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Culture is not about esthetics (2011) (gwern.net)
41 points by monort on Nov 15, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

Argh. Wrong on dozens of levels, and arguably nothing more than a ridiculous and repetitive summation of Modernist industrial / capital ideology.

In short, the author shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Postmodern artwork because it eloquently dismisses his reduction of culture to commodity.

Culture _is_ aesthetics. If you need a tell, glimpse at late Modernist aesthetics that sought to separate symbology from it. Form vs. Function is precisely such an ignorant axis model.

Culture communicates via its symbology, and some of that ethic / ideology is inexpressible via commodification; hence the need for late Modernists to attempt to exorcise such an emergent phenomenon.

If anything, the aesthetics of a culture (and important symbology) needs to be emancipated from the late Modernist industrial complex.

Maybe we'd benefit from having a discussion in simpler terms? The main points of the article, as I understand it, are that society shouldn't encourage the creation of new art, because we already have more than enough good art to last anyone a lifetime, and because artists are mostly motivated by social status anyway. It seems to me that your comment didn't offer any arguments against these points. Maybe I'm missing something?

Way back when, in fine arts school, a wise university professor taught us a unique trick to reframe statements regarding art.

The trick was to replace all instances of “art” with “language”.

Let's try it...

“The main points of the article, as I understand it, are that society shouldn't encourage the creation of new [language], because we already have more than enough good [language] to last anyone a lifetime, and because [language manipulators] are mostly motivated by social status anyway.”

Interesting I would say.

Not to pick on your statement, but rather to illustrate how ideological underpinnings frame our concepts. Art exists as nothing more (or less) than language, yet our ideological pressures force framing.

It strikes me that if that is the premise of the article (I read a little more under the hood) then even then, the framing is questionable.

Do we need more languages? I certainly enjoy being able to travel to most countries and be able to speak English as a relative standard across all.

I think language was meant in the sense of 'text, utterances'. In that sense, your reply (and my reply to your reply) have created more language.

ok then, we probably didn't need that language either

OK, I see. Do you have an argument that doesn't rely on conflating "art" with "language"?

It isn't conflation. At all.

Art, as a breed of language, holds vernacular, symbology, cliche, and many other facets within a culture.

This isn't exactly ground breaking nor novel, but something that requires an understanding to begin an engagement with.

It is as difficult to discuss topics as with any subject, when the two participants are resting on entirely different foundations. Akin to discussing linear algebra without considering the audience.

Best I can do is offer entry points and hope you might see value.

Example: "Some areas of artistic endeavour seem to try to prove that art is worthless and a joke; it’s a little hard to explain some areas of modern or post-modern art"

This has the sniffing of someone that isn't willing to follow the tendrils of a work, and certainly doesn't show a willingness to invest effort to understanding. How silly would it look to say "Some areas of software development seem to [xxx]" and conclude that, because something is hard to explain (subjective / contextual) that it therefore (implied) lacks value?

Much like the rest of language, pieces exist in an ecosystem, and the meaning that emerges tends to be occluded until one invests in comprehending the contexts. Postmodernism, for example, is a clear move away from Modernism. I cannot count the number of times that I have seen genuine conflation of "Modernism" with "modern", for example. To understand Postmodernism requires an understanding of what came before and what it may be taking issue with.

Of course, to wrap all of this up and encapsulate it as mere aesthetics or art is to ignore the very thing that gives art and other variants of language life; that it exists as a holistic thing in relation to philosophy, contemporary culture, historical culture, science, music, literature, and the rest of that complex ball.

"Deep down, I don't think our foundations are all that different."

Which is exactly why I am responding and attempting (probably failing) to communicate. It's not an easy task, especially when we consider the general culture around Hacker News, but one that I believe is extremely valuable.

Deep down, I don't think our foundations are all that different. It's not like all techies are blind to the role of culture as a communication channel, they just tend to view it differently. The section on "Propaganda" in the article specifically addressed that. I encourage you again to spell out your disagreement in more detail.

Agree with the other poster - it isn't conflation. Art is a form of communication, like languages are. Language and art are concepts that overlap more often than not.

