When there is a congregation of young people crammed into a music hall in Brooklyn and some of them are wearing flannel shirts—though it is summer—and dark sunglasses—though it is nighttime—it usually means that a postmodern pagan ritual is taking place. Most likely, a Band You’ve Never Even Heard Of is performing. But on July 13 at the Bell House, a diverse audience appeared to hear the un-hip (trust me, this is truly a compliment) Yale cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom talk about his new book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (W.W. Norton and Company. 280 pp. $26.95). Professor Bloom called us “the drunkest audience he had ever addressed.” It was a meeting of the Secret Science Club, which is the second-best secret I have uncovered this month.
Professor Bloom possessed a certain combination of humor and humility that is rare in any person, but especially an academic. He began his talk by inviting to his e-mail inbox (email@example.com) any questions and comments that his time onstage might shortchange. As seems to be the case with most scientific treatments of artistic phenomena, Bloom began by addressing the words of his former advisor—Steven Pinker—who has essentially called the arts inessential. Bloom, a “card carrying evolutionary psychologist” whose research focuses on children, argues that art is in fact deep. We are hard-wired to want to see past the surface of pieces of art to an underlying emotional reality of the human condition. This would explain our obsession with originality; a painting by Vermeer is considered to be a masterpiece until it is revealed to be the work of Han van Meegeren, the master forger. Though the aesthetic is identical, some essence is lacking. I believe that art must possess certain properties that appeal—albeit accidentally—to our adapted minds.
Those with avant-garde inklings constantly attempt to make an audience reconsider “What is Art?” The goal is no longer pleasure, or emotional engagement of any kind. This amounts to an intellectual exercise. Despite the fact that all art is inherently intellectual (that is precisely Bloom’s point, that your senses are not enough to explain the experience), these efforts are intentionally extreme. They are called things like “interesting” or “important” or “experimental” (an interesting scientific staple used differently here in art). Take—for example—Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Although lyrical, the prose has no semantic flow and the book contains hardly a trace of any essential hallmarks of fiction. But Joyce was a genius writer. Why? Independence. Originality. He was only trying to write like himself; he mastered traditional forms with Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before breaking the mold with Ulysses. But when far less talented people are hell-bent on being alternative just for the hell of it their art often becomes essentially boring.