Monthly Archives: October 2006

October 20, 2006

History vs. Morality

Reading Robert’s History of the World:

When we talk about ancient history, we don’t really pass judgment. Nobody seems to take the time to condemn the Inca for sacrificing children. Or to tell us that the Huns were too warlike. It would seem petty and displaced, no?

This, to me, is an argument against the religious definition of morality. Morality is not a code of standards against which all behavior may be judged. If it were, we would be perfectly ready to say whether the way Homo erectus conducted itself was “good” or “bad.” Morality is in fact really meaningful to us only when the possibility of choice still exists; we apply it to past events only when their consequences for the present can be identified.

Moral principles and moral discernment are useful because they guide each individual to choose actions that are beneficial. But moral judgment in the religious mold – the sort that, in God’s hands, purportedly decides which prize you get in the afterlife – has no real application when practiced by humans. We might well have intra-societal reasons for pointing out whose behavior we think is “good” and who is “bad,” but it’s disingenuous to say that these reasons are “because we have a moral standard, and we call it like we see it.” Otherwise we’d be equally willing to judge things that happened today and in 1200 BC. But we are not.

This is why it is so disheartening that certain political elements in the US place such an emphasis on a rhetoric of unequivocal moral judgment. It’s true, the Republicans take a pretty strong stance on terrorists, but they’re soft on the Aztecs.

The only real “stance” that can be taken on anything, by a government or an individual, is one of policy. Moral judgment can at its best be an aid to this end, but it has no merits of its own. Obviously, since there can be no policy toward the distant past, there can be no judgment of it either.

The preceding doesn’t make much of a case; it just records my thought. I already agree with me so I don’t need a lot of convincing.

Of course, the mindset that the Inca needn’t be reprimanded because they’ve been gone for 500 years may well be a new one, or specific to my culture. Books from a century ago often surprise me by managing to hold out a judgmental or superior tone about the oddest things. So that pretty much nullifies my little argument.

Not sure I stand by any of it anyway. It flickered through my head while I was reading about ancient Egypt. Maybe I don’t agree with me after all.

October 14, 2006

Art thought – Tate Modern notes

As mentioned earlier, here are the pretentious and cranky notes I wrote while walking around at the Tate Modern, to keep myself from getting too annoyed at the far more pretentious art. I think the idea originally was that I could eventually work them into essay form but who needs it? I’ve worked them into sentence form – that should be plenty.

The various thoughts informing these notes, as suggested in the previous entires here, were associated, in my mind, with my memory of a picture and caption from Move Closer by John Armstrong, a little book about art that made a strong impression on me and which I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before. Yup, there it is. Well, I just looked through the book and see that my memory has conflated and altered two different pictures and their captions. One is a photograph of a door (not this one) at the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, with the caption “Teaches us what a door is, just as C├ęzanne or Chardin teach us what an apple is.” Then, elsewhere, he has a reproduction of this painting, and captions it “Visual contemplation involves seeing each individual object just as it is. This picture testifies to the love of that kind of looking.” Both are interesting captions as they stand, but in my memory I had mixed them, and thought that under the painting he had said something like “teaches us what it is to look.” Which false memory, in turn, was an impetus to my little thesis.

That misremembered caption seems to have been the departure point for my angry scribbles, which begin… now.

– Art teaches ways of seeing the world.

– Much of the recent work here offers only limited or non-functional ways. Modern art does not emanate from a living, active culture; it does not connect us to a way of life. Most of these works have no applicability other than escape or fantasy; fantasy with no function.

– [This is at least partially in reference to this work:] Album cover stylings: a make-believe mind. We get a rush of false experience for 20 seconds. Full-fledged sci-fi and fantasy strain to sustain this falseness as long and wide as possible. At least that is an aspiration in terms of craft: not to let the bubble burst. But this is art selling us the blatantly irrelevant.

– The curation would have it that all art is historical – the grand narrative as a justification. E.g. something like minimalism is described as a “response” to the opposite trend. But is this a philosophical response or merely a counter-ploy? What is the work attempting? What discourse can possibly be underway when the art has willfully divorced itself from human discourse, culture as it exists?

Jorge Macchi: Incidental Music – [The work is made up of lines of text from news clippings about death, arranged so as to form sheet music, where gaps in the clippings are taken to indicate notes. The resulting (unplanned) music, a series of disconnected tones, can be heard on headphones nearby.] This is of course not a real way of thinking about the news – it is an imaginary way of thinking that does not exist. The work says “imagine if this were meaningful!” As does so much modern art.

