Tuesday, March 22, 2011

conversations are hard

In my experience, the conversations that work best are not logically causal. They do not entail structures in which person A builds on (or questions) something person A said. Rather, they involve free-associating around a fuzzy, shared idea:

A: Books like "The Blah Effect" don't work well, because the author is trying to mix fiction and non-fiction in a clunky way that serves neither genre.

B: Interesting comment! It reminds me of an essay I once read about experiments in non-fiction. Here's a link...

A: Cool! And you might be interest in....

Those sorts of conversations can be great fun (for many people), and everyone can learn from them -- AND they work without anyone defining terms -- but they have serious limitations. The conversations I'm most interested are more like this:

A: Books like "The Blah Effect" don't work well, because the author is trying to mix fiction and non-fiction in a clunky way that serves neither genre.

B: I disagree. Fiction works best when it has a dose of non-fiction it it, because...

Assuming A and B aren't just shooting-the-shit (assuming they really want to attempt to come to some sort of new understanding about their topic), they already have a problem. What do they mean by "fiction" and "non-fiction"? What does A mean by it and does B mean something different or the same thing?

If this is going to turn into a free-association discussion, pinning down the definitions doesn't matter, but it matters deeply if it's going to be a "causal" discussion. And, if it is, there's really no point in A and B continuing if they can't agree on definitions or at least understand each-other's definitions.

What tends to happen, IF A clarifies, is that we get into this sort of mess:

A: What I mean by "fiction" is a story containing a traditional plot and characters. It can be based on real-life events or people, but it will always bow to the needs of traditional narrative if there's a conflict between that and "what actually happened."

B: That's not fiction! That doesn't include experimental novels that don't have plots.

Now, A wants to discuss fiction as HE defined it, but B won't accept the label "fiction" being attached to A's definition. In my experience, though I stupidly attempt it again and again, this doesn't work:

A: Okay, I accept that my definition of fiction doesn't work for all ways the word is commonly used. But just for this discussion, when I say "fiction," can we take it to mean stories with traditional narratives. If we use a broader definition, it's going to be really hard to talk about this.

B: No, because "fiction" doesn't mean what you're saying it means!

B's thinking here is deeply alien to me. If someone wants to say, "For the duration of this conversation, can we take the word 'dog' to mean 'cat'?", I have no problem. Probably, this is because I'm a programmer, so I have years of experience detaching labels from what they point to. (Or maybe this is a chicken-egg things. Maybe I became a programmer because I have the skill of detaching labels from what they point to.)

(As it happens, I came across an interesting quote today. This will only resonate with you if you've done some programming. Skip past it if you haven't:

"Once upon a time, I used to be a TA (Teaching Assistant) for a web development class at University. When I met with my students in the computer lab, I quickly found that there were two kinds of computer science students: those that could understand the concept of a 'variable' and those that could not. No matter how I tried to explain variables, it seemed that some students simply could not wrap their minds around it.

"I always felt that their failure of understanding was my failure as a teacher. As such, I was tremendously excited when I read Haverbeke's explanation of variables in programming (pg 16):

"'You should imagine variables as tentacles, rather than boxes. They do not contain values; they grasp them - two variables can refer to the same value. Only the values that the program still has a hold on can be accessed by it. When you need to remember something, you grow a tentacle to hold on to it, or you reattach one of your existing tentacles to a new value.'"


I don't really even get what's going on in B's head. It's like he thinks that if he temporarily agrees to use the word "fiction" in A's way, he has somehow changed something in the real world -- like he'll never be able to go back to using his own definition. Or maybe he thinks labels are somehow attached to the concepts they point to: you can't peel a tattoo off a person's arm without damaging his arm...

But whether I get it or not, it's a fact: it's a fact that there are many Bs out there, and they just can't accept temporary definitions. And, as many people have noted, the problem gets worse with analogies:

A: my marriage is "Romeo and Juliet"! My wife and I love each other, but other people keep creating problems that keep us apart.

B: what? You and your wife aren't ANYTHING like Romeo and Juliet! They were teenagers who lived in Italy. You're middle-aged people who live in New York!

(Or, worse...

B: you're comparing your REAL marriage to a relationship between fictional characters?!?)

What the analogy problem and the temporary-definition problem have in common is mapping. Many people seem deeply suspicious of mapping one thing onto another -- or they're just bad at doing it.