This permeates all aspects of our lives - there is no objective reason why "red octagon" means "stop" except that we have created a design language in which this is standard. Likewise we've constructed massive visual symbologies that have real meaning - the floppy disk icon, an upward pointing arrow, the male/female symbols on restrooms that are so universal, etc. These are non-linguistic things that are nonetheless communication all the same.

There are even more complex manifestations of these symbols, techniques, and themes in fine arts - but in principle they are the same.

So to address your previous point:

> "The main points of the article, as I understand it, are that society shouldn't encourage the creation of new art, because we already have more than enough good art to last anyone a lifetime"

This becomes a nonsensical statement, because art is communication - and like all communication it wears culture and politics all over it. Art is unique to the time and place where it is created - the same way a novel wears the signatures of the era in which it is written.

This would be like suggesting that we should shut down all newspapers, because we already have archives full of old newspapers, more than anyone can read in a lifetime.

Art is intrinsically, inseparably tied to the culture and time surrounding its creation. It is not substitutable in perpetuity like a daily vitamin pill. Art created in the 18th century is not the same as art created in the 19th century - and is not the same as art that will be created in years to come.

> " and because artists are mostly motivated by social status anyway"

I've known a lot of artists. I don't think this statement is justified. You can say a lot of things - artists create for their ego, artists create for the approval of others, but "social status" brings in a lot of connotations that frankly aren't warranted.

Art is insular frequently - many artists have no interest in appealing to the layman, and their works are often inscrutable to anyone who hasn't spent a lot of time studying the art. Their primary interest in creation is communicating with others who are as studied as them in a particular topic. One can spin this as "being driven by social status" but in reality is no different than listening to the same music as your friends, or watching the same movies.

To try and bring this back to our world - think about an expert programmer who blogs about the finer points of compiler design. His blog is complete gibberish to the layman, and in fact is not understandable to most beginner programmers either. You have to have a certain background in order to understand what he's writing - this is what a lot of art is like. The mistake here is that certain people have put this art in a museum and told everyone they should like it - in doing so creating a false impression that understanding what's hanging on this wall is simple. It's really not.

The criticism in the article is off-base precisely because of this. This is like an amateur programmer looking at this compiler design blog and saying "all of this is gibberish I don't understand, therefore bullshit". The reality is that these are expert works designed for experts in a field - and to understand it (not that you're obligated to understand it at all) you have to work your way up to it, by understanding who has done what, where they came from, where they learned and copied from, etc etc.

The article was mostly talking about popular art, not art made specifically for experts. Most people are just looking for some simple thrills, which they can get from old stuff just as well as from new stuff. IMO the analogy between art and language only distracts from that point, I'd prefer if you engaged it head on.

I love old fiction, however I cannot read old fiction that references or is inspired by modern events. The novel is as much an instrument of contemporary social commentary as much as it is anything and to ignore this is to confuse the entire subject.

Books like Dead Air by Ian Banks, or Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, are simply not available in earlier eras as their narrative reference points did not yet exist.

It is like looking for something in the golden age of Hollywood that closely resembles Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Without the culture of computer games to draw on, that film could not get made.

> "Most people are just looking for some simple thrills"

This is patently untrue. Two of the top films in theaters right now are Interstellar and Gone Girl, neither of which can reasonably fit under the umbrella of "simple thrills". In fact Gone Girl has been widely described as a very difficult film to watch in terms of its emotional impact on its audience - suffice it to say the appreciation of that film goes above and beyond mere entertainment, yet both are "popular art" in the sense that they are widely consumed by the mainstream.

The general public is capable of a substantial amount of artistic understanding, and there are more experts out there than you acknowledge. Appreciation of different types, genres, and subgenres of art change over time as a reflection of culture.

One good modern example of this is the comic book movie - comic books have unique thematic, structural, and aesthetic elements to them that were previously the exclusive territory of comic book nerds. In recent years this has gone spectacularly mainstream - and hundreds of millions of people now better understand stuff that used to be pretty inscrutable.

All art exist in a spectrum between the novice and the expert, mainstream society is quite expert at some (see: music, cinema) but not currently practiced in others (see: postmodernism). To boil the artistic sensibilities of the mainstream down to "simple thrills" is not only grossly cynical, it's grossly incorrect.

