Sunday, June 3, 2012

Art, Science, and Why Your Taste in Music Will Always Be Better Than Mine

Art. Science. Stupid.

I go to a liberal arts college. That doesn't mean that everybody there is studying Art (goodness, that would kill me); just that everybody is required to take a number of classes that have little to nothing to do with their chosen field of study. It also means that, on a regular basis, I interact with people who fall on both sides of the Science vs. Art spectrum, from computer engineers and mathematicians to studio artists and musicians and, God help us all, writers. To no one's shock, I've discovered that most people on one side of the spectrum think that most folks on the other side of the spectrum are functionally useless. The left-brainers think the right-brainers are too flighty ever to produce anything of value, and the right-brainers think the left-brainers are curmudgeonly old sourpusses with their heads too buried in academic textbooks to know the difference between Transformers and Les Misérables.

Here's the thing: despite the fact that the Army of Artists and the Logician Legionnaires have declared a cold war, it seems we missed the first and most important step.

What is art, what is science, and where are they different?


Bear with me. I promise, I [sort of] know what I'm doing.

(NO! We KNOW what Art is! It's PAINTINGS of HORSES!)

You, shut up. Sit down. I am the fool in this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.

In the ancient and glorious tradition of history's greatest speakers, I'm going to start with a truly audacious statement: what we call Art and what we call Science are, in fact, not different at all.


The Logic Brigade is fond of pointing out that their methods must be judged subjectively. Math, science, and even (in some cases) grammar are all pretty open-and-shut cases; either you're right or you're not. That's why those particular subjects in high school were either our favorite subjects or the bane of our existence; there's very little wiggle room. Typically there's exactly one right answer (except for some sneaky calculus functions).

Not so the Artists. The Artists operate on inspiration. They produce "craft" or sometimes "genius" or, in the majority of cases, "complete crap." The thing of it, of course, is that it's impossible to state your opinion on a piece of Art (not art as in paintings, but Art--nose-in-the-air, floating-on-the-currents-of-one's-overstated-genius Art) without someone else telling you that your opinion is wrong.

Wait. What?

Good Art: Whose Call?

Here we arrive at the main problem of Art: nobody can agree on how we're supposed to judge it. What makes one piece better than another?

People have been guessing at the answer to that one for ages. As often happens, there are two opposing perspectives: Pundit and Plebeian.

The Plebeian view favors the will of the people. Frankly speaking, the Plebeian view says that whatever Art makes the most money at the box office, or is most widely acclaimed, or is acknowledged by the greatest number of people, is clearly the best. It's the closest Art ever got to a subjective value judgment.

The Plebeian view fails for the same reason that political systems, American Idol, and prom royalty votes fail: large groups of people are dumb. Despite myriad opportunities to educate ourselves, we'll insist on praising unqualified officials, underwhelming or untalented performers, bilious-but-popular meatheads, and unremarkable art. On average (and don't think for a moment we're working with anything but an average), we're simply not smart enough to hold that sort of power. I'm not saying we haven't succeeded sometimes--We The People have picked quite a few winners. But the blatant fact is that we can't do it consistently. (Please check Exhibits A, B, and C if you don't believe me. Yes, the obvious ones are there, plus an interesting article which you are encouraged to read.)

The Pundit view, however, thinks we should be placing the judgment call in the hands of people who are (hypothetically) qualified to make it: experts of the genre, geniuses, others who have been successful in a particular field, etc. If the Plebeians produce the vote of the masses in American Idol, the Pundits are Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul (or whoever started filling those seats once they emptied). This idea, that only experts are qualified to judge Art, is responsible for a whole host of controversy.

Some of you may be familiar with Melancholia or Tree of Life, two extremely beautiful/artistic films with which the Pundits fell madly in love. (They are also, incidentally, profoundly weird movies.) Or perhaps you've heard of Arrested Development, which was well-received by critics but somehow failed ever to get off the ground.

These are examples of a thing called Critical Dissonance. The critics think certain things are pretty stupendous, whereas the public (who, let us remember, are the ones paying to view the things) think those things are boring, angsty, pretentious crap.