I have mostly just given up on analogies, though it's hard for me to always remember to give them up, because they work so well for me. They are natural to me. And I've learned so much from other-people's analogies.

When it comes to definitions, I've tried getting around the problem by using new terms:

B: That's not fiction! That doesn't include experimental novels that don't have plots

A: You're right. Okay, well I'm going to talk about something I call ... "narratives." Forget "fiction." We don't agree on what that is. Do you have any strong association with the word "narratives"?

B: Not really ... something about plots.

A: Okay. Great. So I'm saying -- for this conversation, anyway -- that a "narrative" is a traditional, plot-based story...

I've tried this before, and to be honest, have found it to be about as successful as anything else -- which is to say "not very."

You get into a problem which is that if you use a pre-existing word, the original issue happens all over again, this time with the new word:

B: No! That's not what narrative means!

And if you use a made-up word, people's eyes glaze over:

A: Fine. I'm going to make up a word: "Pleg." In this discussion, a "pleg" is a story with a traditional, plot-based narrative.

B: PLEG? That's absurd. There's no such word.

There are a couple of throw-your-hands-up-into-the-air responses here, and I hate both of them. One is to say, "Well, B is just an idiot." I disagree with this, though I have to admit, I sometimes feel like it's true when I let my frustration get the better of me. B may be bad at traditional, syllogistic, logical thinking, but there are many, many other types of thinking.

The other response is, "Well, we just can't have this kind of conversation. We really should stick to the free-association ones, since those are what work best." Maybe that is true, but I "can't go there." I don't really enjoy those conversations all that much, I suck at them, and I LOVE "causal" conversations. I live for them! I keep thinking there has to be a a way to make them work -- or at least to improve them. But I haven't figured out how yet.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A "Psychology Today" article compared an Abstract Expressionist painting to one made by a chimpanzee. Over at Metafilter, debate raged

One commenter, known as Astro Zombie, said "With the exception of minimialism, which deliberately sought to make art that had no subtext or metaphoric meaning, but just was whatever it was ... most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is mean or what is being shown. Contemporary art demands engagement from the viewer. ... And it's usually not hard to get that stuff -- most artists provide statements, and most galleries will discuss the art with you. But if you refuse to do any of that stuff, you're on your own. The art isn't for you"

I disagree. 

I am an art-lover with a very different relationship with art from Astro Zombie's. Which doesn't at all mean that I think he's wrong. I don't believe a relationship-with-art can be right or wrong. AZ's is clearly pleasing to him -- as mine is to me.

Over the last 35 years, I have tried relating to art in a variety of ways: I've tried learning about the artist's intentions; I've tried learning about history and context; I've tried learning about works as an utterances in a big conversation (e.g. how does a particular work relate to its movement or respond to previous movements?)

What I've found is that, for me, while art can sometimes spark interesting ideas, it doesn't seem to be a very good medium for doing that (for me). If I want to think about intent or context (or theme), I can do that better with, say, history or philosophy books.

For me, art is best at sparking immediate sensation. It is sensual, and I respond to it most profoundly in a hedonistic way. (By "immediate," I don't mean I glace at a painting, feel something, and then walk away after two seconds. I might stand and look at a painting for hours. Still, what I respond to the most -- during however long I look at it -- is how it tickles my "lizard brain.")

I don't see much difference been my relationship with art and my relationship with and food or pornography. And I don't want more from it, because I can't think of more profound sorts of experiences than those I get when I'm having an orgasm or biting into a really good pie. (Well, there IS one feeling that competes with those -- that can, like fucking, eating or fleeing-from-danger -- take over my whole mind and body: that feeling of enlightenment I get when I'm reading a really good history, philosophy, mathematics or science book, but art never seems to be able to exicte that part of me as profoundly as non-fiction does. On the other hand, I've never been filled with lust or terror while reading Steven Jay Gould.)

I love both figurative and abstract art. Abstracts affect me a lot like music does. I respond to the colors and shapes -- often passionately. It always puzzles me when other people claim they don't like abstract art, because some of those same people DO like abstract patterns on clothing or wallpaper. Some of those same people will say "I don't get abstract art" and then expound on the beauty of the stripes on a tiger. (Presumably they are not trying to "get" the tiger's stripes.)

