But is it Art?

Back from D.C. last night, I got up early this morning to watch the season finales of "Heroes" and "Lost." Oh my! I was very moved by both shows, but, on "Lost," Jack's surprise flash forward (did you happen to notice that the name of the funeral home was an anagram of this?--I didn't!) and Charlie's final palm message were some of the best dramatic moments I have experienced in a long while. Both of these shows, as well as "The Office," are absolutely brilliant--three solid reasons why people should never get rid of their TVs. How am I going to survive without these shows for so many months? And I have no idea how the American broadcast dates for these shows correspond to when they air in Australia, so I may be waiting even longer...

Anyway, I have plenty of snobby friends who think my love of good television (and Diet Coke, for that matter) betrays my 25 years of education, which makes me wonder how I could be so wrong and they could be so right. Well, at the APS meeting I attended this past weekend, I saw a talk by Paul Bloom, a Yale developmental psychologist (and someone about whom I have blogged before), titled "But is it Art?" He recently studied how young children perceive art and discussed his findings in the context of broader philosophical theories of art. Among the various points he made (I didn't take notes, so I'm doing this from memory):
  • Adults and children place special value on artistic reproductions of the real world. This explains the preference most people have for portaits, landscapes, pictures of still life, etc.
  • Adults and children prefer original works of creation over perfect copies. Think about how everyone reacts to the news that a revered painting by a great master is actually a forgery. Three-year-olds have this same response when they are given a chance to have an exact replica of their favorite attachment blanket or toy instead of the original.
  • The more we (and children) perceive that the artist labored, the more we value the end product. Bloom cited a study in which subjects reported liking an abstract painting more when they learned that the artist spent 28 hours or so on it, compared to a condition in which subjects were told that the artist spent 9 hours creating the same work of art.
  • Adults and children recognize that the artist's intention is more important in appraising the art than what the end product actually resembles. As Bloom noted, tell a young child that the stick figure that she has just drawn not only looks like "mommy," but everyone else in the family, and you'll end up with a very upset child.
I believe that Bloom comes from an evolutionary psychology framework, and his bottom-line argument is that there may be a few basic principles that we all share when we evaluate works of art that reflect basic cognitive processes we use in other areas of life. I am not sure that this analysis works in the case of my favorite television shows, but in these shows I do appreciate the originality, the attention to realism (so that I become absorbed in this new reality), and the apparently huge amount of work it takes to create such a quality product. Why my snobbier friends don't have these same appreciations of my television shows, or why people the world over differ in their artistic tastes, certainly has less to do with the inherent qualities of the art, and more to do with what we already know about the artist and/or perceive in the art in the ways in which Bloom described.