#rawthought: Autonomous Art?
This morning I woke to a post on my Twitter feed sharing an article from Prospect Magazine – “How the Human Got His Paintbrush”. It’s basically a well composed critique by Philip Ball of scientist E.O. Wilson’s new book, The Origins of Creativity. The topic is something I’m obviously quite interested in, and I’m a sucker for genetics (I blame the mesmerizing Mendel’s Peas film we watched in 8th grade Biology).
I encourage everyone to at least skim this review, for it brings up some intriguing points. I wanted to highlight a few quotes that struck me:
“We see them (the arts), says Wilson, within ‘a bubble of sensory experience’ that neglects all we can’t perceive: ultrasound, infrared, electrical sensing, smells. Quite why superhuman senses would transform the arts, he doesn’t say.”
This reminded me of one of my favorite TED talks – “I Listen to Color” – by the self-proclaimed cyborg synesthete Neil Harbisson. I’m assuming from the review that Wilson does not explore the possibilities of technologies (a form of evolution in my opinion, as I subscribe to Marshall McLuhan’s view that tech is an “extension of ourselves”) in light of the fact they can enhance the creative experience and process of the artist (and audience, for that matter). I love what Golan Levin is doing with “Art That Looks Back At You”, enabling something concrete to happen from shapes drawn by movement in thin air, or “unseen space”, as he puts it.
Golan goes further and poses the question: What if art was aware that we were looking at it…and what could it do if it were to look back at us?
Definitely view his talk to find out more about the subsequent experiments, but I just LOVE this query. Could art be “doing its own thing”, detached from its creator, the artist, the context in which it was produced, and even the audience that perceives it?
How does a work of art “evolve”?
This brings me to the next jewel of a quote from Ball’s review:
“…an interpretation by Wallace Stevens of Picasso’s cubism that is at odds with what Picasso himself said about it. But not only does this say nothing much more than that critics can sometimes get the wrong end of the stick, it also makes the mistake of thinking that in the arts, as in the sciences, questions have definite answers that are reached by assembling the objective ‘evidence.’ Artists are unreliable commentators on their own work and the best art has a meaning that is not exhausted wither by what the artist says or by the context. Frankenstein, Hamlet, or indeed Oedipus Rex, exceed their origins. The role of the critic is not to explain like a scientist but to stimulate new thoughts and ways of seeing.”
I’ve long studied the lives and creative habits of artists, and even summed some of my takeaways up in a recent TEDx talk. I make art too- mostly irreverent remix and mashup, but often wholly original pieces that are influenced by the styles of artists I gravitate toward, but are by no means what I’d call completely derivative.
A lot of people read into my creative works, and often I find myself responding with a “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” explanation. But is it? Perhaps there are some subconscious forces at work I myself fail to grasp.
Perhaps the perceived meaning is beyond my intention?
I agree wholeheartedly with Ball in that artists are more often than not “unreliable commentators” on their own creations – perhaps it’s because, as Da Vinci, Picasso and Van Gogh espoused, one must “just do it”. When the blank canvas stares back, just “slap something on it”.
Yes, it can be a “driven by the muse” thing, but mostly it’s about starting something and letting it unfold, the old “inspiration exists but it has to find you working” that Picasso alluded to. In this respect, it can be difficult for artists to identify let alone articulate their raison d’être.
Does the art, then, have a mind of its own?
I find it profound when Ball says the best art goes beyond artist intent or original context – that it is in fact unfettered by the shackles of the times or the constraints of the creator’s view. Of course this is why still cry at Debussy, marvel at the Sistine frescoes, stir at Munch’s Scream and remake Shakespeare’s plays into modern rom-coms.
Ball is really on to something here, I think, when he brings up the problem of the critic and wonders whether art can or should be “explained ” in “scientific” terms.
The job of art is to ask questions, not answer them.
In most of my talks I refer to the poet Keats’ concept of negative capability. It’s about being comfortable with ambiguity, and it is very difficult state for most people to be in. Schooling in particular has privileged Reason, the scientific method, and definitive answers. There is no problem with that (and I adore all facets of science), but we must allow room to explore the enigmas, to tinker with multiple perspectives, and to grapple with the grey areas (which, to be fair, is the essence of science, too).
What if, as learners / students / educators, we simply aimed to, as Ball puts it, “stimulate new thoughts and ways of seeing”?
The last quote that really struck me was this:
“Wilson quotes with approval Daniel Dennett’s assertion that natural selection is ‘the acid that burns through every myth about ordained purposes and meanings.’ As long as the idea persists that myth, purpose and meaning are things to be burned away by the acid of scientific reason, evolution and science will be silent about creativity.”
What imagery! Acid! Disintegrating myths! Burning through meaning!
According to Ball, EO Wilson defines creativity as “the innate quest for originality”. That might be a better description of “innovation”, for creativity is about connecting and remixing, finding relationships, expressing in metaphor, and recognizing what others miss. I’d argue that few things are truly original, and that brings us back to
the journey of art – what if art was autonomous?
My big takeaway from Ball’s piece is that perhaps art has agency. We can try to own it, define it, deconstruct it, explain it, and rationalize it using subjectivity or science, but in the end these attempts are futile. Not even the artist can foresee what his creation may be..how it morphs and re-contextualizes over the decades.
The other night I was watching the original Bladerunner (1982) in preparation to see the new one (2017), and all I could think of was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). And perhaps, like with Frankenstein’s monster, the creator can only bring something to life and let go. Science cannot contain or explain the unpredictable, beautiful, and often heartbreaking bits of humanity that froth up in the arts…
and do we even want it to?