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Was Renaissance Art Ever Pornographic?

To call art pornographic is taboo. To call any renaissance art pornographic is especially taboo because its era has the most prestige. People worldwide respect renaissance artists. And for centuries people have separated the ‘artistic’ and the ‘impressive’ from the ‘common’ and ‘vulgar’, with The Renaissance examples embodying the artistic, impressive and sublime. Even the definition of art and impressive depends on an inherited contrast to their contraries: what is forgettable, ugly or distasteful. To the contrary of shaming Renaissance art as actually pornographic, an examination of our definition of the pornographic, artistic, and erotic is timely. Such examination goes someway to show why Renaissance art matters now.

As with inherited genes which mutate, culture mutates and confuses what we inherit. To even write of the past is to betray it because looking back, from now, is always anachronistic. The word ‘pornography’ came centuries later, for instance, so when we look back we use our words rather than theirs. Yet there are regularities. Our anachronistic eyes change the past and categorise yes, but there are cases of the sublime, erotic, and pornographic dating from as far back as 1511. (And of course earlier, though that is not our present concern). Consider The Sistine Chapel ceiling, the most famous statue of David, and The Ways: The Sixteen Pleasures. These are first a religious paradise with cute cherubs, second a stately naked man, and third an erotic sex positions manual with poetry.

A continuum from the pure and idealistic to the impure and animalistic reigns in how we categorise renaissance art pieces. This misrepresents the more nuanced sexuality in art which renaissance artists valued. Yet this continuum representation is far from wholly misguided; Florentine intellectuals and patrons endorsed the spectrum themselves. In lieu of the always right customer and major reproducer of today, in Renaissance Italy the patron, the philosopher, and the artist were in creative dialogue.

Some Renaissance art was pornographic, some erotic, and some spiritual – yet all were sexual. Sexual by their renovated Plato’s definition. The theory for Renaissance art is analogous to the movement from evolutionary self-interest to the societal good; away from pleasure and gratification to good actions and worthy virtues symbolised in each work. Art for them functioned to pleasure, regulate and edify. To take beholders from animal impulses, to human reason. To God loving harmony. Current fashion replaces God with consensus, however, the striving for ideals remains. Galleries and museums would not be at their most frequented nor funded, if that were false, despite the confusion of audiences who often ask ‘what does it mean?’.

Funding art for the public became popular, along with Republican Democracy, again in Renaissance Florence. Banking had taken off, masterpieces were being made each week, and a new world order emerging.

Renaissance Florence at that time was the most powerful city in the world. As our London scene ideas are traceable to Renaissance Florence, so Florentine ideas are traceable to ancient Athens. The combination of Catholic and Platonist ideas shaped their concept of sexuality, which in turn shapes ours. The division of creative art-pieces into the pornographic, erotic, and the artistic is most discernible back then.

An intellectual tablemate of polymath Michelangelo and politician Lorenzo Di Medici changed history. His name? Marsilio Ficino. It was Ficino who published a translation of Plato in Latin, so every scholar in Europe could read and know The Master. Ficino reconciled the spectrum of sexual-beautiful-greater good in Plato with The Church. Take this excerpt from his translation of the Phaedrus and Symposium.

“So it was with the matter of this world. At the beginning it lay a formless chaos without the ornament of the forms; but, attracted by innate love, it turned toward the soul of the world and offered itself submissively to its influence. And thus by the mediation of this love, it received from the soul the ornament of all the forms which are to be seen in this world. And so out of chaos it became a world.”

As far as explanations go this was plausible, for the time. The relationship between people and the hypothetical (for Plato and Ficino truer) world of ideas is mediated through the material world; to become closer to the soul and forms, one must strive for love in the broadest sense. As mentioned, for Plato this meant sublimating sexuality to higher ideals. A spectrum, then, from sexuality to beauty to a unified love.

The metaphor Plato used was a “ladder of love”, with the lower the inferior. Plato speaks of ‘the correct man’, which every man should be. He says: “He will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse”. He says “he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul”. Through edifying art the soul, he says, will grow wings; “by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows apace; but when fed upon evil and foulness and the opposite of the good, wastes away”.

The erotic and attractive is acceptable so long as it nurtures the wings and sublimates to higher ideals. Ficino popularised this idea. As art historian David Kristeller says: “the notion of Platonic love was taken over and adapted by many poets, notably by Lorenzo de Medici and Michelangelo”. Ficino’s “hook” metaphor appears in Michelangelo’s poems (trust me, it sounds better in Italian):

“I see I’m yours, and from afar I’m called
to draw nearer to that heaven whence I come,
and, with your beauties as bait, I reach you
like a fish on a hook pulled in by the line.”

Michelangelo reiterates the low to high, and physical hook to spiritual ideals metaphor. The “you” is notably ambiguous, referring to God’s and human love at the same time. Remarkably, these metaphors are not peculiar to the Renaissance. Social science supports the Halo Effect whereby lookers judge attractive people as better, as more virtuous. The higher being construed as better is a near-universal also. (Think of ‘lofty’ or ‘imposing’ and ‘top down’.) A linguistic product of humans personifying out from their upright bodies and the primitive higher status given to taller people – check out the heights of presidents – according to cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Just consider the form of David:

David is nude, youthful, and in the western ideal, beautiful. The perfectly upright posture signifies nobility, the toned muscles health, the elegant sway of right shoulder slightly lowered an almost casual confidence, the tension of raised left foot gives a lively impression of movement whilst the nonchalant handling of his slingshot weapon suggests calm and intelligence. Indeed, the virtues of intelligence, honesty, and courage are exemplified by his very nakedness: taking on a giant without protection demonstrates faith in his victory; faith makes him invulnerable. Yet while this can be read now the culturally specific meaning was context-dependent, as art historian Andrew Butterfield outlines: “David did not represent exclusively one specific ideal, whether republican liberty or Medicean rule, but instead a complex of political goods: divine aid, patriotic defense, right of conquest, justice, prosperity, and civic harmony”.

