Copenhagen 2017 Report
The fourth workshop, on the theme of ‘Investigating Aesthetic Complexity’, brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues, with expertise in fields spanning Archaeology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Dance Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Mathematics, Music and Musicology, Music Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Sociology. Invited local scholars introduced new disciplinary areas and perspectives to the Network, contributing to the programme and discussions.
The first day was devoted to ‘Music and Complexity’ including a provocation and responses from the fields of Musicology and Art History, a performance by accordionist Andreas Borregaard, and a paper which explored Complexity from a Mathematical perspective. ‘Perception and Complexity’ was the theme of the second day with contributions from the fields of Archaeology, Art History, Music, Neuropsychology and Philosophy. The third day, ‘Disciplinary Perspectives on Complexity’ was devoted to ongoing planning and discussion of publications by the Network, particularly around the issue of Complexity. This drew together discussion from preceding days which had included sessions on publication projects and methods of co-authorship across disciplines.
The function of this report is to provide a written account for the general public of the proceedings of the fourth workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held at Copenhagen University, 6-8 April 2017. It is based on transcripts of recordings from the workshop sessions.
This was the fourth in a series of six workshops to be held between September 2015 and April 2018, and the debates and arguments that emerged followed on from the first three workshops.
The information in this report is organised around the workshop themes:
- Music and Complexity
- Perception and Complexity
- Disciplinary Perspectives on Complexity
How are social and cultural practices of listening attuned to the environment? What insights does the practice of performing bring to the relationship between complexity and simplicity in music? How can mathematics inform our understanding of complexity in aesthetics?
Our first provocations and responses came from Music Theory, Music Practice and Art History. This began with a discussion of the ways in which environment shapes perceptions through a process of attunement, a relationship which we might term ‘affordance’, acknowledging the social and cultural practice of listening. The notion of affordance is exemplified here as one which encompasses the aesthetic qualities of the everyday and pop culture.
As a group we experienced a performance by accordionist Andreas Borregaard, which was pivotal in providing a live auditory experience to reflect upon throughout the workshop. The ensuing discussion highlighted the knowledge of the practitioner in finding the underlying simplicity within complex musical scores. What the audience might perceive as symbiosis between performer and instrument is often actually implied by the score and is a result of expertise in reading these qualities.
Discussion of the Mathematical applications of complexity brought to light a number of points around how these systems evolve and the interactions that take place including elements such as feedback loops. Complexity was related to a context through its connections with chaos, simplicity and systems within Mathematical understandings of the term.
How does the neuroscience concept of the predictive brain relate to complexity in aesthetics? How does the genre of music known as 'New Complexity' relate to aesthetics as sensory knowledge rather than beauty? How can the practice of archaeology be viewed as aesthetic, and how is it affected by collaboration with art practitioners?
The intersection of neuroscientific research and aesthetic concerns was highlighted in a session on the ‘predictive brain’. Our sensory perception of the world consists of a mixture of sensory data and prior expectations, the inclusion of predictions allowing for uncertainty. Experiments test the effects of interfering with sensory feedback to the brain. We might experience environments as being stable, but our brains are constantly changing based on these predictions. Working with dancers has furthered some of the concepts being explored by these researchers, in terms of understanding through practice the ways in which aesthetic expression is enabled as sensory experience and physical feedback within the body.
We went on to consider music genres such as ‘New Complexity’, which feature particularly dense styles of notation. The performer will frequently engage with what is on the borders or limits of perception, focusing on the experience and process of performance rather than the abstract ‘work’. The response framed aesthetics from a philosophical perspective as being centered around feeling and sensory knowledge rather than beauty. Experience and knowledge are in a circular relationship where this knowledge is always embodied. Aesthetics is positioned as an applied philosophy which requires interdisciplinarity as a means to further it. This trait was compared to psychology which borrows from other disciplines, but also may have something to give back to those disciplines.
The final paired provocation and response came from the fields of Archaeology and Art History, the former being explained as a discipline which interprets and reconstructs meaning from incomplete material remains. Archaeologists trace the lines of faint images to understand their making and recreate a version for further study. Working within tombs is in itself an aesthetic experience, captured by working collaboratively on site with an artist and writer. Assemblage can work as a model for the process of aesthetic creation here; where materials and skills are gathered within the one space.
There was a discussion of perceived errors, and the idea that deviations might be viewed rather as moments of inspiration and creativity. We might consider further the collective acts of making in the contemporary era, such as film, thinking about the wider environment and entanglements. However, we also need to be aware of limitations imposed by our distance from the object – e.g. knowing it only through poor reproductions.
How do we view the relationship between complexity and simplicity, and how is this articulated across different disciplines?
- Complexity cannot be grasped on its own, but needs to be seen in relation to the linked notions of simplicity as well as chaos and the issue of the development of systems.
- The notion of parsimony, associated with beauty and harmony, allows for complex phenomena to be explained with very few elements. Also in mathematics, a demonstration with very few elements is seen as elegant/beautiful.
- There is a historical and also a cultural relationship between simplicity and complexity. E.g. late medieval polyphony, which was deliberately ungraspable for religious reasons, versus a classical simplicity (apodictic). Or the emergence of punk out of progressive rock in mid 70s – this was simplification in relation to a kind of decadent complexification.
- We need some specific case studies, looking at how complexity is valued differently in different times and places. Also we can analyse transitions between different moments.
- In complexity, the problem is the articulation between the different elements.
- Complexity in art – it’s the links between levels that creates density, richness.
- Refers to how we make sense of complexity (studied in cognitive psychology).
While dialogue between disciplines at first felt difficult, as the Network has advanced, we are indeed starting to find productive common ground. This will be progressed in part via our planned publications, and also through the upcoming workshops. In planning for the final sixth workshop in Manchester we will foreground the embodied knowledge of practitioners as a means to continue our investigation. These developments will enable us to reframe our aim for more explicit and methodical disciplinary ‘mapping’ in a way that acknowledges limitations as well as strengths in both empirical and non-empirical approaches, and that explores how the object of enquiry extends beyond the limits of the methods of any one discipline.
We discussed how complexity of aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to beauty or pleasure. This point connects with dialogues arising from our first Manchester workshop and could usefully be developed further now in relation to our Complexity topic. Also, we addressed differences between aesthetic perception and perception of art works, in addition recognising the argument that art works provide material that intensifies and enhances sensory perception.
- Non-Western Viewpoints
We already began to address non-Western viewpoints at the Glasgow workshop, following the suggestions of both the Steering Committee and Network members. For instance, the discussion around bark cloth brought together specialists from different fields allowing them to think about complex ethnographic artwork that challenged Western categories of art and practises of aesthetic appreciation. We should expand our perspectives on non-Western approaches to sensory perception and how this relates to aesthetics. We have yet to address issues of gender and feminist perspectives on aesthetics. This has been recognised within the Network and we are seeking to address it in the planning of future publications. Popular culture has figured more prominently than hitherto in our discussions at the Copenhagen workshop. We are aware of the need to progress these areas over the next two workshops and will do this where possible.