MANIFESTO FOR A UNIFIED THEORY OF AESTHETICS
A. Basic Concepts:
The traditional basis for aesthetic discussion is generally
considered to be the "Golden Section". A relationship between
two measured distances which was considered harmonic. Musical
harmony was also based on mathematical relationships between
frequencies. The concept of Aesthetics is firmly based on the
concept of relationship. Literally: Ratio -strangely enough
the word from which "Rationality" is derived.
i. Dialectic Axioms:
Total Freedom leads to Chaos and Disintegration of Order
Total Order leads to Stagnation and Lack of Creativity
Both states may be considered undesirable.
However, both statements can be considered as forming together
a single "Dialectic Axiom" in which two undesirable opposites are
united so that a preferred state is to be found at some (undefined)
point in between.
The point of balance in a "Dialectic Axiom" may be termed "The
Aesthetic Point". This implies that Aesthetics is not concerned
with absolute conditions of beauty but with conditions of balance
From experience we can note that the "Aesthetic Point" is not
permanently fixed but is a dynamic state of equilibrium within a
complex web of "Dialectic Axioms". Changes (or even lack of change)
in de individuals environment can force changes in the points of
balance required to preserve the total equilibrium.
iii. Cultural Traditions:
A group of people with a shared set of "Aesthetic Points" may be
considered as forming a "Cultural Unity". Given a choice of (Aesthetic)
solutions for a given problem, members of a Cultural Unity will
tend to make similar choices.
Shared experiences and other means of reinforcing the communal
Aesthetic may be considered as "Cultural Traditions".
Cultural Traditions may vary in the degree of diversity considered
as desirable within the Cultural Tradition.
iv. Space and Logic:
Dialectic Axioms can be considered as dimensions in conceptual
space. Combinations of Dialectic Axioms generate complex multi-
From the characteristic similarities and differences of possible
connections between points within a space we can derive concepts
as "Geometry" and "Topology".
Systems of Logic, expressed in terms of "IF x THEN y" can be
considered as being concerned with the connectivity of points
in conceptual spaces and therefore as being concerned with the
Geometry of systems in a Topological Hierarchy.
Aesthetic Choice may form the basis for Practical systems of Logic!
v. Aesthetics and the Logic of Space:
If aesthetics is defined as being concerned with a point of
balance between two (or more) opposing axioms then, the way
philosophical systems of thought regard the concept of
"Opposition" is of great importance.
In a system of logic based on flat Euclidian space opposing
concepts, such as "True" and "False" or "Left" and "Right",
always remain a contradiction of each other. A point of balance
between two such oppositions is in effect an integration of
two qualities which in principle cannot be integrated. From a
Western philosophical viewpoint there is always something
paradoxical about aesthetics.
In a system of logic based on spherical space there are many
directions one may take to reach a given position, also to
depart to the West means that one will return to the starting
point coming from the East. Opposites are therefore not opposed
and there is nothing paradoxical about aesthetics.
The presence or absence of paradox in works of art may be an
unconscious source of misunderstanding when viewing art from
B. Some Social Implications:
Not only is it the individual whose ideals and desires are
(sometimes) in conflict. A society is also full of social
(psychological, philosophical or economic) conflict. The
resolution or exploitation of these conflicts is the
profession of politics. Aesthetics not only have political
implications, one could even argue that politics is essentially and
primarily concerned with aesthetics, the balance of social
factors within society, the balance of honesty and expediency
in communication, the balance between long and short term
(economic) planning, the ethical balance implicit in political
strategy and personal survival and of course ultimately the balance
between all these individual factors. A political party is thus
a community with a (largely) common aesthetic.
There are also commercial implications of aesthetics. Given a set
of technical (or marketing) criteria (such as intended function,
construction techniques and materials, price, durability, environmental
factors and the availability of competitive alternatives) who is to
decide what is the optimal balance between these sometimes
contradictory factors? Obviously this is a double edged sword:
commercial competition provides the consumer with a choice out of
a range of competing optimized (aesthetic) balances concerning the
different design factors and the "market" for the product is
represented once again as a community with a shared aesthetic,
on the other hand, the existence of a single (objective) balance
between the different design factors is obviously against commercial
interests because all competing products would need to be identical
to each other and any (except the most trivial) deviation from the
optimal balance would imply an inferior product.
