Why does art exist and what role does it play in the society? Let’s get the basics out of the way first. If you read Robin Hanson’s blog, you know that art’s primary role is signalling, just like any other human activity. But signalling what exactly?
My current theory is that there are two kinds of art based on what it’s used to signal. First, there are the photorealistic painters, the sculptors at Madame Tussauds, guys that can play the piano with their feet, or those that can play 20 notes per second, and people who specialize in writing poems that are also palindromes. These people distinguish themselves by achieving something that others can’t. And it’s in human nature to assign higher status to people who can do things that you can’t. So this kind of art simply serves the purpose of enhancing the artist’s status.
Is it really true, though, that you get higher status by simply being able to do things others can’t, no matter how arbitrary the thing in question is? I think the answer is yes and the most obvious testimony is the existence of sports. The whole institution of sports relies on competing against each other based on completely arbitrary rules, and yet it is able to elicit an enormous amount of passion all over the world. In fact, speaking of sports, I personally prefer to call the kind of art mentioned above as a kind of sport, and not art. But the world considers it art, so it deserves inclusion in this article.
The second kind of art is everything else. From music, to paintings, to poetry, I think all of it is used for a specific kind of signalling, which is, signalling one’s allegiance to a specific community. It’s kind of like a secret handshake, which is why leaving things open to interpretation is so popular in art. If you specify exactly what your art means, it will be very easy to feign interest and thus membership in your group. But if you leave lots of things open to interpretation and someone still “gets it” then there’s a high chance that they have similar thought patterns as the community your art work is designed to test memberships for.
Every community has associated with it a specific genre of art that its members revere. Liking that genre is usually essential to gain membership into that community. This is why one’s taste in art is so influenced by peer pressure. Peer pressure is nothing but a collection of membership tests. One’s willingness to be a member of the group creates the pressure to pass those tests.
A study done a few years ago revealed a correlation between liking classical music and having a high IQ. My theory provides an explanation. People with high IQ’s want to be associated with the community of intellectuals and classical music is popular in that community. So a newly minted intellectual will try to make himself like classical music so that he solidifies his membership in the group.