"Popular art" is not mere entertainment - and it has never been, and has always been a reflection of the time and place in which it's created. Captain America - popular right now - was a nationalistic symbol created during the midst of WW2 when it was felt that such a symbol be needed. The utopian portrayal of the future in the original Star Trek attracted viewers as an optimistic opposite to the Cold War. Heck, the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons is a direct analogy between the USA and the USSR (and naturally, the Federation always prevails).

And these art forms evolve - just this year we've had two massively profitable films between the X-Men and Captain America where the US government was portrayed as openly malevolent, and one of them directly addressed governmental spying. These works transparently reflect the times in which they were made. With the increasing media attention on drone strikes worldwide, even the RoboCop remake wasn't spared - the movie went from a reflection of 1980s crime anxiety to a reflection of 2010s morality re: drone strikes.

This isn't just movies either - Tupac built a huge mainstream career and long-standing legacy on works that plainly and openly commented on crime, race, and equality in the context of 1990s America. He's far from the only one - the general public is much more capable of expert artistic appreciation than you give them credit.

People seek commentary, understanding, belonging, and even escape from the world and times in which they live, and popular art has provided this, and in this way they are not substitutable. The notion that people can or should subsist on past art exclusively is plainly false, as is the basis assumption that "popular art" is merely entertainment.

>The main points of the article, as I understand it, are that society shouldn't encourage the creation of new art, because we already have more than enough good art to last anyone a lifetime, and because artists are mostly motivated by social status anyway.

How about, because new art is often created to fill the particular desire of an actually-existing person rather than to feed gwern's smug sense of superiority to the rest of humankind. And let us add, people create art because it's fun, which is reason enough for almost anything.

And then there's the issue with citing Robert "capital-accumulation is ethical value" Hanson on, well, anything.

>To feed gwern's smug sense of superiority to the rest of humankind


>And let us add, people create art because it's fun, which is reason enough for almost anything.

He's arguing against subsidising art, not for stopping all art production.

> we already have more than enough good art to last anyone a lifetime

It's easy to see that this is false. Pick an arbitrary point in history and imagine that cultural production had stopped at that point. Would that be "enough good art"? Of course not. Old art is not our art.

> artists are mostly motivated by social status anyway

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

There is art that seeks to please or entertain, and there is art that seeks to say something. For example, even if movies like "Baraka" and "Samsara" already have been made, they still need to be made again, every few decades. And even in cases where the audience doesn't need some things said many times in different ways; each artist still needs that act of actively saying it. I'm not an artist, but what creativity I do have in my life, it is for me. For example, I sometimes write lyrics and I rap them shittily, and I am pretty much not concerned what anyone but me thinks of them. They're my little bubble in which I can clean my own soul, and who sees it or cares is not my concern. And while I don't consider that "making art", I know much worse things, that have nothing to say at all, are called art with a straight face. So technically, it's art. And I don't do it to get laid, I did it, as I said, to relieve pressure and come to terms with the world around me. I am not saying this is the sole motivation for art, but at least I don't have to second guess artists with a message on their motivation, because I know it's at least possible to not give a fuck, because I am doing it right now.. if society was so great I could seek its approval with a straight face, I would have no reason to write songs. So I'm not asking when I make "art", I'm telling, and I don't worry wether what I do is good enough for people, if anything I'd worry wether people are good enough for it. And I'm not making great things, you know, and still I take them seriously enough to feel that way. How much more so for "real" artists. It is said Bach wrote for God first and last; or was that just PR? Yeah he did it for a living, but his motivation was not to impress people. Are such people the exception of the rule, or is the rule just nonsense?

Though I agree, don't encourage art, make it illegal. It will not stop people from being artists, but it would curb a lot of mediocrity :P

> society shouldn't encourage the creation of new art, because we already have more than enough good art to last anyone a lifetime

The theory implied there is that art is a shelf-stable commodity product whose only value is in consumption as entertainment. Will anybody seriously admit to believing that?

> artists are mostly motivated by social status anyway

If we get to cancel everything where social status is a motivator, we should cancel everything. We are social animals hardwired for social status. We should certainly cancel HN, which of course has rankings to show who's on top and where people spend stupid amounts of effort trying to win arguments in status-enhancing ways.

