The Awe Delusion

Art is a technology. If you did a Casablanca / Law & Order double feature you might notice that although Casablanca perhaps has more ‘artistic value’ (that horribly vague phrase), Law & Order tells its stories with a mind-boggling efficiency that vastly outstrips the former. Some time after 1960 filmmakers learned how to tell more story with less. They learned how to convey more information in less time and without losing depth. If this kind of compression is one example of artistic technology, in other words, we’ve gotten so much better at it that even the workingman filmmakers that produce network television can do it. It’s artistic electricity. Literacy.

According to this model, you could call some artistic movements technological inventions. Or even technological revolutions. Painting realistically, non-linear narrative, or syncopation are all examples of things that had to be invented. And these practical inventions reflect more systemic, abstract inventions that could better be described as ‘ways of thinking.’ The invention of realism, for example, changed the scope of things art could (or should) be about from what was moral or pleasurable to what was truthful.  Modernism, in turn, suggested that what was truthful could be approached by methods other than object-level realism. And so on, and so forth.

My interest in art as a subject is not because of philosophical fascination on its own merits. My interest is fundamentally practical: I want more art that is good. I write about art because of the sneaking suspicion that on some level ‘artistic value’ is a technology too. That ‘good’ is a technology. That it’s something that can be in some way broken down or optimized. That it’s something people can be literate in.  

The quality most people dance around when they talk about artistic value or meaning or beauty is something like ‘ineffable profundity.’ It’s a feeling of something having been transcended or tapped into. What’s weird about this definition of goodness is that it’s been used as a justification for both artistic elitism and anti-elitism. The elitist train of thought goes something like ‘Michaelangelo and classical music produce this feeling of profundity therefore they are somehow a higher art than other kinds’, while often ignoring that artworks outside of classist categories also produce the feeling.  The anti-elitist train goes something like ‘profundity is the terminal value and it doesn’t really matter what produces it,’ but often takes it to a nihilistic conclusion that ignores that the way an artwork has been deliberately crafted actually has an effect on the experience of profundity. How do we get off both of these trains?


“Have some sense of proportion!” [Trin Tragula’s wife] would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

–Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking up at the ceiling of a gothic cathedral, listening to a soaring crescendo or reading a story that finally makes you understand a person with moving clarity: these are all feelings that I group under the category of awe. Awe is essentially a feeling of humility based on an intuition of scale. Intricate needlework, an inventive jazz musician, or a really big building all produce this kind of awe because the scale of the achievement is transparent. They are all in some way monumental, if not physically large.

I don’t know why we react this way, though there’s probably some social-monkey-deference reason. The problem is that awe tends to feel the same from the inside regardless of what’s causing it. Sometimes awe tells us things about artistic goodness, and sometimes it doesn’t. It makes sense that when a work of art awes us with its technical skillfulness (intricacy, polish), that we confidently call that work good–at least on some level. But then you look at something like the movie Boyhood, which took twelve years to make because director Richard Linklater wanted his actors to age in real time. I don’t think anyone claimed that that fact alone made it good, but the movie itself uses this monumental aspect in lieu of actually achieving monumental themes. It’s not a bad movie, but it reaches for a deepness it doesn’t achieve, instead falling back the associations the audience will make just by witnessing the passage of time. Similarly, one could argue that the reason older art has an aura of ‘goodness’ is that its age itself is monumental. Such examples suggest is that it’s possible to induce a mood of awe, without actually being a monumental accomplishment.

Insight, or the intuition of truth, is a powerful form of awe. To describe it, I defer to Douglas Adams’ description of The Total Perspective Vortex from his Hitchhiker’s Guide series. The Total Perspective Vortex is a great shorthand for the overwhelming feeling of understanding something huge and unifying and deep on the scale that we say great art achieves. But it’s also a great metaphor for the way that this feeling of understanding can be manipulated. Later on in the story, a character gets plugged into the Total Perspective Vortex, but emerges completely unscathed. Not because they were enlightened, but because the ‘universe’ of the machine was limited to that character, meaning that they perceived themselves as literally the most important thing in the universe. When art teaches us soothing, self-affirming truths, it is a bit like plugging oneself into a Zaphod Beeblebrox sort of Perspective Vortex. It just so happens that exactly the things you think are true and important really are that true and important–on a cosmic scale! Compression can be awe-inducing on the level of technical skill, but insight is where it has its strongest relationship to artistic goodness. The better compression is, the bigger the universe of your Vortex is.