(They don't always disagree, though. You may have heard of Gotye, the extraordinary musician responsible for Somebody That I Used to Know, which every musician on the whole planet covered. No, seriously. Like a few other rare beasts, most of which are the masterpieces Pixar is famous for, this song is weird, and really good, and popular. Gotye is the enigmatic kid sitting in the back of class, doodling, and producing really incredible doodles, and through some stroke of fate it's not just the other doodlers noticing him. Good on you, Wally.)

So...who's right?

Good Science: Does Not Exist

Don't worry, I'll answer the question up there in a bit. Hang with me. I'm being artistic.

What I submit to you is that many folks studying the Sciences are studying something which is not Science. It's actually Art (sorta). Art, I think, is the label that belongs on anything humans have put a subjective value on, a value that can be argued and discussed and disagreed with but never, actually-factually, proven right or wrong, because it's personal.

Objectively, was that a good story? Dunno. Art.
Objectively, was that a good song? Dunno. Art.
Objectively, was that a good movie, or painting, or three-point shot, or fingerprint analysis, or critique, or ballet, or interaction with a customer, or construction of a CPU, or video game, or Python script, or use of Java, or mathematical proof, or C++ code, or cake, or sandwich, or debate, or use of Bonetti's Defense, or joke, or baseball pitch, or physics equation, or triple axel leap?

Dunno. Art.

Rote memory and recitation of facts are well and good, and those can be objective (or at least as objective as we're likely to get, ever). But any time that a human sets out to create or do something, it becomes (enigmatically, impossibly, stupidly) Art. We can cast a judgment on it. We can decide if it's good or bad. We can, almost always, recognize the potential for improvement. Even when we say "It's good if it works," and call that objective, we're lying to ourselves. No matter how efficient something is, there's almost always a way to make it more efficient. (Some would say that Science is mostly looking at things and saying, "Goodness, even I could do better than that." What is that if not Art?)

That's why "good" science doesn't exist. It's either Science, or it isn't. As soon as we start calling it good or bad, useful or useless, efficient or wasteful, perfect or nearly-there, we've stripped it of objectivity. We've put something of ourselves into it. We've humanized it and, for good or ill, we've made it into Art.

So Who's Right?

That leaves us, still, with the stupid question: who decides whether Art is good or bad, and how does the Judge decide? Fear not, friends. I have an answer.

(You're gonna hate this. Ohhhh, golly, this is the most copout answer I've written since that one time I took an art class.)

You are the judge.

The tragic thing about humans is that, whether we deserve them or not, we all have opinions. We are all given the power (if not, necessarily, the right or the qualifications) to pass judgment on what we think is good or bad. And, even worse, who's to say where we're wrong? Another person? Just another human being?

There's something to be said for the opinions of others, of course, and there's even room in the world for the opinions of experts and pundits and whiners. (Excuse my repetition.)

For instance, my best friend is an experienced musician. His standards for music are often related to how difficult the music is to create, rather than just a gut-level reaction (though those have influence, too). He's developed "taste," an elusive term which critics made up to make everyone else feel bad. For him, it means he loves music that he can admire from an artist's standpoint. And, by observing his taste, I can gather clues about how to develop "taste" for myself.

Here's the kicker, though: no matter how much someone, be he expert or artist or parent or friend, tells you to appreciate something, you cannot be made to. You can't be taught to appreciate a certain Art just because someone else tells you it's worthwhile. What's the point of learning to appreciate Art just because someone else does? The appreciation is a lie. You've been made into an automaton.

In the end, your subjective judgment ought to be your subjective judgment. Regardless of the Public and the Pundits, your tastes are your own. We can learn to be better judges--of course we can, because, after all, it's an art--but absorbing the opinions of someone else is a coward's escape.

Dare! Explore! Figure out how, in a world filled with Art demanding your attention, to stare into the face of it all, and then have the guts to speak your mind about it.

(Now the bugger of a question. Objectively, was this essay good? Dunno. Art.)