The only part of this comment which I understood was "Wrong on dozens of levels". The rest of it, is just, not using concepts I have a concrete understanding of. But I suspect most of it to be bullshit.

I agreed with the original essay to a large extent. I'll have to admit that I don't know what the title had to do with it. Basically, should we subsidize or protect the economic interests of creators of fiction and entertainment? No, we shouldn't, we really have no need to sustain the volume of what they produce.

I think they should be free to create such things if they want, the suggestion of banning new books is pretty silly. But if unchecked piracy "squashes" commercially motivated books, movies, and music, that would be fine. We would all be quite fine. People can still create media in their free time, if they want, and they might have more free time, if society as a whole spent less money on it.

I apologize for not speaking with concepts you have a concrete understanding of. I sincerely do, this is not a snipe.

"People would be happier reading only the best fiction"

"It’s easier to figure out what the good old fiction is, than it is new fiction there’s also more good old fiction than good new fiction"

"people write too much new fiction. they also read too much"

"Society shouldn’t subsidize economically inefficient things like new fiction"

"We might go so far as to suggest a Pigovian tax on new works because they encourage their own consumption"

"The uses of fiction are much less than one might think, and many of those uses are propagandistic, dangerous, or both"

"Subsidizing the nonfiction market may be justifiable"

Those are the final summations, in order. Seven statements, each of which I find entirely delusional. So by "dozens of levels", the above represents at least seven out of twelve of them.

I cannot think for a brief moment that a large chunk of Hacker News would rest easy with any, or even a few, of those statements.

It is, of course, entirely plausible that his entire piece is a work and to be read contextually as a clever bit of sarcasm or an attack, at which point it simply fired right over my head.

All those statements seem pretty well-founded. Fiction is dangerous because it has an overly powerful way to change thoughts as it isn't constrained by what's true.

The other points seen very straightforward and are pretty much what I've run into while trying to find SF to read. The only complaint I'd have is that good new SF tends to be more accurate and believable, due to the surgeries authors actually seeing how tech and science has progressed. Older works tend to feel dated because the tech surpasses what they've envisioned. Yet, only sometimes. E.g. reading Asimov's Robot series, I didn't feel the effect of things being so dated.

So given I'd probably be more content with the top works from time past, he's correct that creating new works is simply not as valuable as it used to be. Even if this is an uncomfortable conclusion (I want Culture novels and loved Altered Carbon), it seems accurate.

>Fiction is dangerous because it has an overly powerful way to change thoughts as it isn't constrained by what's true.

Exactly how is this unlike any other speech-act, including plain declarative sentences that just happen to be filled with rhetorical tricks?

Most fiction is not actually propaganda, even if the git galleries of High Literature prefer to focus on the subset that is.

It's unlike it because it's far easier to establish emotional connections and paint a rich world full of counter factuals. Fiction can easily establish itself as a reference point for future ideas, such as on AI.

This is only worth mentioning because it points out that there are potential downsides. It makes the real bottom line of the article more acceptable. That is, we don't need to encourage art creation, that the public isn't gaining much by having strict copyright for art.

If you learn to write fiction you'll understand that almost all human thinking runs on 'narrative logic.'

Human brains are basically story machines. There are (IMO) good evolutionary reasons for this.

Even science at its best is just an occasionally successful attempt to stop using narrative logic to reason and to use other cognitive modes instead.

Politics, economics, and law are almost entirely fuelled by narrative logic and rhetorical persuasion, which is its close cousin.

>That is, we don't need to encourage art creation

An exercise I often suggest is to imagine a world with no aesthetics at all.

Everything is rendered in standard fonts, designed strictly for intelligibility. Colour isn't used at all. There's no personal adornment, no make-up, no jewellery.

Photography and painting have never been invented. Nor has music. Nor have story-telling and metaphor - all communication is strictly factual and literal.

Graphic design doesn't exist. Nor does product styling. Buildings, cars, clothes, everything is 100% functional with no decoration of any kind.

Do you want to live in this world?

Point is aesthetic expression is everywhere. It's not until you try to imagine a world without it that it becomes obvious how much of an obsession it is for humans.

So which propaganda are you specifically trying to ban?

>It's unlike it because it's far easier to establish emotional connections and paint a rich world full of counter factuals. Fiction can easily establish itself as a reference point for future ideas, such as on AI.

