Hardwired for abstractions

Recently I was part of a discussion about whether a particular musician's work was art or schlock.  Someone commented that those who call it schlock are members of the same class of self-appointed arbiters of taste that pollute every artistic field. 

And I thought, yes, the leaders in every field of human endeavor, not just art, maintain their lead by constantly creating new abstractions, forcing others to learn them.  Trading coconuts for bananas became gold currency which became paper currency which became credit which became junk bonds which became packaged mortgages.

And that's what I suspect differentiates genetically modern humans from other species:  we are hardwired for abstractions.  A successful quest for food or sex leads us to continue pursuing the winning strategy.  In apes, it ends there.  But in humans, we're saddled with self-awareness, which forces us to create a worldview.  Every success or failure has to be integrated into that worldview with an abstraction, or else it makes us feel anxious that we don't know how the world works.  So:  I killed the deer because I left a heap of apples for it to eat.  I got laid because I used that cologne.  These explanations give us a handle on what to do next.  They might be utterly wrong, but they dispel the angst of believing we're ignorant.

This post was an abstraction.  But was it art or schlock?


  1. Taste is an abstract thing and maybe it requires arbiters to help others understand it. The self appointed ones may be dicks but that doesn't invalidate the principle of intermediation in understanding and evaluating culture. Otherwise artists would just keep moving the goalposts and nobody would tell them when they've gone out of bounds.

  2. Yeah, there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys intermediate by bringing energy and showing you things you might not have known about. The bad guys take potshots at cultural phenomena that everybody already knows about.

    I think an artist knows they've gone too far when nobody is listening to them anymore. Then they have to make a choice to keep following their vision and hope to be understood after their death, or slow down and try to coax the crowd into coming along.