Thursday, October 13, 2005


Art as complex science

As a youngster, television gave me the idea that scientists look down on artists. I have seen little real evidence for that stereotype. But for the sake of an essay, let’s suppose that attitude existed. It would have to come from a misunderstanding of what art is. (Yes, this means I think my own definition of art is correct. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me strongly. I wish they were reading this.)

Art is: the science of manipulating an audience’s thoughts and feelings. That makes art the most complex science – one so complex, we have trouble communicating what it does. Most of the other differences come from this one.

Scientists are humble about what they’re trying to accomplish. A scientist picks a question so specific that if he finds an answer, he’ll be able to verbalize it. By contrast, the scope of art can be as wide as all human experience. Any attempt to communicate artistic discoveries in non-art form is painfully incomplete.

Does the artist’s message get communicated perfectly in the art itself? Uh, no. Artistic communication is bizarre, because it’s stochastic. Whereas scientific ideas can be communicated in a lossless fashion (right?), artistic ones can’t be. Artists do have heuristics for guessing what sorts of stimuli will elicit what sorts of responses, and better artists have better heuristics. But they recognize an element of randomness in the audience’s interpretation process, and (perhaps because they have no choice) artists embrace that randomness. Each interpretation is different, and that’s supposed to be a good thing. (I’m a believer – I think it’s a good thing.)

An artist’s goals are as audience-dependent and hard to describe as art’s results. That doesn’t make the artist’s goals any less real or definite than a scientist’s. However, it does mean that the goals never make it very far into words, or perhaps even into the artist’s conscious mind.

Is that bad? Should artists be more conscious of what they’re doing? I say no.

One wacky aspect of the brain is that the majority of its calculations are subconscious. Being a human is just too complex to keep all operations conscious; we perform better by automating most of the performance. And automation is a useful way to think of emotion, intuition, and the other subconscious phenomena that artists rely on.

If art is as complex as living, one could hypothesize that art can be done better by leaving much of it subconscious. History confirms that hypothesis. If there were a better way to do art, it would be happening. Despite hundreds or maybe thousands of years of taunting for flakiness, and despite strong market pressure to generate an artistic product efficiently and dependably, artists continue to be fickle, strange, and “unmethodical”. I think that’s not a failure, but rather an empirical demonstration that the best way to make art is by relying heavily on the mind’s less-conscious parts. Madness, history tells us, is the best method.

I’ve been harping about the vagueness and the randomness of artistic communication. Works of art contribute to a body of knowledge, but again, stochastically. A scientific record will be understood to mean the same thing by multiple parties. Artistic ones won’t be. A piece of art is some sort of statement, but the statement that it is depends on who’s using the information.

Professionals from both areas will, if they’re good, spend a lot of time keeping track of the state of their art, and building on what has come before. Scientific literature is in one sense more efficient, because one can tell from a good article title what one will get from the article. But the body of art has an efficiency that scientific lit. lacks: Artists don’t have to read in their specialty, or even in their profession – e.g. musicians often build on ideas from filmmakers. This effect comes from the breadth of scope that so much art exhibits – pieces of art, by addressing many issues at once, can overlap each other more easily than scientific works can.

I’ve talked about how art is science. Others have probably said that, but I missed it. I can say for certainty that others have talked about how science is art, and I don’t have anything to add to that. So I’ll go to bed.

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