Saturday 21 April 2012

Aesthetics and empathy in art.

I had an interesting discussion a couple of evenings ago, about art and how it works.

It grew out from a discussion of autistic spectrum disorders, and how they work. Art derives value in the audience from two sources: aesthetics and emotional evocation.

In art that primarily relies upon aesthetics, the form and structure of the piece tend to be the primary attribute of appreciation. Architecture, code, some music are artforms that rely upon the audience's response to structure.

In art that primarily relies upon emotional evocation, the value of a piece depends upon how hard it tugs upon the emotions, and the degree of empathic response in the audience. Painting, most music, movies, and poetry tend to fall into this category. Of course, there's very few art pieces that are purely one or the other, although most of what's traditionally regarded as art falls into the second category.

Emotion-based art is all about the empathic response, and this is where I run into problems. I have a certain level of empathy, hard won through study and practice, but when it comes to art - well, okay, the Mona Lisa is certainly executed well, and Vivaldi has some really awesomely complex music, and I'm filled with awe that Beethoven could have come up with his stuff in his head - but emotional response? Well, I need a good study guide for that, because I'm not sure what it is I'm supposed to be feeling. Music is relatively straighforward, because I started studying music at 4 - minor key means sad, major key means happy. Well, okay, I'm a touch more sophisticated than that, but mostly because I've spent a lot of time associating music with events, looking at lyrics (where applicable) and that kind of that. But at an opera I haven't researched, I have no idea what's going on, most of the time. More in-your-face art which has more obvious (and more culturally reinforced) emotional cues I get much more easily; a movie like 'Children of Men' for example. I've read a lot of dystopian fiction, the movie's got sound and pictures, it's set in a society that has a great many similarities to mine, and I'm familiar with the cultural assumptions in the movie. Essentially, I've got the background I need to get the empathic responses I'm supposed to.

But I've spent a lot of time and effort studying to get there - I doubt the neurotypicals in the audience have poured hours of their lives into figuring it all out. I still fall short in a lot of ways. Art galleries - I find them interesting for the history, for the technique, for the responses of others. I need to be feeling pretty happy about myself, too, otherwise I often tend to end up feeling alien, which I'm pretty sure isn't the intended effect.

Even art that finds its greatness in the evocation of emotion I appreciate first and foremost on its structure and form. Because empathy, in its absence, is the defining characteristic of ASD. So I appreciate Escher and Goedel and cathedrals. That's where I find beauty and greatness, much more easily than in Michelangelo or Handel or movies.

I'd appreciate any thoughts on this from others; I'm aware that I'm being fairly naive in my treatment of how art works, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

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