approach, though many have that aspiration or are so hyped.

      Some people absolutely can't deal with this, and they should stick with the symphony.

    2. I think both of you are illustrating my third-to-last graf, in that you're carving away and yet leaving something essential behind ;)

      As for the van Gogh expo thing


      That's just awful.

  3. Art creates symbolic content. It must be experienced and is relative to culture, time, viewer, circumstances etc. Experiencing the pill or the concert room and the physical presence of a human group performing the 9th has a different symbolic content. Same for a deaf person in the concert hall.

    Same for Guernica or Massacre in Korea: same artist, same subject, very different symbolic impact.

    It is the symbolic content that matters.