Aesthetic pleasure preceded the purpose of embodying noble ideas, so aesthetic pleasure is actually more objective than the values which are read into, rather than out of, such beautiful handiwork. We know David is impressive and then if we are sufficiently generous with our time we can realise how it endorses virtues of public life and advertises the good governance of Florence. In the manuscripts of the meeting which argued about where David should be raised, his nudity is tellingly taken for granted because David served to signify larger political aims and was used to associate the “divine aid” given to David with the divine aid given to Florence. At this particular time, Florence had become a tentative Republic. It wanted to celebrate the fact with majestic art.

Art historians, like Butterfield, have overestimated David’s political function above its aesthetic, then. Originally, David was made and funded for the Florence cathedral. Its political significations came later on, not deliberately. However, the representation of Florence as Good and Just subscribes to a neo-platonic view, just as the Church did the spiritual good and justice of God. Florence can only be represented as good and just by extension of David. Michelangelo’s work embodies goodness and justice through its naked and bold appearance.

A close look at the face shows furrowed brows, attentive eyes, and craning neck. This places David in time. At the start of the parable where he calmly awaits Goliath. In line with the Michaelangelo’s “hook” and the Halo Effect, David is erotic and beautiful but such is sublimated into the “noble discourse” endorsed by Ficino and Plato and set in stone by Michelangelo. David is valued by the sixteenth-century Italian patron, artist and public alike because while it is aesthetically pleasing and possibly arousing it is justified as sublimation and instruction.

Being Biblical David and an embodiment of virtues rather than merely an arousing figure exemplifies the sixteenth-century difference between the erotic and the pornographic.

Arguably, the other Davids (some may be shocked to learn there are others) are less revered and less known not simply because Michelangelo’s is more technical, but David better embodies the values of Florence, Church and Neoplatonism. Most probably since the commission, audience, and impressive style in marble was remarkably public and a matter of intelligentsia and town planning concern.

The eroticism of nudes and portrayal of beautifully idealised bodies appear to reinforce the worthy virtues of courage, truth, charity and innocence. The tension between sexual desire and higher ideals is notable in the beautiful Virgin Mary, also. For instance:

The sixteenth century Madonna is mathematically proportional and baby Jesus exaggeratedly cute; the severity of expression contrasts their attraction with their thoughts—their soulful eyes. Because both figures are aesthetically pleasurable, Madonna and Jesus are paid more attention, and so too are the messages of good-will. With the halo-effect, their formal beauty encourages the attribution of virtues.

The Catholic influence on sexuality has it that while David can be naked and exemplify virtues, it is the absence or concealment of eroticism in the Madonna which most contributes to her goodness – rosy-cheeked, innocent but earnest, eroticism is sidelined into ‘pure’ beauty. In this case, sexuality is representationally sublimated into a love for God and Jesus and figured in a (mythic) esteemed absence as virginity, chastity. The beauty and attenuation of sexuality in the Sistine Madonna act to transfer the baser impulses of the audience and inspire Neoplatonic ideas and Godly love, in much the same way that The Madonna and Jesus are archetypal models of such sublimation in their biblical narratives.

Sexuality does play a necessary sublimative role in religious or republican art for Raphael and Michelangelo, in the erotic David and the beauty of the Madonna; whereas Titian, for example, uses the erotic and beautiful for sheer pleasure, not for ethical redistribution; Titian’s paintings better suit the word ‘pornography’ than the others. Consider this:

The goddess Venus is depicted. Venus of Urbino is the title of the painting yet without the title one would never know it was Venus. Here there is no allegory or parable or sublimation even making use of myth. This painting has a different function to that of David and The Sistine Madonna: to arouse. The “hook” and halo effect are reasons for Michelangelo and Raphael, but excuses for Titian. What is rationalised as a mythic work of a Goddess has all the domesticity of a mortal. Consider the pet dog, the fleeting nature of beauty symbolised in the roses she holds (not the immortality of an immortal being in heavens), and the anonymous maid and maiden figuring in the background. For an Italian audience, the Greek subject is even put into the Italianate countryside. She gazes askance and invitingly for men. Not for God nor Florence.

The earlier painting of Venus by Giorgione and Titian uses mythology to rationalise pornography . Indeed it is closer to its rationalisation since it is fitting to have a Goddess outside but still – it is pornographic. The Venus of Sleeping Venus, the earlier painting of the two, is very human once again. Depicted sleeping she, a goddess, is passive and implausibly strewn across the ground. For the pleasure of men, or what is called in academia ‘the male gaze’.

This divergence from theological and platonic love becomes obvious looking at the biography of Titian. While the nudes pretend to be, and were justified by, mythological subject-matter there is no sublimation to God or Platonic ideals present; instead The Venus of Urbino is actually an imitation of reality rather than the form of beauty: a portrait of Angela del Moro, a Venetian courtesan and Titian’s dining–and probably more–partner. An actual portrait of a beautiful lover, most likely, is not working to edify. The purpose of the artwork is sexual pleasure. This is evident even in its commission for a wedding box – it was to serve as a “model” to the Duke Commissioner’s young bride. If there is a message in that, it is probably for an actual woman to provide as much sexual pleasure as the painted nude; a very different meaning from the sublimated erotic in the prior works of Raphael and Michelangelo.