Apart from the ethical aspects (and the relationship between ethics
and aesthetics discussed later) there is another aesthetic aspect
implicit in a conflict situation.
The commercial exploitation of differences in the
balancing point between the various design factors creates a
fundamental conflict between a scientific (i.e. theoretical) solution
to a specific design problem (for example, a piece of computer
hardware or software) and a commercial solution. The IBM PC (and its
copies) was perhaps a good example of a technically (theoretically)
poor machine (at least in the areas of time-sharing and graphic
operating system) but was (at least for the copiers and the software
producers -if not the original designers) a commercially successful machine.
On the one hand, the commercial manufacturers require theoretical
knowledge that can be readily translated into practical solutions
as part of the design strategy (i.e new materials, new construction
techniques, new basic principles, new operating techniques, new
applications etc.) but not theoretical knowledge which could
provide optimal solutions for design questions (i.e. what is the
optimal computer, programming language, data-base or automobile).
It is also not in the interests of theoretici (scientists,
philosophers or artists) to provide such an answer because this
would remove the basis of their research.
On the other hand, commercial competition encourages evolution towards
a single ultimate product (certainly in technical fields). Successful
strategies applied by one manufacture are often adopted by others.
In the field of computer languages this is particularly noticeable
but also in the field of car design and other consumer products.
Nevertheless, the question arises if there is indeed such a thing
as an optimal design strategy or if this can only exist within
a limited domain. A theoretical solution may be theoretically perfect,
i.e. will do everything that one could ever wish to do with it -but
is it easy to use, is the price reasonable and does one need all the
facilities? The computing language ADA was developed by the Pentagon
as a single multi-purpose language that could do anything -but was it
successful? It seems it was much to unwieldy to use efficiently.
Divergent developments (by evolution or design) converge towards a
single product which explodes into a diversity of solutions under
the pressure of its own complexities. A good tool is either efficient
and specialized or generalized and inefficient. The aesthetic circle
In a real or simulated conflict situation -who are the protagonists
and what are their goals (aims, interests etc)? Which strategies and
counter strategies are available, which moves and counter moves are
permittrd and perhaps most important of all -are the chances for success
Obviously, in a game the aesthetic balance of equal chance for all
players is important, not only from an ethical point of view (fair
play), but also as essential part of the motivating excitement of
the players with regard to the unknown outcome of the game.
C. Some Ecological Implications:
i. Ecological Variety:
Biological systems exhibit a wide range of solutions in solving
basic survival problems such as food, shelter and reproduction.
"Survival of the fittest" is not an absolute term. Different
environments will demand different optimal solutions for basic
survival strategies. Even "inefficient" solutions may prove useful
if they allow for adaptability in changing circumstances which may
prove fatal for over-specialized "optimal" solutions.
ii. Biological Dialectics:
Specific biological species may be considered as representing
different Aesthetic Points within dialectical spaces such as
Individual-Group, Static-Mobile, Aggressive-Passive, Nocturnal-
Diurnal, Specialist-Generalist etc..
This may be of theoretical interest. Of more practical value to the
species involved is the fact that an ecological system in itself
would appear to be an aesthetic point of balance in a game of
mutual intervention in the process of self-destruction. Simply
put: Rabbits without Wolves would over-populate and die of lack
of grass and Wolves without Rabbits would be forced into cannibalism.
Each species modifies its own environment in a way which would
eventually prove fatal if other species did not intervene and
redress the balance.
Perhaps most important is the apparent creative dialectic between
the decomposing and dispersing of (Entropic) inorganic systems and
the organization of energy and material demonstrated by (Anti-entropic)
organic systems. In this context, the ecology of inter-stellar
interactions and the creation of new material in space may require
a reconsideration of the definition of the term "Organic System".
C. Some Theoretical Implications:
i. The Dialectics of Theory and Practice:
Events in the real world take place in the Physical Space around us
but are interpreted (and often initiated) in terms of the Conceptual
Space created by ourselves in our minds.
It is difficult to prove conclusively that the model of the world
in our minds is a satisfactory representation of the world around
us. The world does not always behave as we believe it should.
