Love, Free Will, and the Uselessness of Art | Aaron Gervais, composer

Love, Free Will, and the Uselessness of Art

So today I read in the Globe and Mail that scientists are increasingly finding biological and genetic support for the age-old adages of love (Siri Agrell, “Sluts and Vermin”, The Globe and Mail, 26 Apr 2007, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070426.wxlsexstudies26/BNStory/lifeFamily/home).

For example, female mice who play hard to get tend to inspire faithfulness in their mates, as opposed to those who put out right away. There seems to be a biological reason why women that are unavailable are more desirable, and this builds faithfulness in men. Interesting.

Other adages have similar support, such as the idea that girls like bad boys (instinctual adaptive mechanism to unresponsive men), and that a rebound is a good cure for a break up (dopamine and oxytocin released in the brain). Even the idea that opposites attract–couples with greater genetic difference are statistically more faithful (genetic similarity makes women prone to infidelity).

Unsurprisingly, this is disturbing to many people. And I think the reason for this is that a good part of our societal norms are based on the Christian idea of free will, which has troubled philosophers since long before the advent of genetics. We want to think that we are all unique and different, that we make choices by ourselves to affect our destinies. Yet ever since statistics were adapted to human populations in the 18th century, this is a stance that has been becoming weaker and weaker, though we don’t like to talk about it. In fact, modern mass-consumerism is predicated on the idea that, for the majority of people in the majority of life situations, free will doesn’t really exist.

So I started thinking about what this means to art, since art as it is defined in the modern sense relies absolutely on free will. We seek out the composer-genius, the master-painter, these artistic figures that were able to create greatness by breaking away from the mundane, the everyday conventions. Then their work becomes the new convention, until this process happens again. It worked for Beethoven in the 19th century anyway.

The problem is, it stopped working in the 20th century. The historically short-lived interest in high art disappeared, and people kept on enjoying the developments of Beethoven and other “common practice period” composers, instead of replacing them with the new, as had always been the case before. It is only as we approach the 21st century that interest in “common practice period” music is evaporating as it “should” have earlier. However, the problem is that it is not being replaced with Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen, it is being replaced by the new museum music of jazz and classic rock.

Free will would lead us to expect that culture would eventually progress to higher and higher forms of art, as geniuses find ways to bring the understanding of the masses up to par with the “enlightened” avant-garde, who through their efforts have arrived at more fulfilling artistic experiences. A lack of free will would lead us to expect that certain physical models of art, biologically suited to be pleasing or fulfilling to the majority, would be forever recycled in variegated cultural forms.

The latter seems to be the case, though I am not arguing for or against the existence of free will. Instead, I think the concept is problematic. We can assume for the most part that a large part of life is predetermined, not necessarily by some divine force (though if you want to think that, go ahead), but by simple statistical force. And this extends right down to the genetics of our love life, what we find artistically pleasing, and the colour of our hair. But there may also well be numerous areas of varying importance in which individual actions play a great role: we can choose to leave our partners, go to a concert of something new with a friend whose taste we trust, and dye our hair different colours.

But what does this leave for the dominant conception of art? Not much. On it’s own, it is useless, except to those who are genetically or biologically or culturally or however else preconditioned to get something out of it. High and low, it’s all the same, as long as it fulfills its function for you. Of course, there are the rare cases where people find themselves in the position to spend the necessary time and energy to unravel something different–the cases where the statistics of life have aligned to give them a window into the previously unconsidered. But it’s silly to assume that this is necessarily the desirable situation, or better for us, or will lead to a greater artistic understanding by the majority. There’s simply no proof of this.

Should we therefore give up our abstract musical ventures and stick to writing catchy tunes? I don’t think so. Majority rule tends to be a bad system. But at the same time, we shouldn’t blame the lack of acceptance for our work on misguided cultural pundits, or a lack of musical education in the school system, or the commercialness of the media. Who cares if most people like hamburgers better than fois gras? It’s just a reality of life. If artists want more people appreciating their work, maybe they should have more babies… 😉