My categorising of Titian’s nudes as pornography may jar with (what Walter Benjamin called) the aura of art, the sanctity accorded to technically brilliant works, especially of the Renaissance, but the anachronism is actually our desexualised, time attenuated, aura making – not the label of pornography. Take, for instance, the recorded remarks of Titian’s contemporaries, like Dolce, who remarks how his works – in this case the painting of Venus and Adonis – “stirred the blood”. Dolce compares Titian’s achievement to the Greek myth of a sculpture so arousing and lifelike it made its viewer ejaculate: “If a marble statue by the stimuli of its beauty could so penetrate to the marrow a young man that he stained himself, then, what must she do who is of flesh, who is beauty personified and appears to be breathing”.

Here Titian’s work is praised purely for the competitive element of its arousal – the success of Sansovino’s classical statue of the story was that it aroused to such an extent as to cause ejaculation. Dolce terms Venus and Adonis, as (notably by medium) even more arousing. She is even described as real: “what must she do who is of flesh”, because it renders a reality that is even more arousing than past masters had, he seems to believe, achieved. What makes Titian’s works so valued and widespread is not the nobility or a Christian or even Neoplatonist content but the illicit and pleasurable nudity.

The moneymaking thrift of working-class-born Titian may have even been a factor in his painting and selling the most marketable paintings of all: pornography. Notably, Titian’s paintings were for private use foremost and somewhat tinged by taboo, whereas David and The Sistine Madonna were for public architecture.

The art that is erotic (may arouse) sexually in public is justified by its higher meaning – whether God or Neoplatonic ideals. It always refers to lust and love; that is physical and spiritual loves. Whereas the paintings of Titian represent the physically beautiful and lust without working such physical beauty and lust to an ideal beauty and ideal love. The Platonic love that was endorsed by the Florentine scholars is missing and the “hook” of lust and physical beauty remains in-so-far-as the paintings were popular and paid attention, but never culminates in reeling to better “heavenly” as Michelangelo aspires in his poetry. Rather than “you” having a double meaning as a love for a physical person and love for ideas and God, Titian’s is a single-focused-meaning. In antagonism to the philosophic sense endorsed by the Platonic academy who would – arguably – deem his work to not truly be Art with Love or Eros, or even moral, but lust merely.

To conclude, the Catholic Church, Neoplatonism and sexual human nature formed the role of art in Europe. First, there are works which conform to the sublimating role of the erotic in art. Namely taming sexual impulses to higher ideals and a soulful yet rational love for God, as recommended by the Platonic academy and the treatises on love such intelligentsia inspired. Works like the womanly example The Sistine Madonna and manly David. These artworks are erotic because they can arouse and are beautiful bodies, but arousal is not their ends but their means. Second, there is the pornographic art which works in dis-continuous influence of the Catholic Church and Neoplatonism not to sublimate sexuality but to gratify it. Consider The Sleeping Venus or The Venus of Urbino which uses mythology: the figure of Venus is a plausible excuse to paint pornography. In such pornography, the taboo propagated by the Catholic Church and the sublimate logic around female nakedness finds a recourse in mythology which satisfies human appetites.

The Catholic Church, Neoplatonism and sexual human nature formed the role of art in sixteenth Europe whether it was in a continuous influence of the philosophical logic of sublimation or a case of discontinuous influence, or simply a satisfaction of artist-expressed and audience-satisfied sexual desires. The rationale between high and low, and between artistic and vulgar endure today. Perhaps we ought to embrace more of the Platonist logic for art. Perhaps art ought to function not to merely represent ideas or arouse experiences – but to advertise ideals. Art now aims for the intellect through difficulty or to pleasure the senses; what we lack now and need most is the combination of both.

On “It’s so bad, that it’s good” Art

Good versus bad art is a dichotomy, that need not be played off against one another. But we all do play them off against each other in practice: in how we choose to exhibit or not exhibit pieces and how we spend institutional funding, taxes, and our time. A sense of worthwhile, memorable, pleasurable, meaningful, insightful and exciting art by definition relies on the relation to what we find a waste of time, forgettable, displeasurable, obtuse, and irrelevant. Much as truth, Bertrand Russell says, can be seen as arbitrary only when its polar of falsehood is conveniently overlooked, a notion of those good adjective sets has always been—and will always be—around to contrast the bad adjective sets. For instances of falsehoods and truths are analogus (though of course, not the same) to instances of bad art and good art, or non art and art. In some academic circles, it is common to accept that truth is based on our frame of understanding or that there is no truth at all; those circles ignore that the use of the word ‘truth’ even in reference to it not really existing gives credence to the pervasive real idea of truthfulness. Claiming, there is a nonthing that must be proved to be a nonthing; and overlooking that saying ‘there is no truth’ or that ‘there is no believable authority’ requires claiming those are either truthful or more valid statements—a contradiction. A contradiction mocked as early as Socrates in Plato’s 2400-year-old dialogue, The Theaetetus.

I conflate the question of good versus bad art, and truths versus falsehoods here because they are connected. Beauty and art definitely exist by examples of beauty and art compared to examples of ugliness and nonart. The old-fashioned deference to the authority of experts and the brilliance of Beethoven interlink; as does the new-fashioned popularity of cult movie The Room interlink with the irreverence for authority, experts, and intellectually challenging art. As an advocate of camp taste—so-bad-it-is-good film, theatre, lamp-design etcetera—Susan Sontag declared in the afterword to her landmark 1960s essay collection ‘Against Interpretation’, that “the judgements of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgements have not”. While Sontag endeavoured to open up culture reception and widen the palate of the mass audience and critics, the anything-goes or whatever-you-want approach to art appreciation and values she never did intend to advocate; “there is a hierarchy”, she says, and if choosing between Dostoevsky and The Doors for a university course ever happens, then Dostoevsky ought to win. Because Fyodor Dostoevsky does more, has done more, and is more substantial. Sontag said thirty years later that:

The undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most persuasive, intelligible values are drawn from the entertainment industries. Now the very idea of the serious (and the honourable) seem quaint, “unrealistic”, to most people, and when allowed—as an arbitrary decision of temperament—probably unhealthy too.

