WHAT IS (NOT ART)?

The image of the Raven flying into the sunset was “painted” by Roger Jones using Corel painter software. No acrylics were injured in the production of this painting.

Tale of Two Cities

Hello. Welcome fellow space-time travelers. I am coming to you from steaming downtown Pensacola. I don’t believe that I mentioned that Pensacola is my home town. If you don’t know it, Pensacola is in the Deep South. People in the Deep South capitalize the “D” in “Deep” and the “S” in “South.” Tribalism is very important here and Southerners have developed an extensive oral mythology to rationalize and stabilize their tribe.

But I want to talk about a very different place, today—Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my wife, Teri, and I have spent most of our lives. Pensacola is in the Deep South, but Santa Fe is in the Land of Enchantment. Santa Fe and Pensacola are as different as two cities can be and still both be in the United States. Santa Fe is a multicultural place where individual freedom and expression are highly valued. It is a place where science, art, and society live in proximity. The Land of Enchantment, like the Deep South, however, is impoverished. Yet, the picture of how the universe and its denizens work is really quite different between the cities.

I want to start today’s story in Santa Fe, but first, let’s discuss the tee shirt I am wearing. The first line says, “There are two kinds of people in this world” then the next line says, “Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.” There are no other lines. That is funny, but how do these two types of people communicate with each other?

Art History 2: Apologies of a Dilettante

But … back to Santa Fe. My training is in physics. I worked in Los Alamos Laboratory for many years, which is how we got to New Mexico. But I have always been curious about how artists see the universe. It seemed both similar to the way I saw it and much different. So, in 2011, I headed over to the local art university and took a course in art history thus cementing my reputation as a dilettante.

Toward the end of the course, the professor gave a nice lecture on minimalism. To her annoyance, I asked a question. It was not the first question I had asked that term. My question was, “What is the next step past minimalism? Is it the removal of the artist altogether from the process?” She snapped back, quite legitimately, “There is no art without intent.” That was the trigger that got the class going. I was quiet and admired my work for the 45 minutes the class conversation went on.

As the conversation wound down, I rejoined the fray. I pointed out that I traveled a great deal and spent much time in airports. To entertain myself I sometimes listened to the ambient noise in airports as if it were music. The flow and ebb of announcements, conversations, the rhythm of baggage carts can be relaxing if it is music. So, I then asked, “Who is the artist?” One student said, “Well, it must be you.” I responded, “Really, is it me (sic), or is it John Cage who gave me the idea that ambient noise could be music?” At any rate, that is where the conversation ended. I held my next comment that John Cage had been dead for some time and perhaps he created the work from the grave. That would have cemented my reputation as both a dilettante and a smart-ass.

Talking About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

But what this story points out is how difficult it is to talk about art using natural language, our usual method of communication. An unknown smart-ass said around 1918, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” The speculation is that art must be its own language independent of natural language. There is not necessarily a translation between the two languages. In fact, it is not even clear that the two languages address the same universe.

Scientific Method

The concept of a language of science is easier to grasp than the concept of art as a language. Scientific language is just a structured form of natural language. The Scientific Method organizes the language. One starts with a simple declarative statement, called a hypothesis, that is a speculation about some aspect of the universe. “Lighting a fire under a pot of water will cause the water to boil” is an example of a hypothesis. The hypothesis is then tested by experiment; the system under question is examined under controlled conditions to determine the validity of the hypothesis. Here, controlled conditions means holding all variables except the one under examination constant or unchanged. In our water example for instance, we would not allow someone with a lit blowtorch approach our kettle while we are testing the hypothesis.

Observers must be taken into account

One very important lesson from 20thcentury science is that the observer must be taken into account in experiments, and, when that happens, very strange behavior can emerge. For example, consider two countries monitoring each other’s nuclear weapons programs from the countries’ respective space stations. Each country detects a nuclear explosion in the other country. Country A can claim that country B detonated their device first. Country B can claim that, on the contrary, country A detonated first. And they could both be correct. They would each have more than an unbacked opinion. They would have correct evidence to back their claims. This example is a warning that logic may become quite subtle when observers are taken into account.

A second example comes from quantum mechanics, the study of very small things like atoms. We know that scientists as well as all the scientists’ measuring machinery are also made of atoms. We have a situation of matter studying matter. It turns out that we find there is a specific hole in the information we are allowed to know. We can, for instance, where an atom is, but not where it is going, or we can know where the atom is going, but not where it is located. In other words the logical statement the atom is at x and is going v miles per hour is neither true nor false.  When one takes material observers into account then, once again, logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, as Grace Slick once sang.

Self-Referential Systems

This craziness is not limited to the heady world of theoretical physics. It is a general property of any system that studies itself that there will be knowledge that cannot be discovered by the system. Systems that try to understand themselves are called self-referential. There will always be holes in knowledge of any closed self-referential system. This realization is one of the great accomplishments of 20th century mathematics.

Great Cosmic Knowing Sponge

Systems of knowledge have languages associated with themselves. The language can be a natural language, mathematical language, or even artistic language. We can say that each of these closed knowledge systems has big holes in it. There are true things that the knowledge system will never know. Any system of knowledge is like a great sponge with structure, but that is full of holes. Knowledge does not expand like a bit of perfume into a room. It expands like an interconnected sponge skeleton of knowledge.

Back to the tee shirt

This brings us back to my tee shirt. If we have a collection of knowledge, then there will be things that will never be known by extrapolation from that collection. If we are trying to learn about a human endeavor like art, then it may be silly to try to understand that system by using a system based on natural language. It makes much more sense to use a language based on the language of art. If the question we are addressing is “What is (Not Art)?” then that question should probably be addressed by the language of art. Then the question becomes, “Where are the holes in the knowledge of art?” Just like in quantum mechanics, we know we cannot answer questions about atomic location and motion simultaneously. We know there is a hole in physics that we might call (Not Physics). If we want to find the hole in art called (Not Art), then we must find (Not Art) by navigating the sponge skeleton of the knowledge system art. In other words, don’t talk about music and don’t dance about architecture. Or rather, to find out what is (Not Music) make music until you find something musically nonsensical. See where this nonsense lies. That would be the land of (Not Music). Ambient airport sounds are music because they fulfill a musical role. The question “Who is the artist?” is a question that belongs to a different knowledge system, economics. The information is only important if an artist wishes to get recognized or paid.

Artistic Experiment

Well … this is all very theoretical. It would be nice to actually ground this discussion in some sort of reality. So, in 2015 I did an experiment here in steaming downtown Pensacola. I figured that if Santa Fe was a place to find art, then Pensacola may be a good place to look for (Not Art). I was going to embed the discussion of the experiment in this conversation, but I have already gone on for long enough, so I will make the very next conversation about the art experiment.

So, fellow travelers in space-time. I will see you on the flip side. Stay safe. Signing off from steaming downtown Pensacola.

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