– Earlier abstraction (say, up to 1950?) was a conscientious attempt to portray experience, abstracted. The abstractions were explorations of the nature of the brain, of experience. This is still a legitimate avenue. Kandinsky saw abstraction as a path to the spiritual in art. Brancusi said of this sculpture that he was attempting to portray the essence of a fish rather than a fish. In general, abstraction used to portray experiences or states of mind that exist, rather than states of mind that do not exist.

– As that guy said, as quoted in that piece I linked to that time, “a nonexistent point of view.” Modern art is overrun with the point of view that does not exist, that which can be built but not experienced. Or that thing I said, and I am still proud of myself for having said, in a music seminar in college, explaining what was to be resented about Philip Glass’ Einstein On the Beach: that it was easier to write than to listen to.

Dan Flavin on his work in general: “It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else… it is very easy to understand.” Uh-oh!

[The preceding stood alone in my little notebook, and it amuses me that way, but just to be clear: Uh-oh because it is in fact very important that art be somethin’ else. “Uh-oh,” rather than a real rebuttal, because I don’t buy his unfrozen-caveman-lawyer routine. Click on the art if you haven’t. It’s a fluorescent lightbulb.]

– Duchamp’s Fountain. “What Is Art?” A distracting and silly question. I addressed this very thing a couple entries ago.

Signageobjects… all such works isolate elements of reality rather than of experience. This mistake is compounded by isolating elements of discourse: a concept is even further from experience than a thing.

– Without craft to justify the exhibitions, [can’t read my own writing!] art that aspires to highlight subtleties that actually live elsewhere in life. The white space is an affront to relevance, accessibility to humans. [Don’t know what I was talking about. Either an all-white painting, or else the notion of blank museum space, elaborated on below.]

– The idea that white is a neutral space is a romantic illusion by and about humans. (To be true to our biologically inborn sense of “neutral space” maybe we should display art in a savannah?) It’s as unrealistic as the impartiality of display in a rococo drawing room. Discrete objects – discreteness, cleanness – these sell a lie that is belied by the spirit of most art. Cataloguing, curatorial plaques, numbering systems, glass cases. This paradigm is not quite “numbing,” but it is prejudicial.

– Museum-going as a repeated, imaginary process of acclimation. [I didn’t flesh that out into a sentence because I’m not sure which of several possible things I meant. Hm.]

– The highest aspiration of so much contemporary art is not applicability but piquancy.

– In the abstract expressionist galleries: so much of the work suffers from a preoccupation with the method, rather than the object, of abstraction.

– “Playful sense of humor” my ass.

I don’t remember which plaque inspired that last; I know I was in this room. I think I might have written it in indirect response to this piece.

In general, it sums up my anger at the modern art museum as a whole: “How dare you act as though this strangeness is all part of normal human discourse! It’s very aggressively and intentionally not, and if you or any artist sincerely wants to offer something to me, you will recognize that.” That emperor who bought those invisible clothes that only smart people could see should have known they didn’t actually exist. Not because he himself couldn’t see them – everyone is fallible, after all – but because no accommodations of tact were made for the possibility that he might not be able to see them. The only reason to handle things that way is to coerce people into nervous lies. My irritation wasn’t that there was a flourescent lightbulb being displayed as art; it was that nowhere did the museum say, “Hey! Wondering why a fluorescent lightbulb on the wall is on display as a work of art? Does that seem ridiculous to you? Well, don’t worry! A lot of first-time visitors feel that way; that’s why we wrote this friendly explanation! Read this!” I think curators, because of their weird little cloistered world, might think that saying something like “Flavin’s work, both materially and experientially, challenges accepted notions of what constitutes artistic value,” addresses the issue. Far from it. The evasive, passive, implicitly laudatory, euphemistic acknowledgement that a work of art is irritating and bewildering is the proverbial unkindest cut.

I’m not saying it’s all nonsense! Let me be clear that I don’t think any of the works linked, not even the Dan Flavin, is devoid of interest or value. The question is of the scale of that value. I think the comment about “piquancy” is my central criticism here.

October 13, 2006

Art thought satellites

1. I feel like these thoughts address the question of why music is meaningful, too. Music taps into the mental programming in some hack-y way, directly addressing the constitutent subroutines that are called in our comprehension of emotion, comfort, social relations, etc. without calling on the larger routines themselves. We have trouble talking about “tension and release” in music in ways that seem meaningful because these words are just vague metaphors for things that have no names – we are actually trying to talk about variables and functions, so to speak, in our mental programming. Music manipulates elements of the mental program whose relationship to experience is technical rather than mimetic. Music is a bit like one of those neurological experiments where an electrical impulse sent directly into the brain creates certain perceptions, except that music’s insertion point is hierarchically higher. Or, if you prefer, music is a bit like “POKE“.