It is no coincidence, then, that the common thread to all so-bad-it-is-good art is humour: it is art that fails its aim so is humbling and validating to watch; art that is artificial and exaggerated to the point an audience is conscious of the ‘off’ or ‘weird’ which creates humour out of juxtaposition, between ought and actual, and between the expected and the surprises of irony and absurdity. In a way this gives an audience the liberating pleasure of feeling they are an expert—“even I could do better!”

With accepted—good because it is good—art the method and construction requires focus to avoid immersion within the pleasurable and persuasive experience of its artform. Whereas the offness of ‘10 Best Worst Films I’ve Seen’ draws attention to the experience and an irony of beholder experiencing differently to what is intended by the artist, or is even decipherable by the critic. For instance, watching pornography without lust or enjoying a drama for comedy, or having a flourish of manner far out of the norm. So-bad-it-is-good-is good phenomenon words are caught in quotation marks, framing with happy cynicism—art as ”art”, and taste as “taste”, beauty as “beauty”. This stresses the construction of works and our participative appreciation, style, uniqueness, and the role of art appreciators as fellow performers in any art performance. (As tellingly popular in the individualised phrase, “the eye of the beholder”). Be it in theatre, film or joking by going off script in, say, a socially-scripted date scenario: visiting an Owl Sanctuary together, instead of the compulsory “let’s get coffee” (X) or “drinks” (Y), or “brunch” (Z).

Bad-good taste is a way to assert a reciprocal rather than consumerist relationship with the artwork—one any audience can deal with and belittle because it is silly, frivolous, and humorously underwhelming rather than serious and therefore too overwhelming for any putting in its place desired by the power-hungry consumer groups of, say, cult film, or avant-garde theatre. Because cult audiences evaluate being better-than by being different-than. Experiencing bad-good art sets the art and group of consumers within their own terms; the enjoyment is from being exclusive, unique, esoteric rather than roundly grand, impressive, or moving. Hence hipster fashion, everyone. Take vintage ‘fashion’ – it is going against the grain even as it creates a new grain, by clothes mismatching the era—even to label it “fashion” betrays the implicit aims of bad-good clothes, clothes which are defined by being bad to many, but precisely because of that are good (in a good-bad way) to the fashionable, esoteric, few who fashion their selves as ‘alternative’ by reliance on a norm, against an original precedent.

Good-bad taste is akin to camp taste, and of camp taste Sontag says, “camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is a love of the exaggerated, the “off”, of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Wearing clothes against the norm, defying gender obligation, enjoying guilty pleasures, and being part of something by not being part of much else, is key to the enjoyment of so-bad-it-is-good art.

The middlebrow culture, identified by historian Susan Jacoby, of the nineteen fifties normalised differing opinions, and made-widespread the belief that opinions came from inside each individual eye preference, “the eye of the beholder”, rather than in a relationship between the object and the eye where the object has as much of a role as the eye – even more of a role, in fact. Curiously, this individualisation of aesthetic experience and misuse of democratic opinion compromises the best interests of the many: the relativity of ‘the eye of the beholder’ enables the creation of omnipresent urban buildings and neighbourhoods uglier to the majority of beholders than their declared preferences. For instance, for more green space, more Golden Ratio classical buildings, and fewer walkie-talkie styled monstrosities which advertise the London cityscape as a bad, and irreparable, joke.

Just because value-judgements of taste vary, does not mean there is not enough consensus for democratic aesthetics that in some ways aligns with the nature of the human world as it is and as we biologically are, rather than as diverse humans decide it to be by chaotic chance, social contingency, which is more of a habit, anyway, than a decision. And though polarities of good and bad, art and non-art, beautiful and ugly, can be limiting (hence the popularity of the so bad-it’s-good paradox) there is a statistical distinction and by nature difference between aesthetic experiences we intuitively know, but declaringly overlook. As is proven by absurd – therefore revealing – comparisons of scale, colour, objects, functions and so on:

Niagara Falls is more of an aesthetic experience than seeing the inside of my fridge.

A rose is prettier than toilet paper.

A basil plant is prettier than rotting cow flesh.

Venice Italy is prettier than Hull Yorkshire

The local co-op building is mathematically uglier than Chartres Cathedral

Photos that are properly edited to be symmetrical and coherent are less bothersome than these mismatch photos – would you say that was too subjective for me to worry?

Swan Lake is prettier than a tambourine beat of every, say, 10 seconds

John Milton is a better poet than me.

No way can I willingly demonstrate.

Jimi Hendrix is a better guitarist than me.

No way can I willingly demonstrate.

The Beatles are the most impressive band:

They had the most variety of genres, the most stylistic and technological influence, and the highest sales in the world.

A pro performance of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is better than an amateurish Moose Murders

Even literal taste is not freely subjective but bounded, because we cannot choose to prefer lemon sorbet over chocolate ice cream—our taste buds decide for us, either way, and most will like chocolate because of biological norms. Contrary to the common phrase “taste is relative”, without any system to it or coherence or worthier choices; we consult approved recipe books and peer-reviewed restaurants because we have faith in precise aesthetic assessments which, while not taking the majority value-judgements as God’s truth, as truth for each individual always and everywhere (unwise and near-fascist)—we are still willing to rely and invest in them. We do all the time. Afterall, it’s all the data we have to work with.

