It occurred to me, after having listened to k.d. lang’s 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel a number of times, that if I were a songwriter, I would never, but never, let k.d. lang sing a song I had written if I ever again wanted to perform it myself. Apparently, lang picked some of her favourite songs of Canadian songwriters for that album, including those of some of the best singer/songwriters of the past fifty years. To my ear, lang’s covers are better (in some cases way, way better) than many of the original recordings. And I’m not the only artist who would have felt daunted and envious of a creative peer, based on an aesthetic judgment.
Leonard Bernstein is said to have been preparing for a recording of Mahler’s Symphony Number One when Bruno Walter’s preliminary recording of the same work crossed his desk. After listening to the tapes, Bernstein was said to have immediately abandoned his plan to record, noting something to the effect that he simply could not do it any better. (He nevertheless did eventually record his own version.) Another example comes from Alain de Botton’s (1997) book How Proust Can Change Your Life. He quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which, upon reading Proust, she exclaims, “Oh, if I could write like that!” and later, “How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped -- and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp." De Botton claims, “Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf.” These anecdotes suggest that some consumers of art have staked a lot on their judgment of beauty. Indeed, Bernstein and Woolf in their astonishment at the accomplishment of another in their fields were willing to stifle their own creative aspirations, at least for a time.
But, if there is no such thing as objective beauty, these choices make no sense. For anyone doubting that something can be objectively beautiful, David Deutsch’s short chapter on the subject (from his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World) is an eye-opener. Deutsch is a quantum physicist and one of the founders of quantum computation, and as is richly evident in this book, a great admirer of Karl Popper’s ideas concerning how knowledge grows. Deutsch’s chapter, entitled “Why are Flowers Beautiful?”, addresses the question of why flowers are quite reliably found to be beautiful by humans. It makes evolutionary sense that flowers should be attractive to bees, whose job it is to pollinate particular flowers, but there’s no common knowledge between insect species and homo sapiens that could account for this reliable finding. Nor, he argues, is it due to inborn preferences for particular types of colors, contrasts, or shapes. In fact, there are two kinds of beauty: the one that explains the bees’ attraction to the flower and humans’ attraction to certain kinds of art: parochial beauty which is “local to a species, to a culture, or to an individual” (p. 364) , and the other, that is “universal, and as objective as the laws of physics.” The parochial kind of beauty is primarily for signaling information, while the universal kind seeks, like good science, to create “good explanations” (p. 365). “Elegance” is the goal in both science and aesthetic deep inquiry. As throughout the book, we see here Deutsch’s philosophy of knowledge-seeking as the Popperian process of conjecture (a product of the “creative imagination” [p.26]), followed by criticism, followed by new conjecture. He singles fiction out as being most obviously capable of seeking such good explanations, since “a good story has a good explanation of the fictional events that it portrays” (p. 365). Art that seeks objective truth is expected to progress infinitely, as is the Popperian type of scientific inquiry, while parochial art is expected to progress toward a finite state. “Deep truth” in both science and art “is often beautiful” (p. 355).
Deutsch argues that it is easy to be misled by the empiricist view that there can be no objective philosophical or artistic knowledge. Empiricism is wrong in that it purports that we somehow derive knowledge from observation, when in fact all observation is theory-laden. Deutsch concedes that we never deduce moral maxims or aesthetic values from scientific theories, precisely because we don’t really deduce something from something else in building good explanations of anything. In reality, we conjecture and must seek to criticize our own conjecture, and seek out the criticism of others, thereby creating a new and better conjecture. This is the only route to good explanations that are “hard to vary,” (in which “changing the details would ruin the explanation” [p.32]), and therefore approximate reality better than explanations in which elements can be tweaked with little detriment to its elegance or reach. Indeed, the main reason that humans were able to escape from the dictates of biological evolution, parochialism, and the “static” societies these entail, Deutsch argues, is that the process of conjecture does not require our having first systematically refuted all of the intermediate theories that might logically thrive between the emergence of any two conjectures (p. 114). On the contrary, organisms that are evolving must be viable in all intermediate stages to survive to the next generation. Humans can freely go wherever the imagination takes them.
And yet, Deutsch emphasizes, “…we should really understand all our predictions as implicitly including the proviso ‘unless the creation of new knowledge intervenes’ ” (p. 457). What this means for the notion of the objectivity of beauty is that the ultimate in beauty recognized today by the best in aesthetic fields not only may, but will, be superseded in future by better artistic conjectures, better criticism, better subsequent conjectures. In this larger context, perhaps Bernstein, Woolf, and my counterfactual chanteuse self should never have been quite so concerned by the successes of contemporaries in their respective fields.
De Botton, Alain. (1998). How Proust can change your life. New York: Vintage.
Deutsch, David. (2011). The beginning of infinity: Explanations that transform the world. London: Penguin Books.
lang, k. d. (2004). Hymns of the 49th parallel. Nonesuch Records Inc. Warner Music Canada.