2. Part of my problem in writing these things down is that I have been away from writing for so long. Thinking in terms of language is a habit to be cultivated and maintained, distinct from the skill of simply thinking. I have been struggling in these past entries with an awkward translation process, from the non-linguistic to the linguistic. The more time I spend in the realm of the linguistic, the more likely that my thoughts will spontaneously organize themselves along linguistic lines. And the more exacting and clear my writing will be. Hopefully.

October 12, 2006

Art thought part 3

Was walking to the bank and reading from that little art book I’ve been reading, and I remembered some of what I had intended to write last time.

Something else I’ve started reading – this is a very ambitious time for me! – is Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, which was displayed somewhat prominently in some UK bookstores. Not so in the US, but I did still find it at the library. This one I don’t intend to finish, but it’s still enriching to dip in. It’s a huge book meant to introduce a lay reader to the contemporary physicist’s view of the universe, but with somewhat more actual exposure to the math than such books usually have. Trying to pitch that sort of content to a genuinely “lay” reader is tough, and I can already tell that Penrose’s grip on what he’s not assuming us to already know is a bit shaky. He’s trying to do the right thing but the occasional aside that zooms way out of bounds is unencouraging, and, from browsing forward, I predict total comprehension failure at about the halfway point. But we’ll see.

Anyway, he starts with a discussion of “what is math, exactly?” and this discussion, though ultimately rather superficial, nonetheless was very helpful for me. The crazy Platonic dilemma, of individual horses vs. “horseness,” is much clearer and more apparently real when applied to mathematical (rather than semantic) abstractions. There are no squares or lines in the real world, only approximations. Yet when we talk about math, and geometry, we are talking about interactions and relations among things that have a certain kind of reality to us. Where, then, do the absolute and perfect squares and lines of mathematics exist? Penrose gives a funny little diagram of three worlds, each containing the next: the physical world, the mental world, and the Platonic world of forms – this last being the world of mathematics. The diagram, I take it, is in part a play on one of Penrose’s claims to fame, and is a little wacky for me, but the idea that the world of mathematics is neither the mind nor the world fits in well with what I’ve been thinking – it is in fact, in this inner cosmology I’m working out, the world of the mental program. As per my last entry.

The philosophy that tells us that there are multiple possible mathematical systems, each internally coherent, is easy to nod at, but our intuitive sense that (to use Penrose’s first example) Euclidean geometry is “the real deal” and non-Euclidean geometry is just “an interesting notion in math” is very strong. The idea that the real (real!) spatial universe might well be non-Euclidean is one of these affronts of modern physics that we are forced to write off as being simply beyond the pale of normal human experience, something that can be theorized about but which is fundamentally inassimilable. This idea that there are things which are true but, in practice, fundamentally inassimilable is a useful wedge for separating our model of the world from the world itself. Euclidean geometry too, as Penrose and Plato and others have pointed out, is not the world itself. Again: there are no perfect squares or lines in the real world. The mass of world-modeling accumulated under the name of “science” is still not truth – it is just as close an approximation of truth as we can muster. Math and science are not a collection of “facts” about the world, they are an independent structure, which through careful revision tends asymptotically closer to the actual world.

A computer game that plays poker – why did I think of this, of all things? – uses variables and routines and subroutines and formulae etc. to “model” the game of poker. The computer does not “know” anything about poker, per se. It has images stored away that look like cards, and it calls them up according to algorithms that mathematically mimic the play of poker, yet it has never heard of “cards” and wouldn’t recognize them if they were, um, fed into the disc drive. Conversely, a person who plays poker – even computer poker – would have no reason to recognize or understand nerdy jargon like “function cardValue (cardPlayed) {return cardArray[cardPlayed].value;}”. But what if the poker program itself was the person who played poker? It would know the game from both worlds at once, and so would have a hard time differentiating between the function “cardValue” and the value of a given card – which, you might argue, is not so problematic. But it would also have a hard time differentiating between the programming world in which the concept of “function” was meaningful, and the poker world in which it was not. What I am saying about art, basically, is that if computers could write poetry, it would be about functions, not about, um, poker. (Better computer example for poetry would be a flower simulator. Do they have that? Sort of.)

