Keeping Score in the Arts #1: A New Science
by Ken Arneson
2004-03-08 18:00

This is the first in a series of six articles.

Art is nebulous. In sports, you can measure success with wins or points scored. In economics, you can measure success with dollars or euros. But the arts are different. We know quality in the arts when we experience it, but we have a hard time describing exactly what it is.

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and value of art. Theories of aesthetics have been around since Plato and Aristotle. None have delivered a useful way to measure art. But a new science is emerging, that gives us some hope of a solution. It’s called neuroesthetics, the study of the relationship between the brain and art.

I wanted to get a sense of the current state of neuroesthetics, so in January, I attended the Third International Conference on Neuroesthetics, which focused on “Emotions in Art and the Brain.” A wide variety of speakers gave their thoughts on how the brain works in relation to art: neurologists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, art historians and some artists themselves. The Washington Post wrote a good summary of the conference (registration required).

I learned a lot, but I did not learn the one thing I most want to know: how do you measure the quality of a work of art? The speakers all either implicitly or explicitly avoided the issue. Neuroesthetics seems to be in a cataloging mode right now: gathering as many facts as possible.

This makes sense. If neuroscience is in its infancy, neuroesthetics is a newborn sibling. Neuroesthetics has a long way to go before it can give mature, scientifically valid answers to any of its questions.

That doesn’t help me much. I’m just an amateur artist, but I want tools right now to help me build better things. By the time the science can provide me with something useful, I may be in a nursing home. A scene pops into my head:

Bones: You present the appearance of a man with a problem.
Spock: Your perception is correct, Doctor. In order to return us to the exact moment we left the 23rd century, I have used our journey back through time as a reference, calculating the co-efficient of elapsed time in relation to the acceleration curve.
Bones: Naturally. So what’s your problem?
Spock: Accleration is no longer a constant.
Bones: Well then, you’re just gonna have to take your best shot.
Spock: Best shot?
Bones: Yes, Spock, your best guess.
Spock: Guessing is not in my nature, Doctor.
Bones: Well….nobody’s perfect.

Guesses can be useful even if they aren’t always accurate. Long before I had found out about neuroesthetics, I felt compelled to make a calculated guesses about how art worked.

I did this by using my training as a computer engineer to approach measuring art as a reverse engineering problem. I knew what the inputs were (works of art), what the outputs were (judgments). The goal has been to design a new machine that takes the inputs and produces outputs similar to the original, and hope that it leads to useful information about art.

I gathered the data I had, and began tinkering around with numerous possibilities for arranging that data. But it wasn’t until I started learning more about the brain that I was able to find an algorithm that satisfied me.

The resulting hypothesis proposes that measuring art is possible, but it requires technology that isn’t currently available. Although we’ll fall short of one goal–being able to keep score in the arts–we will meet another: finding useful tools for creating and analyzing art. Whether I’m programming a computer, writing a limerick, or just watching a TV show, I now find I can approach my artistic endeavors with more purpose and precision than I ever could before.

Next: A Brain Lesson.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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