In theory, Theory and Practice should support each other, but in
practice they often appear in conflict. If a Theory about the world
is in agreement with simple observation of the world we can ask
what is the value of the Theory if it is merely an academic
confirmation of that which we already know. A good Theory must offer
new insights into the world around us but the more radical these
insights are the more chance the Theory has of being rejected
because it appears 'unrealistic'. "Realistic" and "Unrealistic" may
be considered as parameters of a Dialectic Axiom which requires an
Aesthetic choice to resolve the conflict.
ii. The One-Way Mirror:
It is easier to prove or disprove the ability of an existing model
(or Theory) to predict a given set of events than it is to use a set of
observed events to generate a conceptual model (or Theory) which will
Although, in theory, one might assume that one preoceeds from
"observation" to "theory" -in practice, it seems that we first need to
generate the "theory" (in some mysterious way) before one can proceed by
testing the "theory" in "practice".
iii. The Ecology of The Mind:
Our perception of the basic characteristics of the world around us
seems to vary according to the conceptual context in which they are
placed and the medium in which they are transmitted.
The same tree will appear very different when described by an artist
a biologist or a carpenter. The tree does not seem to express a
preference as to which view is correct.
Modern practical astronomy is seems to be primarily concerned with
correlations between data gathered from instruments sensitive to
different areas of the electro-magnetic spectrum (i.e radio waves,
infra red and visible light). If artificial sensory organs are so
essential to an understanding of extra-terrestrial structures -how
restrictive might be the limits of human senses in understanding
the world around us?
The Aesthetic choice between Human and Artificial may have important
consequences for our view of the world and therefore our actions in it.
iv. The Ecology of Energy and Information:
Information is the difference that makes the difference; i.e. the
recognition of significance in a changed situation which in turn
leads to a modification of behaviour in the observer. Information
is modulated energy which also modulates energy flow.
Energy is the assumed prime mover of all things. Money is an
artificial form of stored energy. We must learn that economy is not
about money but is essentially concerned with the ecology of energy
flow. Knowledge and Information are essentially tools for energy
conservation. A true economy will take account of all forms of
conserved and active energy. It will also be concerned with the
dynamics of energy flow in a closed system, of action and reaction,
of distribution and growth and will realize that an unbalanced
accumulation has more disadvantages than advantages.
i. Some Theoretical Implications:
i. The Art of Science and The Science of Art:
Existing Models can be scientifically tested but (with the possible
exception of mathematical logic) there are no scientific ways to
generate new models. Scientific models must (generally) be created
outside of the scientific process through the intuition of the scientist.
The artistic process does involve the construction of algorithms
to generate new models of the world but the scientific testing of
these models is not part of the artistic process. Artistic models
are created within the artistic process entirely as result of the
creative strategy of the artist.
ii. The Artistic Process:
The task of the artist is to create and explore systems of logic
based on aesthetic equilibria in multi-dimensional perceptual and
conceptual space. Although initially divorced from practical reality
the resulting "Aesthetic Models" enrich the Ecology of the Cultural
Tradition and enlarge its adaptability to a changing environment.
Although dependant on the artist's own aesthetic preferences the
creative strategy primarily involves exploring the changes in value-
systems (i.e. systems of relationships within the artistic object
and between the object and the observer) as a result of changes in
conceptual context and physical medium.
iii. The Frozen Choice:
Normally aesthetic choices must be made within a static medium.
Although it is true that music, ballet, theatre, film and video
exhibit movement and development in time they are essentially
fixed in structure. Each performance will be more or less similar
to previous performances.
iv. The Dynamic Computer:
The computer is a dynamic rule interpretation machine. Essentially
the program is an ecology of processes modifying and modified by
abstract data stored in the memory.
The relationship between data and process (the value and
interpretation system) can be freely determined by the programmer
who is also free to explore the result.
The visual and conceptual consequences of basic aesthetic choices
regarding constancy and change, binding and freedom, predetermined
and random relationships can be explored and made explicit.
This can result in universa of constantly changing images bound by the
limits of the program. Studies in the limits of variation within a
basic structure and/or studies of the interaction between variations in
the basic principles of organization.
The Artist/Programmer's work could be seen as the creation of practical
demonstrations of the ecology of variation required to avoid simple
D. The Future?
Perhaps it will be possible to formalize the creative process
enough to be able to prove how essential an ecology of conceptual
diversity based on different aesthetic choices is to a viable and
creative society capable of responding successfully to changing
circumstances largely created by its own need to survive.
At that point we will understand what we have Unified with our
"Unified Theory" -and what it is a Theory of.
In the meantime we can only hope that in our search for Unity in
Diversity that we are wise enough preserve Diversity in our
Unity. Our survival may depend on it.