So back to the geometrical example: the feeling that a straight line is a valuable construct, that it is a useful notion, is deep deep down there in the roots of what humans do with their minds. Dogs, for example, do not care about squares. They don’t believe in them the way we do. Human interest in geometrical figures is a fairly low-level example of our interest in our own world-model; it has something to do with the way our brains have learned to perceive and evaluate space. Drawing a repeating pattern of parallels or diamonds on a stone axe is a way of prioritizing and sharing this world of forms, this mental model. Primitive art and folk art are heavily geometrical – this is the first tier of the human activity of projecting the mental model. Primitive man didn’t find squares in the wilderness and draw pictures of them; the squares arose from some substratum of his own mental program.

I’ve also done some reading about Pythagoras recently. Pythagoras attributed mystical importance to numbers and apparently taught that the world of numbers, not the physical world, was the “real” world. It is clear to us now that, in fact, the world of numbers is less real than the world outside us, but is one of the most versatile and durable things inside us for predicting and emulating that outer world. Compared to religion, say, mathematics makes much better predictions. So of course Pythagoras applied religious significance to it. It’s a running feature of all religion that it privileges its explanations over the everyday “apparent” explanations. This is because explanations exist only in the mental world, not in the outer world, so, accurate or inaccurate, believing in explanations will always involve a certain deprioritizing of the outward appearances of things.

Oh man.

This entry once again reveals that I don’t quite know how to say all this in a way that seems clear and concise. But I’m working around to it. Prepare for a few more rambles like this before this has been purged from my system.

One more shot. Though the five senses deliver data to us from physical reality, our cognitive experience of a coherent and comprehensible world is not actually an experience of the outer world, but rather of an inner model world. This model is constructed by our brain according to a program that combines and interprets the sensory data according to certain principles and assumptions. While at the lowest levels, regarding our perceptions of space, time, and matter, these principles are common to all humans, at higher levels these principles vary from culture to culture and even from individual to individual. Furthermore these principles are subject to revision and adaptation. All of the above may seem self-apparent, but when taken to heart, this description of the relationship between reality and experience sheds a clarifying light on many issues that continue to be discussed in a muddled and deluded way. E.g. the nature of art, the nature of science, the nature of culture, etc. etc.

I don’t doubt that some philosopher has said the same thing. Can anyone tell me what philosopher’s work I’m clumsily reenacting here?

Beth says (tentatively) that I shouldn’t post stuff like this until I’ve really worked it out for myself. My suspicion is that all this adds up to very little of value to anyone other than me. I think I’m just trying to express a shift in my personal understanding, which does not represent any actual new insight for the world. As with all learning I’ve ever done, there is a vital difference between having understood an idea and having incorporated it into one’s thought. I’ve just incorporated something into my thought.

But this website was supposed to be space for me to give vent to these sorts of things. The idea is that it is only incidentally public; I’m trying to inure myself to the idea that everything I do, potentially, is public, and that it’s really only a question of what I want to achieve rather than what’s appropriate. So I’m just posting stuff as I type it. I’ll take it down later if it embarrasses me that much. Reading it is your problem.

October 10, 2006

Art thought continued

It’s been a busy time and many plans for entries remain unrealized. Having delayed my Moby-Dick project until I can get back my access to the OED, I instead took up reading all of Western Literature, so as you can imagine I have some reports to post about that. Right now two, which is how many items of Western Literature I have thus far read. But they’re not done. Then there’s my very long and not-interesting enlistication of all the goofy live shows I saw in August – that’s taking forever to finish. Plus there’s an appendix to that, of the other stuff I read or saw in the past several months. Haven’t even started it. Also, that thing I wanted write about John Williams that’s been sitting here half-finished for a year. I have some new thoughts for that. And then the whole issue of the meme dictionary. You haven’t heard the last of that, but it’s complicated. I feel like there’s a lot to attend to on this site just to live up to my own meager-grand plans for getting out my thoughts. Getting out my thoughts takes forever!

So anyway, none of that stuff is ready to post. But it’s late and I feel like I can probably get this one thing out without too much trouble.

Most of my thinking about those various books and music and shows and things has been colored, since that last entry, by my “art thought,” which has now taken on the character of being a whole “theory of art.” Really it’s just a certain “angle on art” that I’m finding very valuable. In addition to All of Western Literature I’m also reading The New Penguin History of The World, and early on – which is where I am – he says that, while we don’t know for sure what it was for, clearly cave art was carrying some burden of communication in an era before writing. Then he goes on to say that it probably had ritual or magical significance as well. I don’t doubt it, but the first part is what my thoughts have been focussed on.