The thing about rich worlds full of counterfactual events is that, being completely unrealistic, they have no influence on real life. There's a reason the people who accomplish big things in real life usually spent a lot more of their time reading textbooks than novels.

If you want to raise artificial intelligence as an example, the very ridiculousness of the body of fictional evidence from which to generalize has probably set back the field by decades, because people keep running around chasing nonsense ideas out of the sorry imaginations of philosophers of mind and science-fiction writers rather than following the obvious research leads that stare into the face of anyone who bothers to actually look with a clear head.

But I'm sure that anyone complaining about how speculative fiction is dangerous would probably say the opposite: that giving people bad models to work from somehow makes them more likely to discover real, working science.

Anyway, point being, the thing about having movies where pandimensional posthumans open wormholes to save mankind from omnivirulent crop blight is that they don't make space exploration dangerous.

The article mentions how fiction has convinced people that cars explode, leading bystanders to drag people out of car accidents, injuring them.

Another example could be crime or terrorism shows that make people think LE should have extraordinary powers.

Fiction, even unrealistic, certainly effects people. As the article mentions, brains believe everything they hear, at first. The understanding that something is a lie comes after. Additionally, we cache thoughts, for efficiency and do not always reevaluate thoughts for truthiness. So being bombarded by many counterfactuals can certainly change our minds in the "real world".

This is only mentioned because it points out that reading fiction can be actively harmful, so we can't just sum it up as just potentially positive.

Fiction is dangerous because it has an overly powerful way to change thoughts as it isn't constrained by what's true.

This is a fundamental feature of language. Fiction is a feature of words. Story is the very basis of a technologically aggregating culture like ours. We describe things that do not exist, so that we may build them.

Key point “good” is a seductive bait word.

Art / language is emergent in nature, as is our modeling of science and other realms. As such, some work may not meet the privileged notions of “good” until long after an author has offered her work. And this doesn't begin to touch on Barthe's / Foucault's reading of authorship and its relevance.

Likewise, work may become “not good” based on an equal number of complex facets.

So in this emergent light, are you specifically requesting citation, or would you prefer to create, and in turn judge and explore, the meaning of a text yourself?

Do you often label things you don't understand as bullshit?

foolrush - you seem well studied on the subject. Are there any books you'd recommend?

Not well studied beyond a BFa at a rather liberal / avant-garde school. And of course a lifelong fascination with the subject that carried on long past postsecondary education.

Hard to suggest one book, or even a few to be honest. The hardest thing about much of these sorts of topics is to find the willpower and passion that can carry you through study. That and the extremely difficult act of extending a humility to believe there may be some substance to difficult texts; all too common (and easy) for people to dismiss difficult texts as meaningless / confusing.

Any recommendation would have to start with you and what you understand, what you have been exposed to, what interests you, and so on.

I'll bite. I'd start with Ways of Seeing by John Berger http://www.amazon.com/Ways-Seeing-John-Berger/dp/014103579X

I tried to self-study my way into art - futilely for the most part. Your mileage may vary of course, but art didn't really "click" for me until I decided to create some of it myself.

Once you start creating art you start realizing that you're walking the same learning path others have taken before you, and this allows you to better contextualize art you see out in the wild.

It's a feedback system for me - art I create helps me better understand the how and why of other artists/art, and in turn feed back into the development of my own work, and further understanding, etc ad infinitum (hopefully).

Culture is about many things, one of which is aesthetics. The idea that creative arts are valued by some absolute aesthetic quality is to ignore not only the changing nature of quality itself, but also all the other purposes that art has. Art is also about commentary on the current culture, and that is just as good a reason to produce it as any. Not everything has to reach for the sublime, some people are just trying to illuminate something rather small and innocuous in a fairly humble manner and if their audience is small, no matter. As to the question of if we need more books, given we have more of a high quality than one person could read in a lifetime, like I said, quality isn't everything. I want books that comment on the current world, not just books that are the best written.

Also, the idea that there is too much fiction available is a very anglo-centric position. There are many languages around the world where the novel is still relatively novel.