In studies by evolutionary psychologists, it has been shown that children naturally appreciate landscapes, both painted and geographic, with plenty of markers of easier survival like water, fertile land, cattle. Safe to assume they appreciate that over a blank wall, or aridly featureless desert.

There are so many nudes in art, and humans as subjects, because beauty and interest are not arbitrary, but present in a recurrent human appreciation of human bodies because of sexual selection.

A few hate music or get no pleasure from it – including Sigmund Freud and Vladimir Nabokov. Contrary to being an arbitrary aesthetic preference though it was probably because of the objective composition of their rare brains—most probably a condition, still studied, like melophobia (fear of music) or musicogenic epilepsey (mild seizure induced by music).

Some phrases are remembered not because of aesthetic preference but aesthetic, simply good, rhetoric: “Bond, James Bond” or “to be or not to be” are more memorable than “John, Smith” and “should I die or not”. Rhetoricians have known that for thousands of years; this particular repetition technique is called Diacope. True, this takes place in a system of language but that system transubjectively exists and has good, memorable or impressive, uses.

That these phrase patterns are more effective than others (more remembered, more enjoyed) is some evidence there is something in it more than arbitrary preference, or individual chance response, or mere whim. And to argue that such cannot be proved outside of language systems: is to claim that from within the language system criticised; claiming it in words. And words are not everything, be it scale, colour, proportion, human rhetoric patterns, biology. These are not merely described by words, but happen by part-ineffable nature. That parts of the brain must prioritise other functions than language—our thousands of tastes, for example—proves such is true.

Goodfellas is better than Sherlock Gnomes (or The Room)

In graphic art, a painting with nothing on it for example – a blank canvas, will have less effect on the brain. Fewer patterns (without a narrative) then would have less effect then more patterns (even more with a narrative). Does it really qualify as a painting without those effects? To me, no. John Cage’s music of silence is bad music – if you want to get pleasure from notes as most do, but if you want to make a point about music it is good; but for that only. Music is organised sound, not just sound and certainly not no-sound. And contrary to the opinion that music is what you decide, more organised sounds are more musical: your heartbeat alone, for instance, would by no sane person be considered music, nor the sounds of these read words be music or the sound of a building construction be music. Although such sounds have been sampled for unpopular tracks. Somehow Morrissey’s Meat Is Murder, with slaughter sounds, didn’t catch on at parties quite as much as How Soon Is Now with its endless riff.

The paintings George Bush Junior does of his dogs, or the drawings children do for the family fridge are forgettable compared to the eye-trick smile indeterminacy of Mona Lisa and the loneliness representing paintings of Edward Hopper.

These comparisons and shoddily-stretched picture are vulgar and absurd, and some would say mistake art for entertainment, or values pleasure over edification, the majority over the minority. But that they are vulgar and absurd proves there are standards and some indisputably objective nature involved in our aesthetic judgement. Not chance based widespread standards and preferences, then, but adherence to pleasure, catharsis, meaningful representation. And there is no escaping the notion of representation, even in abstract art the abstraction represents the emotional states it arouses.

Therefore the accepted ambiguity of “oh, it’s so subjective, art!” ought not to stand. It is a phrase that has become fashionable only in our particular slice of time. A time which claims to be enlightened, better than the barbaric past, yet ironically accepts relativism at the same time—and sees art appreciation as mindless magic, “I like what I like; I don’t like what I don’t like and that’s that”. As biological anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake argues in her wonderful Homo Aestheticus, we humans inevitably do art and there is nonrelative coherence to what art and beauty is compared to nonart and ugliness.

To some degree the pleasure of these comparisons above—normatively—are objective in the sense of being quite independent of desires, bias or prejudice. For if we choose to prefer Sherlock Gnomes to Goodfellas, or choose to prefer toilet paper to a rose for aesthetic experience that is normally an impossible choice to enact, and actually feel. For those who manage to achieve such wishes automatically, say, they have been the animators of Sherlock Gnomes or are designers of toilet tissue, it is astonishing and deemed unique to them. And, anyway, is not truly a choice nor a wish but self-interest and sentiment. Preferences come from causal reasons, not because of individual fancy for liking one object over another ‘just because’ or that there is, as often said, “no accounting for taste”. There is more accounting than we credit.

All this considered then, so-bad-it-is-good art does not refute seriousness, good art and the impressive or sublime; rather than serve to undermine genuine art for whatever some people will give their time to, that so-bad-it-is good is defined using the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rather than ‘alright’ shows it isn’t that people who coyly celebrate such art are midling or truly reject standards or hierarchy, but instead they depend on them, albeit messily, for their very existence, and ironic enjoyment. For taboo, absurdity, and easy audience’s criticism requires standards to transgress, and to know the good necessitates familiarity with the bad; comparing underwhelming failed affect (X) to the overwhelming successful affect (Y) on beholders (Z) allows fairer more critical judgements of all, X, Y, Z, than viewing in single, isolated and therefore dubious judgements where anything-goes value choices may seem (do seem, apparently) all-too-plausible.

Beholders must, inevitably, orientate themselves, their group and their values within their environment and navigate learned standards (culture) and the facts of the external world and biology (nature). A deference for so-good-it-is-good art ought to be as validly and proportionally represented as so-bad-it-is-good. The absence or lack of recognition for the former art in clickbait is telling. It shows that good art and its standards are roundly accepted, needing no commentary, and therefore good over bad is less questioned than common relativism and media would, might at first, have us imagine.

