The Appeal of Symbols

A symbol remains a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings. That probably explains why a symbolic work is so stimulating, why it grips us so intensely, but also why it seldom affords us a purely aesthetic enjoyment.

A work that is manifestly not symbolic appeals much more to our aesthetic sensibility because it is complete in itself and fulfils its purpose.

[C.G. Jung]
On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
found in The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism
, p.998

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Vision researchers have suggested [...] that the pleasing visual motifs used in art and decoration exaggerate these patterns, which tell the brain that the visual system is functioning properly and analyzing the world accurately.

Some of the motifs may belong to a search image for the optimal human habitat, a savanna: open grassland dotted with trees and bodies of water and inhabited by animals and flowering fruiting plants.

By the same logic, tonal and rhythmic patterns in music may tap into mechanisms used by the auditory system to organize the world of sound.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.405

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A wry demonstration of the universality of basic visual tastes came from a 1993 stunt by two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who used marketing research polls to assess American's taste in art.

They asked respondents about their preferences in colour, subject matter, composition, and style, and found considerable uniformity. People said they liked realistic, smoothly painted landscapes in green and blue containing animals, women, children, and heroic figures.

When the painters replicated the polling in nine other countries [...] they found pretty much the same preferences: an idealized landscape, like the ones on calendars, and only minor substitutions from the American standard.

What is even more interesting is that these McPaintings exemplify the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics.

[Steven Pinker]
The Blank Slate ('The Arts'), p.408-9

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