This article has a completely backwards approach. People prefer new art. This is a clearly observable fact. The article's approach to this fact seems to be to declare everybody as making the wrong choice, essentially by fiat. It would be much more interesting to examine why people prefer new art and ask the question of whether the classics are underappreciated and if there would be a net benefit to encouraging them, rather than basically assuming the author's tastes are some sort of objective fact and deriving a bunch of nonsense from it.

Personally, I think there's a ton to be said for context. People want characters and situations they can relate to. At the end of the day, I'd generally prefer to read something where the protagonist uses an iPhone and cooks with a microwave than one where the protagonist writes letters and has his food cooked by slaves.

And of course it doesn't have to be as dramatic as smartphones and slavery. Even a book from just a couple of decades ago is going to feel remarkably different due to changing attitudes towards everything from homosexuality to nuclear war.

But he completely refuses to consider such contextual advantages. He states flat out, "People are better off reading the best books, and the best ones are predominately the ones that already exist, there is more than can be read, and new books have no compelling advantage over the classics." (Emphasis from the author.)

The concluding sentence is an excellent summary of the article, although not the way it's meant to be: "I have started with common-sense grounds and wound up somewhere strange." In my experience, when people justify things with "common sense" they often mean unsubstantiated claims that they don't want to have to justify explicitly. If you start with "common-sense grounds" and end up somewhere strange, consider that maybe your starting assumptions are faulty!

I think you may be misinterpreting "the best ones are predominately the ones that already exist" a bit.

Most cultural production in any medium is forgettable. How many composers do you think were alive at the same time as Beethoven? Hundreds? Thousands? How many of them do we still listen to today? Tens, maybe less.

Even more recently, let's take The Beatles and their contemporaries. Of course, The Beatles were not the only seminal artists of their time. They were active at the same time as David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. But again, how many of their contemporaries produced albums that are now forgotten by everyone who listened to them? How much of what's left even now will be gone in another 75 years, when basically everyone who was alive in the 60s is dead?

The only difference between the 60s (or early 1800s) and now is that we haven't yet forgotten all the crap that is being put out today. Will future historians of pop music assign more than a footnote to Katie Perry or Taylor Swift 50 years from now? Will they even get a footnote?

So the reason old art is the best art is simply that we've had time to weed out all the crap. The remaining art that we still remember is the best of what was released at the time. It's not the best because all old was better, it's the best because it's been better curated.

In fact, for all we know, the overall proportion of art that is good might be even better today, but that doesn't change his proposition that we don't really need new art in order to experience great art for the rest of our lives.

I'm familiar with that argument. But you seem to be completely ignoring my point about the value of a contemporary context.

If context counts for a lot then it doesn't matter how good the best of the old stuff was when it was created or how easy it is to figure out which bits are the best today. Newer stuff will still be better now because it's more relevant. Much of it won't be better to people in the future, but that doesn't matter to people now.

While I'm not entirely sure who they are or what they sing, I'm pretty sure at least some people actually like Katie Perry and Taylor Swift, and it would be a disfavor to those fans to deprive them of the artists they like.

Would those same people suffer an absolute difference in musical enjoyment if those two artists did not exist? Is there a reason to believe that another set of artists wouldn't have filled that gap and users would be just as happy? That is, if there was no copyright and instead we were listening to stuff artists made just because they're artists, and they find a way to create, is the public at net loss?

In photography, amateurs are all over, with top equipment (it's an old joke that non-pros have the better equipment as they can better afford it). If I go to look at pictures of some place, it may very well be that professional photographers are providing zero additional value to my viewing enjoyment. Why should this be different than any other area?

>Would those same people suffer an absolute difference in musical enjoyment if those two artists did not exist?

Statistically speaking, yes, some of them would.

I wasn't arguing that new art shouldn't exist, simply explaining why I think the linked article suggests that people would be perfectly happy if no new art were made.

If the author had just summarized his points in a thesis paragraph I wouldn't have had to wade through so many words just to try and figure out what he was ultimately trying to say. Ironically, he spent much of the post complaining about how much there is to read.

Not to try to sound like I'm appealing to authority or his greatness or anything, but I think gwern's essays are fantastic. I think their length is fine because of how rich they tend to be.

Long articles are fine and there is good content in this one. Just help me navigate it better by using a familiar hierarchy more common to informational essays.