Pleasure Videos and ASMR

The first time you felt the tingles, you never thought it was strange. At the time, tingles to you just meant some pleasant albeit peculiar sensation related to puberty. You had asked before if others felt hormones going up and down their legs, or as most often happens, down the cranium to the shins in tiny, wonderful, shudders. They said no, so maybe you just hadn’t described it right. Moving the muscles of your skull, be it neck or facial can release pleasure from down below, and vice versa moving them can release pleasurable tingles to above. You somewhat compulsively tickle and massage one set of fingers with the other set; enjoy massage immensely, the scalp-hair especially when stressed; persons you love whispering caring things to your ears; nestling your head; the crinkle of paper; and even the tickling of your back and feet and the soothing feeling of swaying your hair to-and-fro in a bubbled bath can feel brilliant.

As a society, we like to imagine we have moved on from the bad-old-days of Cartesian dualism, where mind is separated from body. But did you find the amount of body talk above concerting? If so, perhaps the dualism persists. The above sensations are, for some medicalised and a sub-culture niche.

The above is enjoying small pleasures, but some of this is deemed a ‘condition’: known as an autonomous sensory meridian response, ASMR, and is enjoyed by millions online. (No neuroscience explains it yet, it might not even be a ‘condition’ deviating from medical norms). Prior to a Google search three months ago, I bundled it under some vague (perhaps imagined, psychosomatic) instances of hormone fluctuations or auditory synaesthesia—feeling sound as though touch, and touch as though sound. But it wasn’t that; it was ASMR. And easily confirmed by testing on the many YouTube videos by ASMR practitioners. Videos with very disconcerting nonsensical titles like ‘Prom Dress Fitting ASMR Measuring Crinkling’ and ‘Sleep Inducing Haircut’ and ‘ASMR Cosy Babblebrook Inn’.

Watching these videos is, for me, comedic and a little frightening while admittedly pleasurable. Frightening because treats for the senses are delivered via a device by a stranger, comedic because it seems silly and taboo to my normalised behaviour, and disconcerting because sharing something so sensual, yet pretty innocent, with strangers feels very very bizarre. What intellectuals, who have become voices in my head, would say about it intrigues: Baudrillard on us enjoying a copy of a copy, or Adorno on the unhealthy aspect of mass culture waylays me. But most especially just how strange it is with them looking and feigning kindness by tilting head to the side and whispering in ordinarily loud situations like that of getting a haircut “is this your first time at my salon [intense stare]” as though you are the first-person camera in a scary and weird tape. Merely enjoying a woman from Portland Oregon sensually talk about her cats and attending a flower show feels quite random, quite out of place in my life.

Sometimes near-sexual roleplay is a key part, with the situations played out by performers who are in positions of authority (innkeeper, vampire, hairdresser) yet choose to mummy or daddy—care—for you in dulcet or mellifluous tones. Notably, there are more mummies than daddies: a gender preponderance. It all feels very silly: like a manual for a Freudian thesis. But it always arouses curiosity be it bewilderment or enjoyment, from whoever I have asked to watch. The eyebrow rise, the eye-twitch and exasperated ‘what the hell is this?’ always amuse.

I say ‘near-sexual roleplay’ because the role of an authority looking after you and the basic play with sensation does have something deeply human about it, related to the complex intersection of sex with sensations, wellbeing and reproduction. It’s more about social comfort than sensation. That, of course, and the combination of settings borrowed from video game Skyrim and anime classic Howl’s Moving Castle are plain weird. Having an eerie welcoming feel in the performance by angelic Youtuber Goodnight Moon, say, who I could far too easily subscribe to. Goodnight Moon is actually pretty tame, having wish-fulfilments of ‘Friend Comforts You After A Hard day’, visiting a fantasy Inn, chilling outside a party, and aquarium viewing commentated by her sugary voice. It is the American vampire who roleplays biting you and drawing blood, saying “I was never a human”, is an example of a weirder part of an already peculiar phenomenon. And you are forewarned if you choose to click:

Though calling such ‘weird’ is merely due to what I am used to from parochial experience; weird too often means the bad kind of different whereas to her video viewer and herself, she is normal and, perhaps, I am the one who is odd. Different does not mean bad. Different does not mean wrong. The vampire fetish being merely a metaphoric extension of ravenous love and sharing each other’s body taken to incredible, and because of its pre-victorian origin surprisingly racy, extremes is not that weird. The popularity of her videos, then, with occasional sadomasochist ASMR themes does make sense among a wider web of cultural metaphors—which takes for a given the huge success of, bestiality and necrophiliac tinged, the Twilight sage for example.

The success of Bob Ross, feel-good soothing landscape painter and presenter, is accorded not to the painting, but to his soothing voice and the repetition of audible brushstrokes. In a way, the feeling of painting is vicariously felt regardless of if one paints along or not. Through the process of painting, of composition, in touch and mind monologue, “what a lovely colour, lovely colour”, and sound-strokes is as much the pleasure of painting as the shades, hence many watch without painting canvases themselves.

Nevertheless, our culture prizes the visual to the deficit of the other senses; tellingly, we assume people watch for the painting rather than the auditory sensory experience of painting. Painting as a verb rather than a noun or adjective is what viewers value. Indeed, where other media like motion cameras and high-grade recorders provide—an albeit selective—duplicate of reality to the senses, graphic arts are valuable for the participatory imagination of their consumer; what the audiences bring to the experience themselves, rather than receive wholesale by the artist. Instead of a sensation given all-at-once by a camera shot, with a painting beholders must imagine and feel themselves into what is happening and the nuances of form in a way now (judging by the thirty-second average viewing of the Mona Lisa) quite lacking. If we are, as the Stoics believed and Shakespeare espoused, what we give our attention to, we are missing out on much of what we could be. In our culture, for one, the pleasures of screen-watching and reading eclipse touch, scent, quiet sounds, motion.

