It may seem strange – or admirable, depending on your point of view – that a large research institute is able to put its research agenda into a single sentence. The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics dares to do this, and it presents this agenda as a single question on its web page: “Who likes what, and why?” Not everyone at the institute finds that this slogan sums up their own research interests, even though this amazingly concise question allows a multitude of interpretations.
The title of this blog indicates that I find at least one of its terms problematic: can “liking” really serve as an umbrella term for all the different ways of engaging with artworks or being engaged by them? Isn’t beyond liking where the really interesting questions begin? But this discussion will have to wait for another time. For now I want to take a look at the last question and its deceptive simplicity: why? In a research context this may seem an innocuous inquiry that goes without saying. The task of true research should not stop at describing how things are (who likes what) but continue to give explanations for them (why). And besides, who doesn’t like a good explanation?
But what is actually being asked here? And what is being looked for? What counts as an explanation? Different disciplines will answer the last question differently. The most important distinction here would be that between reasonsand causes. Consider the difference between the questions “Why did the apple fall?” and “Why did you not listen to what I said?” The answers could be quite simple in both cases – for instance “Gravity.” and “Boredom.” – but they would appeal to completely different types of explanation. Interestingly, boredom could be considered a border case: while it is certainly not a cause in the sense of a describable mechanism, we might also not consider it a reason in the sense of a rational explanation. We should perhaps rather call it a motive. As has been remarked, most of our actions are motivated this way instead of having reasons in the strong sense, even though we might come up with reasons as post hoc explanations when pressed to do so.
There wouldn’t be a problem if we could carve the world up neatly into two parts: a natural world where we would search for causes, and a human sphere where reasons and other motives are at work. But it is precisely the human sphere where the two intersect and we are confronted with potentially conflicting interpretations of the same phenomena. Empirical aesthetics is one of the fields where this is particularly manifest, and the “why” in our question is one of the loci of this conflict.
The MPIEA web page mentions a variety of different categories that are under investigation, the first of which is “the cognitive and affective mechanisms involved in aesthetic perception and their neural, physiological and behavioral correlates”. Would knowing these give an answer to the question “why”? Would we accept an explanation like “Person X likes this music because it sets into motion certain cognitive mechanisms that in turn trigger a positive affective response”? Wouldn’t we rather have to say that understanding these mechanisms gives us a clearer picture of whathappens rather than why it happens? Unless of course we still hold that aesthetic experience is entirely or predominantly determined by our neural and cognitive makeup – an idea which has grown increasingly implausible given the extremely broad variety of things people “like” or appreciate aesthetically.
The next category, ontogenesis, addresses this. It acknowledges that our preferences have a history – that they have been and are influenced by the specific world we live in, the way we were raised, the people who surrounded us and shaped our views. So what about this: “Person Y likes this music because her parents liked it and she grew up listening to it.” In a way this explanation is obviously acceptable, and it might be given outside of a research context or even by the person herself. But does it satisfy us as researchers? Wouldn’t we ask in what way it has influenced her personality or shaped her outlook on life? If so, the question would not be why she likes it but what this preference entails, in what way it exceeds mere “liking”. We could ask about the varieties of aesthetic experience or, even more broadly, the varieties of doing things with art. Again, we would be asking what and how rather than (or at least alongside) why.
Looking at the varieties of what people do with art brings us to the next category mentioned on the webpage: functions. Apart from individual functions we could also consider the functions of music and art in society and relate them to the preferences we are investigating. One of the primary functions of music is maintaining group cohesion and distinction from other groups – we don’t have to look at tribal societies to find examples of this. So another explanation could be: “Person Z likes this music because he identifies with a certain group, and this particular music is constitutive of their understanding as a group as well as being a token of distinction.” This would also count as an explanation in certain contexts, however as researchers we would probably want to look further into how these things work, how such an identification is established, what function it has for the individual and for society as a whole. There might just be class relations behind it, something which individuals themselves might never suspect and which we would never find out if we focused exclusively on an individual.
In the end we would like to know about all of these things: mechanisms, histories, and functions and all their different dimensions. It would be tempting to say that the big question “why” can only be answered if we take them all together. But that doesn’t really work because there is no coherent explanation that links all these dimensions and approaches. It seems that instead of getting any clear-cut answers, we get a multitude of reconstructions and descriptions that are not necessarily compatible or whose connections are difficult to establish. Investigating the different ways people engage with art obviously makes sense. The question is what are we actually interested in, what kind of answers are we looking for, what would count as an explanation and finally what do we want to do with all of this information. Because as researchers we have a responsibility to the wider society.
Let’s not forget that there is another group of people who might be interested in the same questions and who will not accept “it’s complicated” as an answer. Google, Amazon, Spotify and others also want to know who likes what, and why, because knowing these things is the cornerstone of their business model. Of course, they already know about the who and the what in much more detail than we will ever know as researchers. But maybe they do wonder about the why as well, because it would increase their ability to exploit and manipulate our preferences even further. Luckily, the answers we can give so far will not be of much help for them. But the fact that we find ourselves in this kind of company should make us pause.
“Who likes what, and why?” – Is that really the right question? And besides: Who would like to know? And why?