Outsourcing of Aesthetic Judgment and Fairness in Primates

In art and in life (they may not be so different after all), coincidence, algorithms and such have long functioned as ways of outsourcing decisions in production—and hence: responsibility. In art, Fluxus is perhaps the best-known example for applying coincidental strategies to processes and content of work. Whereas advantages of outsourcing in the economy are better known—swiftness, expertise, risk sharing, reduced costs—one might ask what accounts for the attractiveness of outsourcing in the arts. One reason is loss of control; from an economic standpoint, this loss is perceived as disadvantageous. Yet in Fluxus, this is the exact reason for ceding decision making to others. Whereas outsourcing decisions for post-Fluxus generations, or outsourcing production for post-Warhol generations, are perhaps not perceived as unusual any longer,outsourcing of the next step in line—namely that of aesthetic judgment—has not yet arrived in the art world. Curators and critics hold on tightly to this pole of power, which, if they do not get paid well, at least provides them with the symbolic capital Bourdieu has taught us. By making known their judgment through its circulation in magazines, informal conversations and subsequent reaffirmation in curated shows, those who vocalize their positions also create opinions in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecies.

How, in turn, could aesthetic judgment be outsourced? And to whom? I have heard it more than once (and others probably have too): when forcing a friend from the non-art species, who is neither “read” in the arts nor particularly fond of them, to tag along to see a show, the somehow true, even if I would prefer not to admit, sentence emerges: “I could have done that” or “An ape could have painted that” (note: there are quite a few excellent artworks made by primates, but that is a different story). True, indeed. Perhaps, apes are better art makers—and possibly better art critics and curators. However, primates—like most individuals belonging to the art species—are social animals, and their opinions are rarely “purely” based on aesthetic judgment. Certainly, choices from the decision of which artists and works are to be part of an exhibition, to whom to write about in what way, to whom to assign a job to are embedded in a system of aesthetic values and judgments over quality. Yet, they are just as entrenched in the critic’s personal history, taste, disposition of knowledge and expertise, interests, social networks and thoughts regarding the future.

Anticipation of future events seems to be a crucial factor for aesthetic judgment. We are able to consider what the consequences of our actions are, for instance, when publishing a negative review, how they might affect the responses of others and hence our chances of being called again for a future job. The ability to consider the past and imagine a future may, in fact, be one of the greatest obstacles in regards to fair decision-making based only on artistic quality. By the way, the same situation holds for primates who have a strong instinct for fairness, yet they base their decisions on advantages their behavior might create for them in the future. In an experiment, primatologist Frans de Waal handed pieces of cucumber to one ape and grapes to another. The one who received the cucumber, which our relatives consider less delicious than a grape, would not accept it any longer after repetitions—anticipating unfair treatment to continue in the future unless one revolts.

It is for their lack of imagination of a possible future that small children, only able to think in the present, cry inconsolably when they feel pain. They cannot imagine ever being well again. Similarly, in certain cases of amnesia and depression, affected persons only live in the present and cannot picture any kind of future to come. Machines, on the other hand, dispose of the advantage that they can be programmed, for instance, to deliberately make decisions considering only the present and not the consequences and manifold entanglements of their choices that a more sophisticated algorithm might allow them to anticipate. The complexity can intently be reduced—and any advanced thought processing capabilities programmed away.

Other variables are more difficult to program. You can teach a machine art history, and it will definitely be a better pupil, with a flawless memory, than any human being. But how do you outsource aesthetic judgment and its development in the—even if not foreseen by the machine—still-to-come future? Immanuel Kant had an idea about the universality of aesthetic judgment, and we can program machines to develop particular rules for this specific predicament. We can even write code to develop their development—like in exponential evolution or compound interest on the stock market. We can feed in errors and mistakes so as not to regret the absence of humans too much. But can we take into account idiosyncrasies such as thought, will and consciousness, a network of neurophysiological and neuropsychological elements that are decisive for being human—philosophically, legally and also from a neuroscience perspective?

Let us assume that a complex algorithm taking into account irrationality and the arbitrariness of the human psyche can indeed be written. More so: let us agree that it could process phenomenological perception, structures-of-feeling in the context of history, geopolitical, economic and social information. It can even have access to art history, discourse and exchange with colleagues. Nevertheless, even if you build in error codes or coincidence algorithms, the moment you automatize something, you make its future development predictable—even if it doesn’t know that it has one. And here, automatization actually clashes with the idea of fairness, because choice always excludes something else. From the moment the code is written, other unsuccessful options have already been ruled out, and thus the system can never be fair for all. More than that, it clashes with the idea of art: isn’t art exactly about finding new ways through chance and unexpected developments, which are exactly the opposite of the machinable? It is not a question of free will and the singularity of being human. It is a question of being able to anticipate and knowing the future once an algorithm is in place. In automated codes, any coming move is predictable and can be calculated before it happens.

Now let us return to self-fulfilling prophecies mentioned in the beginning. They are analogous to the Gödel Problem which states: a system can never prove its own consistency, but a system that analyses itself from within, be it a human or a machine who is looking, not even interfering, causes the system to change. The same principle holds true in quantum physics: when you look at something, you are already changing it. Gödel’s theorem further states that the only theories that assert their own consistency are inconsistent. If a system analyses itself from within, then there is no such thing as universal judgment—but the outcome is always inconsistent. More so, it will eventually lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the system will change itself towards the direction of its own analysis. Those involved in the making who are influencing the field are also the ones who decide what gets shown and who gets supported—hence reaffirming the making, the showing and the judgment, the making, the showing and the judgment.

The solution? I don’t know. It might take cyborgs, bastards and collaborations between different systems. By itself, no isolated species will ever get anywhere. Complete outsourcing of judgment is as impossible as fairness; instead, we need to look for alliances in the form of symbioses that exceed what each individual system can achieve alone. Only then is it impossible to anticipate something and make it self-fulfilling.