michiexile: (ModelHouse)
[personal profile] michiexile
I spent these past two weeks in Beijing, and among other things did a lot of art museum and gallery browsing. I can strongly recommend the 798 Art Zone to anyone who passes through here, I had a fantastic day browsing there.

One thing that browsing a lot of art does to me is trigger my art-and-philosophy brain that has been waking up more and more lately. I am absolutely convinced that someone has already thought many of the things I am about to discuss here, and I would love to get literature pointers if you have them.

So… one thing that has been bugging me for quite a while is the whole “but is that art!?” debate. Especially seeing obnoxious internet people denounce stuff as not-art if it is too easy, or not masochistic enough, or whatever. And during my art browsing today, a number of thoughts surfaced.

First off, it seems to me that once we make “what is art” be about money, everyone suddenly has incentives to bend the definition. If whatever we define to be art is going to be the exact delineation of “stuff that gets government funding”, then everyone is incentivized to make Their Own Activity into art, and remove Everyone Else from the classification.

I'm not sure this is helpful to any sort of debates.

So, I propose we split it up. There is the discussion of “what is art?”, which I suggest should have a very wide and generous scope, honestly. We have seen clearly in the 20th century sequence of challenges to the definition that we can't really rely on beauty or sellability to define it. So screw it. Almost anything that could be considered art is art. Let's not be so damn excluding any more. 

There is a different discussion to be had on “what art should we fund?”. And this discussion brings to mind a number of similarities between art and science. See, we have the same discussion for research: what research should we even fund? If I disapprove of, say, prostitution, should I still have to contribute money to research that involves prostitutes? How about basic research? Do I have to fund it if there are no products in view? For that matter, do I have to help fund research that does lead up to sellable products?

We see these discussions a lot in science, and we're getting a useful bunch of responses articulated. We don't know where the next new big thing will show up, so we can't steer research too much. It's useful to seed research that can lead to industrial applications, and once it starts generating revenue, we no longer need public funds, since it is becoming self-sustainable with that revenue.

Art and Science as civilizations's playgrounds

In order to try and narrow down just how I think that art and science are facets of the exact same thing, I want to talk about creativity and innovation. We create new things by trying things a lot, and failing to do stuff until we suddenly fail slightly less — and at that point what we can do expands. For novelty, we need to make it safe to try and fail, and to do this a lot. And we do really want to separate the areas where we need reliability (say in a surgery theatre, or a subway train) from the areas where we want failure to happen until suddenly something useful pops out (say, research labs, or art studios).

The role of the scientist is to fail at creating new knowledge until s/he fails slightly less.

And the role of the artist is to fail at creating new expressions until s/he fails slightly less.

This tells us why we should fund art and science: we are a fundamentally expressive and curious species. I have no doubts that even without societal encouragement, people will doodle, and hum tunes, and write silly little rhymes, and all these other things. And they will poke at things and try to understand them, speculate test and try to learn new things.

By institutionalizing failure, we create arenas where innovative expression and curiosity gets a playing field. We should fund research even if we don't know where it is headed because this usually leads to interesting and surprising new knowledge. And we should fund art that is not obviously and widely attractive because this leads to interesting and surprising new ways of expression.

Science that generates enough revenue to be self-sustainable we call technology.

Art that generates enough revenue to be self-sustainable we call entertainment or advertisement.

We like the fact that Penicillin showed up by mistake.

And we want a world in which Lady Gaga, Pixar and Andrew Lloyd-Webber show up.

To have the kind of world where penicillin appears we need to encourage research without immediate applications.

And to have the kind of world where we get Pixar and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, we also need to include music played on industrial appliances, music that denies the very existence of meters, of harmonies. Art that actively rebels against the current definitions and establishments. And art that is banal, easy, and could have been replaced by technology.

A world where hyper-realistic oil paintings is a thing even though we can take photographs is a world where we encourage failure for the sake of novelty. It doesn't matter that we could just take a photo, that's not the point.

I can like or dislike artistic expressions to my heart's content. But we, as a society, should encourage expression without insisting on beauty or wide likeability as fundamental criteria: because that is what makes us civilized. And that way we get wider spectra of expression, that eventually spit out things we do like.
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