Lastly, what we call beauty is another kind of awe. In the words of Sarah Perry, it is awe at “fit.” It is an intuition that a solution has been found to “many simultaneous complex problems.” She writes:

In Gödel, Escher, Bach (pp. 170-172 in PDF, pp. 162-164 of printed text), Douglas Hofstadter imagines that a record of Bach’s sonata in F Minor for violin and clavier is sent up in a satellite and intercepted by intelligent aliens. The aliens might well be able to locate the “compelling inner logic” of patterns-within-patterns of the Bach piece; it contains beauty in the sense of fit within its own self-enclosed system. However, what if the record contained instead John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” – chance music whose structure is chosen by stochastic processes? This “maximally surprising” music contains no patterns at all, and aliens without knowledge of the sociology of 20th century music would be unlikely to find any beauty in it. Maximally surprising music of this type is not beautiful, just as the beauty of a mathematical result is not reducible to its surprising nature. Rather, in both cases, the type of surprise that creates beauty is the (perhaps sudden) apprehension of usefully organized complexity within the system – the apprehension, that is, of fit (see also).

This definition of beauty suggests a couple of things. It suggests that one of the reasons that people who value good art are (ironically) likely to be distracted by what is artistically fashionable is that they not only have sensitivity to artistic fit, but to social fit. In some ways, political or winking meta-meta level art are very good solutions to the complex problem of delineating an identity. The fit model of beauty also explains why randomness is not beautiful. And because randomness is not beautiful, a lack of purpose is not beautiful. So what is beautiful?


“We just make noodles in the normal way” — Tampopo (1985)

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a brilliant satire of rule-bound taste. In a typical scene from the movie, a group of young women are being instructed in the correct way to consume pasta. As they are exhorted to noiselessly twine a few strands around their forks, the women watch, enraptured, as an Italian man across the room wolfs his own spaghetti with gusto. The women quickly abandon their teacher’s instructions, and begin to studiously wolf their pasta as well. Meanwhile, in the movie’s main plotline, a quest to create the perfect bowl of ramen (read: art), the essence of goodness turns out again and again to be nothing more complicated than ‘normality.’ The only rule is that the thing works. Not ‘works’ as in ‘suffices’, but as in ‘the platonic ideal of functional.’

Here is a list of things: ketchup, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Macbook, the Beatles, Timberlands. What they all have in common is a kind of perfect functionality. A while ago, I wrote about ketchup as a metaphor for things that are “so perfectly engineered that you can no longer really taste the individual flavors that have gone into them.”  I called it “engineered inevitability.”  It’s hard to tell why Star Wars works, because it feels like it’s always been there. This is one type of perfect functionality, although it’s not the only kind.

Author William Gibson is famous, among other things, for his exacting aesthetic taste. In his novel Pattern Recognition, protagonist Cayce Pollard has an aversion to brands that causes her to collapse when she encounters them. While this might seem like amusingly unironic proto-hipsterdom (and ok, it is), what aversion to brands really means is an aversion to things that have no reason, aesthetically or functionally, to exist. Logos can look cool, but what is added to how well a pair of boots work if you slap a huge logo on them? Logos are made-to-work, not designed-to-increase-the-degree-to-which-something-works. Brands are a distraction from physical functionality and lead to focus on social functionality. (Though that isn’t to say that logos can’t have their own beauty vis-a-vis their function, or as additions to the general aesthetic landscape). So it’s no surprise that Gibson, who in an amazing case of philosophical consistency actually has several clothing lines, likes clothing descended from work and military wear. Unlike some people who fetishize the “authenticity” of blue collar clothing, the appeal to Gibson seems mostly to be that this kind of clothing works. It’s sturdy, and an elegance springs naturally from this sturdiness. Timberlands are fashionable now, but part of their fashionability is a result of the fact that they are fundamentally the shoes of workmen, and as a result they are really really well-made shoes.

There’s another category of things that my friend Gabriel Duquette calls ‘sensibleness goods.’ Sensibleness goods are things that are not necessarily aesthetically sophisticated but which you will never fuck up aesthetically by consuming. And because you can’t fuck up aesthetically by using them, they cease to be useful as tools for social signaling. Trying to make a big show of how you like Macbooks would just be sort of weird, not because it’s déclassé, but because there’s nothing to really prove.  I mean people are definitely Apple fanboys, but given how successfully everyone’s been converted to the religion, it no longer says anything about you if you flaunt your Apple products. It’s even a bit embarassing. Much can be written about all the different ways that our social groups or needs to belong or needs to impress influence our sense of what things are good (I defer, as ever, to Peli Grietzer). Sensibleness goods are impressive the way ketchup is, and important because their ubiquity encourages the emergence of a world in which the things that work well are the same as the things that work well socially. The more unambiguously that things work well, the more that social noise around taste recedes into the background. The more the moods of awe and the reflex kinds of awe fall away.