I think, often, people's disdain for abstract art comes from over-schooling. School taught them that when they look at a painting, they should be trying to figure out what it MEANS. It taught them that paintings contain some sort of secret message or intent. And they look at, say, a Pollack painting, can't figure out the secret, and suspect the artist is bullshitting them. Which pisses them off. To them, abstract art is like trying to solve a Rubic's Cube is for me. I can't do it. It's frustrating. And if I hadn't seen other people do it, I might suspect that Rubic was hoaxing everyone -- wasting their time with a puzzle that has no solution.

What some people are not doing is just letting the colors, lines and shapes flood into them. These same people could probably have a fantastic time staring out at the sea. They wouldn't try to figure out the MEANING of the sea. They'd be free to just respond to its vastness and its explosion of color.

What's interesting to me is that this (learned in school) habit of intellectualizing art ruins the experience for some people (at least when they're looking at certain kinds of art) and makes the experience more profound for others, for people like Astro Zombie. (Though I'm not implying that AZ doesn't also love art for its sensual effects.)

I disagree with him that "most contemporary art doesn't exist in a vacuum, where you can just look at a piece on a wall and intuit what is meant or what is being shown." Well, maybe I do agree with him, but I don't care what "is meant." What I can say is that I've been profoundly, profoundly, profoundly affected by a lot of contemporary art, without giving a second though to "what is meant." So the only thing I disagree with AZ about his his absolutism. I respect his relationship wit contemporary art, but it isn't the only possible relationship that can work. (Though maybe it IS the only possible one for someone who has been through school and who took the lessons of school to heart. Maybe someone like that can't STOP looking for meaning. So if he's going to ever like contemporary art, it's going to have to be via its meaning. To me, this is a bit sad. It means that person has lost something valuable he had a child. Most children love art without spending a second thinking about context or meaning.)

I have purposefully avoided learning much about the life and intent of artists like Pollack and Kandinsky, and yet I ADORE their work. I can't tell you how much their paintings mean to me. They have enriched my life beyond measure. If this is odd to you -- that I love Pollack's work without knowing anything about Pollack -- think of how people often respond to, say, a Beatles song or a Beethoven symphony, even if they're completely unschooled in music theory -- even if they're only five and know nothing about the history of the Beatles.

People often tell me that while I appreciate the paintings now, I'll appreciate them even more if I learn about the artist's history and intent. I disagree. First of all, I don't care about "appreciating" art. I don't even know what that means. It sounds boring. I want to be RAPED by art. I want to EAT art. I want art to stab me in the eye.

I agree that it's likely my relationship with Pollack's work will be CHANGED if I learn about his intent. Presumably those ideas will be stored in my brain alongside the sensual data, and one will affect the other IN SOME WAY. Maybe my experienced will be enriched; maybe it will be cheapened. I think most people have experienced both effects. Many people like some art more after learning stuff about the artist. Many people also like some art less after, say, learning that the artist was a Nazi sympathizer -- or a chimpanzee.

As you might expect with someone who responds to art sensually and prizes that response above all others, I really don't give a shit whether a work "could have been painted by a five-year-old" or was painted by a chimpanzee. Whatever. If it affects me, it affects me. So thanks, chimp! Thanks, five-year-old! Thanks, Jackson Pollack! In fact, thanks universe (for making oceans and sunsets)! It's all good!

I also don't really care that much about what I think of as the circus-feat aspect of art: how difficult or easy it is to make. I admit, it can be kind of fun to think about: when someone takes ten years to paint a gigantic mural, I DO enjoy thinking about their skill and whether or not I could do what they did. But, in the end, I respond to their work or I don't.

And that event -- the event of making the art -- is over. It's not like Michelangelo is repainting the Sistine Chapel over and over again. As it exists NOW, it is the same work whether he labored over it for years or whether space aliens came to Earth, fired an "art blaster" at the ceiling, and created the work in ten seconds. I'm not saying it's wrong to enjoy thinking about skill and craftsmanship. Whatever floats your boat! I'm saying that there's another sort of connoisseurship -- one that is more childlike: you look; you respond.

This "naive" approach IS malleable. I didn't use to like minimalist music and watercolors. Now I love both. But not because I learned anything about intent, theme or context. My new-found love came through repeated exposure to those sorts of works. I gradually learned their inner language. And, as I did, my heart started beating faster when I looked and listened to them.