The popularity of Bob Ross and these ASMR videos are on the one hand good because they clearly meet a consumer demand, but on the other such demand is sad for the common consensus has for so-long rendered ASMR experience odd, marginal and as an online-invented diagnosis (it is not an understood diagnosis) a condition of medical deviance: that is, it requires an acronym and pseudo-medical legitimation, rather than being accepted as-is. The stifled natural impulse to enjoy our full range of twenty-five (yes, twenty-five) senses, is lamentable. As Susan Sontag said, most of our experience is not factual, but sensory sensual. Contrary to sense triumphing over sensibility, reason over feeling, belittling some sensory experience and taste for its subjectivity deprives subjectivity, demoting the most important to a second-class status: “to patronise the faculty of taste is to patronise oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”

The popular preoccupation with anthropology and evolutionary science is related to this. As much as we believe we gain as we evolved as Homo Sapiens, part of our nature is neglected by prioritisation of one medium, one style of civilisation and omnipresent technology over other possibilities. For instance, the knowledge of ‘expertise’ has created a culture of producer-serves-consumer and has it that unlike the people of Lesotho, we view singing as a reserve for experts rather than as inevitable; an inevitable part of having vocal cords and musical brains. The knowledge of medical science and divisive belief in objectivity has it that we overlook how much our bodies, subjectivities, want a variety of stimulation—and sometimes matter more than the prestige, in our era, given to scientific peer review. Just like autistic children who go through art therapy to feel calmer and more emotionally grounded, grown children want that also. Though grown children do not get it enough, because art therapy is not extended to art in general, just as autism is not extended to a spectrum of humanity rather than a deviation. ‘Art therapy’ is considered treatment rather than an (also preventative) gift beneficial to all.

And Sontag speaking of intelligence as taste in ideas is so surprising because our notion of subjectivity is severed from what we consider intelligence. As, say, merely intelligence quotient or merely above average memory. Artists are more intelligent than most, in their own way. Our Homo Sapiens ancestors who felt every part of their environment and personified nature with Gods or spirits are, in many ways, more intelligent than us worker moderns. Worker moderns outsource intelligence to information systems; our ancestors may even have had larger brains than us, Yuval Harari says in his books Sapiens. And we, some of us, sadly must have unique sensory experience through screens, and caring intimacy through screens. As philosopher Alan Watts said, you would think with all this progress and civilisation you would see us all playing music, feasting and have orgies—having a good time since we have the material abundance for it; but instead, we work 9 to 5 to watch the high life of others on television. Characters who much of the time do a lot of music playing, feasting and near-orgies on screen.    

Watching the multisensory caring intimacy of Goodnight Moon shows an intimacy lack that need be met, watching Gentle Whisperer give a gentle haircut shows a desire to relinquish responsibility and be cared for by an authority rather than the self-reliant individuals we are told time again to be. The admiration and nastiness of the comments shows that despite the declaration of tolerance and embrace of diversity we are nastily prejudiced against the different and nonconventional (try to perform Tai Chi alone in a city square and you will re-realise: I’ve done it) even if in doing we miss the merits of what we disparage because of mere prejudice. And there are hundreds of thousands who have openly enjoyed “auditory stimulation”. ASMR and synaesthesia are not that abnormal a psychology symptom, but more normal than the limitation instituted by our way of life allows: what Sontag names the “urban assault” upon the senses and the numbing of sensibility. As she says, in Against Interpretation, with the new knowledge we have lost the old feeling, the old sensibility, paying the price of filling our heads with ideas instead of filling our time with small embodied pleasures.

Time for us to come to our senses.

The Neuroscience of Music

Following on from my post about the oldest song in History, I have mined This Is Your Brain On Music by the cognitive neuroscientist, music producer and musician Daniel J. Levitin. I have made a playlist of all the relevant songs he uses which can be listened to for free here. I made it because the examples Levetin provides are only examples if they can be heard. (The article carries on below it).

The book, This Is Your Brain On Music is full of interestingness, such as what music does to your brain, what your music says about you, what music does and does not represent. Here are some, to me, amazing facts:

The difference between high and low notes is a cultural fiction, a metaphor we agree on because “high” and “!ow” are obviously spatial metaphors rather than applicable to sound. The Ancient Greeks called ‘high notes’ what we call ‘low notes’.

The twelve octave parameters of music are almost certainly universal—Indian or Chinese systems that have been investigated for difference actually are not as different as has been previously made out.

Babies are born with a preference for music they have heard in the womb, and on average prefer up-tempo music.

Contrary to public intellectual and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker music did not evolve as a superfluous byproduct of evolution but is comparable to language – both are, afterall, sound. Whereas music has been considered to be a spandrel, a byproduct rather than essential to evolution (analogous to penguin wings) music plays a role in social cohesion and meaning-creation; we bond over music and share emotions through music.

We are able to remember the meaning of language more easily, and music arouses feeling more easily so the combination of both make the most popular form—the love song. Love songs are also an excellent display of evolutionary fitness, that could explain why stars have groupies happy to sleep with them despite never having met. Notably it is sleep with them for creative genes, rather than marry them—says Levetin. The inessential superfluity of music is itself a use: for evolutionary advertisement like the peacock’s tail. As Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin describes his touring days: “I was on my way to love. Always. Whatever road I took, the car was heading for the one of the greatest sexual encounters I’ve ever had”. Being rich and successful and admired has a social conformity affect that makes people even overlook looks—consider heartthrob Mick Jagger, and even overlook talent and looks—among stars like Ed S— (who remains unnamed like Voldemort.)