When I said last time that art is the projection of an individual’s mental model of the world – and that it thus allowed others to interpret the world on congruent models – I was speaking and thinking at the extremely analytic end of a spectrum that also includes very familiar ways of expressing the same thing. Things like “art expresses inner truths that we cannot put into words,” etc. are basically the same thought. But whenever I heard people saying things like this, I used to think they were talking about inner truths like “loss is a shadow crossing the soul” or whatever – essentially, inner experiences, and so probably emotional ones. Representation of the outer world can only be tied to this sort of “meaning” in art by being a figurative depiction of an emotional state, or as a stimulus meant to provoke a quasi-emotional state such as “the appreciation of beauty.”*

But what I didn’t see is that any knowledge of the outer world is an inner experience. I guess a related thing that I didn’t see is what Plato was going on about. All that talk about the real essence of perfect “horseness,” unattainable by flawed earthly horses, struck me as near-nonsense deriving from a simple confusion of word with thing. “Words are just useful tags!” I wanted to shout at Plato. “People made them up to get things done!” And to some degree I still feel that way. But the deeper issue managed to escape me: that even just to think of things as “things” is an interpretation, is something people made up to get things done. Plato writes about “forms” and puts them in some world other than the real world, but – as far as I know – he never says that the world of forms is, in fact, the mental mechanism. In fact, I think he goes the other way and says that the world of forms is some heaven-type place outside of us. I don’t really know. Gotta make sure Plato’s on the list of All Western Literature. Yup, there he is. So all in due time.

We only have the five senses, but in the brain they’re all plugged into one another via a central program – I generally don’t like computer analogies like this because they seem smug and nerdy, but right now I need it – via a central program that is doing all kinds of complicated “world-simulation.” Without that program, the five senses would have nothing to say to one another. Well, maybe smell and taste would get along. But sight and touch would have no idea. The central program is necessary, is the root of what we’re doing as minds, and is so incredibly accurate in its predictions that we generally forget about it. But it has nothing directly to do with the world. The world is apparently made of some kind of sticky stuff. The program in our brain deals in very different terms.

Verbal communication is one of the functions of the program; it deals in the program’s terms. It cannot, without fancy workarounds, reprogram the program itself. Art, however, is about program maintenance. The program, though it doesn’t quite know why, does its best to portray the nature of the program itself. Then other brains, running a complementary routine, try to determine what they can about the program portrayed and, if the signals of prestige, sanity and efficacy are positive enough, incorporate some of that program into their own.

A better metaphor than this is cross-pollination – art is like the pollen strewn by desperate plants. Sexual reproduction in general. How do brains reproduce? Not just ideas, which for their meanings are already dependent on certain cultural programs, but cultural programs themselves? All culture is by nature reproductive. In fact, isn’t the value of all culture exactly that it reinforces itself and thus maintains solidarity? In this way, art can be seen as functioning exactly like any other feature of culture – it represents and thus communicates/reinforces the mental programming of its participants. A definition of “art,” if we need one, could then be: “any aspect or artifact of culture that has no utility other than to communicate and reinforce the mental program.” Interestingly, this particular definition does not resolve the “What Is Art” debates over Duchamp and other nudniks**, but they are left open for more interesting reasons. To me this is a very promising feature of this definition of art. The problem with the urinal in the museum is not that it is not beautiful or that it is not made by the artist or any of that – under this definition, the problem is that it quite possibly communicates nothing about the mental life of the artist and can be incorporated in no way to the mental life of the audience. It is merely a prop, a word, in some other kind of very specific, “in-program” communication, about art culture and the definitions of art. Obviously, this is up for debate. But isn’t that a more valuable debate than the usual one?

Art is this, among other things. Clearly it has some ritual significance as well, just like J.M. Roberts said. And the cultural apparatus that has developed around art is as gnarled and turgid as they get, so I’m not claiming that this sort of explanation is the explanation for all art. Far from it. But it does feel, to me, like the “pure” “essential” side of art, the side to which I want to attend. Conversely, on my trip through some irritating exhibits at the Tate Modern, I found that it made a good litmus test for dismissing works.

Right, I made notes about that and wanted to put them here. That was the whole point of my writing this second entry on the same topic. But all I’ve managed to do is reiterate, at greater length and more loopily, what I wrote last time. I can hear them quietly starting to play me off the podium so I guess I’ll post those notes later. Ugh. Not even the sense of having accomplished one of my meaningless self-appointed tasks. I still have it all ahead of me.

* Yes, it took me a long time to find just the right image. Previous choice was this. This was also a strong contender but the artist ruined it.

** This year, for the first time, I saw real, non-prankish works of Duchamp, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and they were good. So all right, so maybe he’s not a nudnik.