Aesthetic arrest

LL04  •  17th November, 2018  •  5 minutes

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My friend Alid shared a draft of an article he’d been writing about art and code, and we had a generative back and forth about it. I pointed out that in the recent book “Elephant in the Brain” they come to the conclusion that:

Artists routinely sacrifice expressive power and manufacturing precision in order to make something more “impressive” as a fitness display.

The authors of the book, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, base their writings on accumulated research, so they’re not the only ones to come to this conclusion about art. Here’s Geoffrey Miller’s article “Art-making evolved mostly to attract mates” for the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which says the same thing:

…in biological terms, human art is just another “signaling system”

The false display

But I have a counterpoint: James Joyce’s idea of art as “aesthetic arrest”, which is when a thing in the world, man-made or otherwise, strikes you such that you become still.

The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure.

To some, the language may sound ornate, but stick with me here. Joseph Campbell took Joyce’s concept and expanded it:

The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object … you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.

And then he merged it with the idea of Māyā and the sacred space:

It is the function of art and scripture, ritual and meditation to serve the revealing power of Māyā: to make known. Māyā is that power which converts transcendence into the world.

…where Māyā is:

the Indian term for “illusion,” Māyā—from the verbal root mā, “to measure, to measure out, to form, to create, construct, exhibit or display”—refers to both the power that creates an illusion and the false display itself … [Māyā is] a Veiling Power that hides or conceals the “real”, the inward essential character of things; … [as a] white light broken into the colors of the rainbow by a prism.

Combining Māyā with Aesthetic Arrest is a tremendous connection. And unlike what “The Elephant in the Brain” may say, I don’t feel relief from knowing this concept simply because my hidden motive was to appeal to others. I don’t dispute the idea that art is an interpersonal fitness display but that it is only a fitness display. On an intrapersonal plane, the concept of Māyā and it’s relation to art helps individuals calm themselves in a deeper state of attention.

I understand this when Campbell further extends his idea of Māyā to sacred spaces:

A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. … In your sacred space, things are working in terms of your dynamic—and not anybody else’s.

A sacred space is a playground. I love how Campbell’s writing sounds exactly like he talks, and how elements of the beat poets come through: “…you are in it”:

I think a good way to conceive of sacred space is as a playground. If what you are doing seems like play, you are in it.

Wait, what does this have to do with creating interfaces?

Campbell continues to extend the idea of sacred spaces and play right through to employment, and here’s where it gets interesting when one relates this entire concept to the modern workplace and economic productivity:

Your art is what I would call your work. Your employment is your job.

For some, this is an alien concept but to me it’s obvious that once you are obligated in a healthy way to your work (that is, your art), then you can’t fail to be consciously invested in productive and valuable outcomes. This is related to the idea of the flow state, where you are playing in a medium you know well, such that your skills make it easy to create within the moment, as you react quickly and effortlessly to each next move that you see in your mind.

More than mere productivity gains, these Māyā play-flow states are pure perception. Here’s Joyce again from “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:

The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of esthetic apprehension.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that’s a pretty good definition of user experience design. An interface should want to capture and direct attention, although perhaps transcendent stillness would be counterproductive. And yet, by noticing and understanding how we place our attention in the world, we have much to learn from how art and beauty take hold of us. Joseph Campbell precedes:

The aesthetic object renders three moments: integritas, “wholeness”; consonantia, “harmony”; and claritas, “radiance.”

You can put a frame around any situation you wish to understand and design for by just remembering that attention happens through the whole, the harmony and the radiance. Feel free to change out the poetic terms to suit (try out gestalt, synergy and “make it pop”, to quote an old ad agency favourite), but I think that working from this set of first principles is going to help one find the big Why questions more directly in any design process.

Circling back to Alid’s article (which now that I’ve written about, he’ll have to publish), Jake Seliger published an insightful short review of Elephant in the Brain, which contained this little gem:

“Writing an operating system” may have occurred too recently in our evolutionary history to make doing so an attractive sexual display. But if we know we’re making art as a mating display should we then take that knowledge and direct our time and resources into other fields?

It’s not out of the question that we will find an OS on display in a Guggenheim in the near future. My point is, I don’t think any OS will attain that artistic integrity without the artist doing it for transcedent purposes.

Things inbetween

My internet home page is now Marginal Revolution. A few weeks ago, I decided that instead of hitting Twitter every morning, I’d start at instead. I figure I’d find some serendipity by looking where I don’t usually look, and soak up some economic theory along the way. It’s not like I hadn’t read it before, but my morning rule has opened up a labyrinth of unfamiliar interestingness. The posts are concise, funny and wildly diverse. In true Tyler speak, let me say recommended.

“Creating artificial suspense” is one of the killer apps of the internet.Tyler Cowen

Perfectionism is superstition. Yep, perfectionism is a belief system. This little gem on twitter by @BiruckAnmaw is a nice little inversion on LL04’s topic of “asethetic arrest” and “sacred space” craft. Sometimes it can be easy to get stuck in the cycle of endless nuance and revision. What should be “fingerspitzengefuhl” starts to become a mind-set of indecision. I guess that’s why we had to have those programming mantras like “just ship it”. Make sure you read the comments to. I would think that the illusion of seamlessness put forth by an interface always hides the “wabi-sabi” nature of the code underneath.

That’s a wrap

What you have to do, do with play.Jospeh Campbell, The Art of Living

Keep in mind that when designing for attention, we don’t have to defer to framing it as a competition for attention. In fact, the stillness we bring at that moment might be far more useful.

Be well,


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