Monday, January 12, 2009

Shocking! An academic appeals to common sense.

Steven Pinker teaches at Harvard. He's recently written a book called The Blank Slate, where he lays out a pretty conclusive case confirming what anyone not deluded by ideology knows instinctively: people are born with individual personalities, talents, and abilities.

Here is a 24-minute video of Pinker explaining the arguments in his book.

There was one observation in this video that was really novel for me. Pinker says that one of the most controversial arguments in the book was the one dealing with the arts, which is surprising to say the least (given that he also tackles the origin of morals, the belief in God, infanticide, war, and so on). The observation which occasioned such vitriol about the arts, however, was Pinker's claim that the claim that the arts are declining -- an axiom among high brow art critics, one which is endlessly repeated and lamented -- is wrong. By any reasonable measurement, claims Pinker, the arts are thriving as never before.

What is not thriving, notes Pinker, is high brow/modern/trendy art, which has been on a decades-long decline. And this, Pinker says, is because average people began to turn away from high brow art when high brow art fully embraced a blank slate philosophy, which led them to deny human nature. (That was the novel observation, by the way. It just took me a while to get to it.) This denial of human nature led them to produce art of lower and lower aesthetic quality, largely because modern artists held appreciation of beauty itself in disdain. Pinker presents a clear example of the end result of this attitude through two pictures, one the classic Renaissance picture of the birth of Aphrodite and the other a modern piece representing a modern elitist artistic take on the female form, which consisted of an artificial model of a somewhat Reubenesque woman's trunk with no head, hands, or feet. The first was beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, while the second clearly was not. The latter is the kind of art high brow elite artists have been producing for decades, and which people haven't liked.

High brow elitists have been largely unable to understand this dislike, however, but Pinker gives evidence at the end of the video for hope that this might change. I truly hope he's right.

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