This is a long, but brilliant essay.

I especially enjoyed the section on Music Instruments about 1/4 down the page.

The theme argues the idea that civilization/society/humans create for the sake of social status, not for the effect of the creation.

For example: We choose to learn to play guitar to "be cool," or piano to indicate we want to be thought of as high-class rather than because we value the sounds of either of these instruments.

This can be incredibly earth-shattering to realize. I hope it's not 100% true, but there is plenty of evidence to show it is.

This type of thinking may also inform the famous "Mac vs. PC vs. Linux" debates. Do we choose our OS based on it's social significance or its technical, productive and visual benefits?

We are social animals, hardwired for status, so it's pretty easy to find status elements in anything we do. But I think it's a mistake to say that because X has a status aspect, it's about status.

I also think this argument assumes everybody's optimizing for a particular characteristic: sound. But for most decisions people are satisficers [1], not optimizers. If one tries instruments more or less at random until one crosses the "good enough" line, then instrument choice will mainly be about availability. In which case, people will tend to converge on a small number of instruments without any need for "cool" as an explanation. There are also other characteristics people value about instruments. For example, the ability to play with other people, or the ability to participate in a style of music that they like. Those are definitionally social, but not necessarily driven by status-seeking.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing

It's not a novel idea - consumption for identity purposes is a very, very old and well explored meme:


A lot of basic sales books/courses discuss it. I've met a few people in the traditional publishing and they seem to well understand that the majority of books sold are never read.

I am actually having great trouble getting motivated to read the whole essay. Gwern's writing suffers a lot from poor sequencing, excessive footnotes/hyperlinks/digressions and a general reluctance/inability to summarise. Wish he could find a way to make his writing "skim-able", so that I can at least tell what the rough subject is before investing an hour to understand it.

Yeah. When I write like this, it's because I'm really writing for me. It's my way of processing a topic.

But if I'm going to publish something, I'd rather write for the reader. I just threw out half a book manuscript because I realized that while my intended audience was novice entrepreneurs, my actual audience would be grizzled, grumpy old veterans like myself. Eventually I hope I'll start fresh and really write for my readers.

Well, yes. This shows the way forward for artists in the Silver Age of way too much plenty: work those niches.

And insofar as human intelligence evolved for the sake of being able to use "hypocritical" strategies in iterated tribe-sized prisoners' dilemmas (a constant refrain of economists like Robin Hanson), art (in its propagandist status-enhancing role) is the fulcrum by which sentience was plucked out of the evolutionary soup. We do not produce art such that there will be better art to consume; we consume art as an alliance maneuver such that when we have something important (and self-serving) to say, others will listen.

And, of course, we make this game-theoretic compromise completely unconsciously; it is an adaptation we are merely executing.

Does your model yield any novel predictions other than a smug feeling for you?

I nicked the title for this essay:


Culture is not primarily about aesthetics: it's about monkeys' mutual grooming. It's about aesthetics after the piece of culture has fulfilled subcultural needs. Is your typical metalhead going to choose an exquisite harp symphony over a pretty-good slab of loud metally rock'n'roll? Probably not.

You're normally so sharp about deflating dodgy ideas that I'm surprised to see you say this. As I read it, you and Gwern seem to assume that a) there is an objective "best" measure for art, and b) the purpose of experiencing art is is to consume "best" art.

I don't think either of those are true. I agree there's a status component to things, but we're monkeys; there's a status component to everything. (If I avoided everything where status behavior was an important driver, I'd have to stop typing right now; open-source software is filled with it.) Culture, being the summation of everything we talk about, is "about" a lot of things. Really, it's about everything.

Sure, everything social that we do is socially mediated, and therefore has status components. But to say that's what it's primarily about is to me like saying that all of marine biology is really about water. Sure, it's there, and sure, anything you point at is related to seawater. But saying it's all about seawater strikes me as a rhetorical technique used to dismiss something, not a serious analysis.

Oh, it's totally all mixed up. It's intersubjective, which means you can sorta rank stuff but not really.

However, I do think culture is primarily about culture, i.e. mutual grooming and good feelings with our fellow monkeys. I speak here as a superannuated rock journalist with a ridiculously large record collection.

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