Tuesday, November 12, 2013


There is this idea of intersubjectivity. It seems to have been invented more or less to talk about art, so let's talk about it.

The idea is that much of how we react to art, how we feel about a piece of art, is subjective. It has to do with us, not objectively measured Standards and the like. The thing is, for powerful art, for good art, lots of us tend to feel the same way. It is this idea that the word intersubjective is intended to capture. It captures the idea of a subjective experience, which is nonetheless shared by many. A collectively subjective experience.

A really successful piece of art tickles similar subjective reactions in lots of people. Lots of us react to a piece of art in similar ways. We can talk about, we have common ground to agree on much of what we perceive in the piece, we have some differences we can argue about.

Where do these things come from? We're all human beings. We have similar biology, similar neurology. If we happen to come from the same cultures, or near enough, we share a lot of experiences and symbols. We are enough alike that our subjective reactions tend to resemble one another's.

Another source of an intersubjective experience is social norming. There's a bunch of ways this can happen, but essentially we all want to conform to the local society. This might be our family, our ethnic group, our city, or the group of people in an online context, or almost anything else. Our tastes, our responses, will tend over time to align with whatever we perceive as the normal taste and response on our social groups.

Scotch, for example, is an objectively nasty substance. Our biology and neurology is definitely not programmed to like the stuff. It's toxic, for starters, and it tastes like stuff that's been burned. However, many societies have in essence decreed that this stuff is a refined taste, it is subtle and interesting, sophisticated people like it, and have opinions about it. I like it myself, because I trained myself to like it. I do indeed have opinions about it. There is Scotch I like, and Scotch I don't like, and everything in between. This isn't fakery, my liking of Scotch is genuine. It's just learned, as a result of my desire to conform to social norms. My father likes Scotch, intelligent, sophisticated people like Scotch. So, I learned to like it as well. I know this for a fact, since I was there.

To be sure, there is fakery out there. People will profess to like things that they really do not like, in order to conform to those same social norms. People will profess to like things more than they actually do. People will learn to like things a little, and then lie about how much they like them. There's a whole spectrum of individual response to those pressures to conform. Still, a lot of it is genuine.

We learn to like pictures and art that our social groups like. We might choose to like other things, or to dislike some things our social groups like, to be maverick, an an independent thinker. That too is conforming to social norms. Sophisticated society decrees that being independent, that having your own ideas and opinions, is also a desirable thing. So, some people elect to be the one that doesn't like Scotch, or de Kooning. Again, this is often completely genuine. Not everyone likes Scotch, but everyone has to find an acceptable social response to Scotch, because Scotch is there. It's a thing in society that people like. So is de Kooning, so is Ansel Adams.

If you think of yourself as a photographer, and hang around with people who think of themselves as photographers, you pretty much have to have an opinion about Ansel Adams. You can choose to conform with the social norm, or you can choose the role of maverick, but the overarching social norm is that you must have a position. Almost everyone complies.

Even more interestingly, social groups will produce these norms. There's some sort of invisible process by which the pre-existing ideas and opinions of people entering a social group are massaged and averaged, reduced to some widely agreeably common denominator. The norm is neither predetermined nor static, each member of a group has an infinitesimal influence on it. As we push the norm slightly, it pushes back, and we learn to like it in much the same way one learns to like Scotch.

Intersubjective experiences are first subjective, and secondarily inter. Our collective subjective experiences draw on pre-existing commonalities between us, they draw on our individual subjective experiences, and they average, smooth, and simplify, down to some common medium which we all silently, unconsciously, consent to more or less agree on.

Finally, then, these intersubjective experiences of art come back around. They inform the system of symbols within our culture. How much of the greatness of "Migrant Mother" is drawn from the resemblance to "Mona Lisa" and how much of the greatness of the latter derives from the received wisdom that Leonardo was awesome?

In smaller scales, on faster timelines, we have camera clubs and their ridiculous rules of composition, and their modern equivalents in flickr, 500px, and so on. Look at Flickr Explore, or 500px Most Popular, or any of a dozen similar venues. There are literally something like 6 pictures in play here, being made over and over again in the millions, offered up to the masses, who will invariably pick out the best executed examples of whatever the ambient social norm decrees. This isn't faked. People genuinely like this stuff. They love the macro bug (focus stacked for massive depth of field, natch), the whatever it is reflected in the lake with the horizontally streaked pastel clouds behind, the wildlife frozen in interesting posture, the model with the lighting from the textbook and perfect makeup, the lightly HDRed boat pulled up on the shore, and the mist wrapped around the foothills.

Not a single one of these pictures has a shred of meaning or emotional weight, not a single one shows a shred of originality, but they are genuinely what people love. They are the social norm which these large groups of disparate people have produced. If these pictures stick around for a long time, will they acquire weight as they worm their way into the culture, as symbols? I don't know. In any case, we're watching something evolve here. Rather than building up on continental scales over centuries, we have an aesthetic built up over a handful of years. The same processes apply.

Coming up, I have a proposal for a solution! Of sorts.

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