The westernised and globalised culture we often think is liberal and liberated is in many ways repressed. Song and dance universally go together in less capitalistic societies, and music is rampant rather than the preserve of musicians (producers) and listeners (consumers). For the tribal people of Lesotho—a tiny country surrounded by South Africa—it is a joke that someone could be insecure dancing or singing. For just as we have a mouth and lungs for speaking, we have a mouth and lungs for singing and dancing in ritualistic ways—that children in our enlightened societies are trained to ‘behave’, to not express joy or their feelings, is curious, and sad.

We enjoy music that is endorsed by our peers, our parents, our social group, and that we are most familiar with. Satisfying in-group behaviour is mediated by cultural products that are shared; music contributes to community.

But the real brain novelty, that gives rise to new pleasure, is in listening to different music, rather than familiar even though it might not derive as much pleasure instantly.

The most memorable and enjoyable music of someone’s life is when the brain is most sponge-like and emotional – during adolescence, and often connected to good memories, and love. Many couples have “their song”, for a reason.

Music can be an addiction, reminiscent of Oliver Sacks, musicophilia. The release of dopamine giving pleasure in the brain is a massive transbrain experience, that can exclude more beneficial or productive hobbies from consciousness.

The key to good music is the mix of meeting expectation and challenging them in a golden mean of good; between too simple that it is predictable and dull, and too complex that it confuses and irritates.

While some sounds like a long note can convey ‘dread’, a quick tempo ‘happiness’, a slow tempo ‘sadness’ as with almost everything these are not biological—innate—but an intersection of the biological and societal, nurtured-nature. Nonetheless, a study did find commonalities, where people identified genres and emotions from music they have never encountered so, had never been acculturated into before. Evidence can be read here

And has amazing implications for the nurtured nature debate rather than the rampant dichotomy of either/or within the universities.

Levetin evinces Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on language games: we categorise for example by genre or music but that is more convenience and human made than an objective fact. For example Fleetwood Mac is Fleetwood Mac but there are three distinct Fleetwood Macs, three different eras. Is the band Queen really Queen if it does not have Freddy Mercury? It resembles Queen more than other bands but has lost some Queeness. The same is true of much music which has family resemblances between different sounds but is somehow unique, albeit with archetypes of genre that set trends and whole schools of music. Such as the harmony vocals of The Beatles from The Everly Brothers, the flexible voice of Buddy Holly taken by John Lennon, the loud-quiet-loud format of Pixies taken by Nirvana; the jangle sound of Johnny Marr in The Smiths taken from Roger McGuinn from The Byrds who took it from George Harrison on the Beatles For Sale album. Elvis taking from black stars like Muddy Waters, rock n’ roll taking from an amalgam of European and African genres mixing into one.

What is most characteristic of contemporary music is timbre and production. That is the unique sounds of different instruments and configurations that can play the same tunes or melodies, but with a different feel, or tone. Regularly, old songs are made new again by putting into a different format—often obscuring its superiors as The Beatles did reversing the chord sequence of a Beethoven Sonata for Because, and M Ward did covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River at a slower tempo.

A brain fires its cells at the same frequency as music; the sound of an owl’s neurons firing was the same pattern as the sound of the melody it has stored, The Blue Danube Waltz

“This was exactly what he found. And because the electrodes put out a small electrical signal with each firing—and because the firing rate is the same as a frequency of firing (as we saw above)—Petr sent the output of these electrodes to a small amplifier, and played back the sound of the owl’s neurons through a loudspeaker. What he heard was astonishing; the melody of “The Blue Danube Waltz” sang clearly from the loudspeakers: ba da da da da, deet deet, deet deet. We were hearing the firing rates of the neurons and they were identical to the frequency of the missing fundamental. The overtone series had an instantiation not just in the early levels of auditory processing, but in a completely different species.”

Musicians have more cognitive reserve – that is use more of their brains so are better able to endure brain decline; songs are among the last memories of those with degenerative brain diseases.

Absolute pitch, the ability to hear and recognise notes perfectly is only present in 1 in 10,000 people including Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell

Rock and roll music became popular because of cultural causes like the baby boomer generation, car radios, but also because the backbeat and different timbre options have become the most prominent feature of major music to-this-day.

That’s all very interesting, so what d’you love about music. Let me know: what’re your favourites? We often can’t tell why for all the science above – It’s often ineffable, as Friedrich Nietzsche—philosopher, poet, composer, you can listen to here— said: “without music, life would be a mistake”.

This Is The Oldest Song In History

This is the oldest song in existence that you can hear reconstructed now. It was written by a grieving musician named Seikilos 2000 years ago, and composed in honour of a dead loved one. 2000 years ago means it could well be from the time of Jesus but is probably from 200 years after his death.

The lyrics and melody were discovered in Turkey in 1885 inscribed on a tombstone. The inscription reads “Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” Interesting because these letter signs imbue the stone with the personhood of the beloved, a first-person “me”, and a forever and clear message: to live life to the fullest for it is short. If you think death too morbid to think about, consider that the healthiest and reportedly happiest people think of death often. And lyrics like this – ‘lyric’ a word derived from the ancient greek harp-like instrument the Lyre – work as a healthy dose of perspective. The translation is tenuous but as Jorge Luis Borges says, “the original is unfaithful to the translation”.

As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you so
For your life is short,
and time will claim its toll.

Could be written today.

And can be listened to right now.

It is touching to think of human emotion and creativity spanning in an auditory medium for centuries, and touching to think of the many songs and kinds of music that never made it to today, and how beautiful music before all the logic of the modern world was invented. It was beyond the imagination of Seikilos that her or his music would reach you through the sorcery of screen and speaker today.

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