The experience of goodness is subjective. Good-bad is a weird gray continuum. I’m not looking to draw a line in the sand and start divvying up the world’s collected canon. I’m interested in traits and clusters of properties. Compression is a good trait, but it doesn’t explain why Casablanca is probably better than Law and Order. Morality is nice too, but it’s more of a pre-requisite than the essence of goodness. Immorality is an aesthetic flaw, but lots of moral things are shit. Pleasure is similar. If an artwork does absolutely nothing that makes you want to keep consuming it, that’s an artistic flaw. But lots of things we feel compelled to keep consuming are shit.

Some people think that curiosity about artistic goodness is not simply incorrect, but actually dangerous. This is understandable: a lot of harm has been done, historically, with the justification that an artwork was bad– ‘bad’ in this case being conflated with ‘immoral.’ And many people that care about taste are extremely rude, classist and judgmental. They want people to feel bad for liking one thing or another. But that kind of attitude is hardly a prerequisite and not something that I’m interested in. To me, not being curious about what constitutes good art feels like not being interested in inventing planes, or vaccines or laws that prohibit murder. Not in terms of gravity, obviously, but in the sense that there is a boundless universe of possible things to invent that work better than what works now, and in the sense that, despite something like ethics being murky and subjective, and despite the harm that is done in the name of ethics, we still manage to make ethical judgments. Judgments that, if your goal is the reduction of suffering, are probably for the best. I’m not immune to the feeling of aesthetic revulsion at comparing ketchup to David, or at the suggestion that quasi-spiritual experiences are on some level quantifiable. I don’t think that ketchup is art.  I think that functionality is how we achieve escape velocity.

This is the conclusion of my Better Art Vocabulary series. You don’t have to have read the others, but feel free.

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About Haley Thurston

Haley Thurston is a resident blogger. In her posts, she explores what it would mean for us to move away from a self-reflexive, tvtropes understanding of how art works to something more fundamental. You can find out more about her on her website.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts.

    I did notice that Kant’s Critique of Judgement follows the same trajectory. He locates the sublime as the “good” of the suprasensible — the natural teleology that encompasses everything under one design. He comes to a sort of opposite conclusion that you do. He would find that pragmatism uses a teleology to calibrate a view within a its domain of agency, to provide what you call functionality, is a disservice because it subverts the natural order of things. Teleology creates transcendental illusions as to what is actually valuable by extending its logical metric beyond its domain. In essence, the meaning that functionality provides is only valid within an immanent logic. That functionality is meaningless beyond that domain…. This meaningless modality is what you or I would call ideology. For example, utilizing a good designed fork requires certain values (about being human) to be in place in order for the functionality of that fork to be meaningful and good. I suppose Kant’s notion may be moot if we do not believe that a singular design view is possible. Indeed, many logicians including Godel question the viability of there being a singular system that can adequately capture everything in an absolute ordinance… although Kant would say that this is due to our human limitation.

    One thing I found interesting is that you seem to find that artistic goodness is dangerous whereas functionality in itself is not. I don’t disagree that artistic value can be dangerous, but isn’t pure functionality also equally dangerous, especially when it requires partial modalities in the form of ideology? The problem with teleological logic (ideology) is that it is entirely unsupportable, that its tole is to functionally calibrates everything within that view to itself without support from the larger context. I would argue that functionality when valued in itself does not question its ideological moorings because such a foundation is unavailable from the view of functionality… and that is just as dangerous as any artistic endeavor.

  2. The Offices of Norman Mushari, Esq. says

    Counterpoint. Dragnet made its TV premiere in 1951, and as the first true police procedural its differences from L&O are more of degree than kind. So unless you’re saying that Dragnet beats Casablanca…

  3. Another reason that older art seems more impressive is that it has survived a selection process. There was plenty of dreck, I’m sure, in the Casablanca era, but for several generations people have been deciding what to ignore and let fall by the wayside vs what to preserve and pass on.

  4. I’m a fan of efficient story telling. The old screwball comedies (e.g. the lady eve) had it.

  5. Reading your articles is like receiving divine epiphany about the nature art as medium of communication. Art is communication. Communication is information exchange. Information is the fundamental essence of universe. Making good art = approaching divine

    The thing is also about communication is it all about symbolic manipulation. Since we do not have telepathy. We use symbols (however imprecise, ambiguous and incomplete they might be). I like to fancy story as very powerful, because of the power of words (the most complete symbol set humans have), especially if compared to painting. However that also means movies are the ultimate art form because they combine all the most powerful symbolic expression (story, imagery, music), which does not sit too well because there are limitations of immediacy and failure to give philosophic perspective (hence there is no philosophic movies)

    But imho its not very productive to quantify whether “The wire” is better than Casablanca (medium and themes are too diverse). But its not hard to say separate Empire strikes Back from Phantom Menace. Or Reservoir Dogs from Fast and Furiuos