I recently read two great posts on art by livelysceptic and bloggingisaresponsibility, followed by an amazing reply by Steve Armstrong. Today I’d like to add my grain of sand, bearing in mind what I say will be mostly applicable to music and literature, being as I am extremely ignorant of more visual art. And again and just in case people forget, these are just tentative ideas that I myself don’t take too seriously but that, hopefully, will give someone a little to think about.
One thing caught my attention in Steve’s extremely long reply to bloggingaresponsibility: he said that art is not about transmitting feelings and that, when it is, he considers it “amateur.” I think I understand what he means: it’s easy to make a sad song. That’s not the goal. The goal is to make a great sad song. However, I’d like to elaborate a bit and say that art is about transmitting feelings. In fact, it is about causing a very particular feeling in the receiver: awe.
Awe is hard to define, but it usually arrives when we are confronted with something that we can barely comprehend. Something that seems too big for our mind to contain. Awe may be felt when gazing at the stars or the ocean, but the feeling is particularly humbling when facing something made by another human being.
But where does this awe come from? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may be related to the ability to simulate another mind. By this, I mean the ability to reproduce in our heads the author of that particular piece’s train of thought in making it. Here I am drawing on my own experience, so I am not sure whether this applies to other people.
When I listen to a song, I don’t limit myself to listening. In fact, I unconsciously analyze what I’m hearing and try to predict what’s coming. I’d say most of us do this or there would be little point in saying a song does something “unexpected.” In this sense, I am simulating the author in my head. When I am perceiving art, my mind automatically tries to simulate the thought process that produced it.
Sometimes, what I am hearing or seeing feels so completely alien that it remains a mystery. In this case, I don’t feel much when facing it. It could be a work of genius or it could be a piece of crap, but I have no way of knowing. Sometimes, I will hear or see something so familiar that I can almost picture every step in the creation process. In this case, I will probably deem the work “naïve” and move on. But sometimes, there is just enough for me to understand what the author was trying to do, but not enough for me to reproduce their thought process. That’s when the awe comes.
But let me elaborate, because I feel I’m not managing to communicate what I mean.
Sometimes I’ll be listening to a song and, after two measures, I’ll be able to predict the rest of it. This causes a very particular feeling: boredom. In some, very rare occasions, I’ll even be able to predict the lyrics. I remember listening to James Blunt’s “You’re beautiful” for the first time and, after he said “and I don’t know what to do” I remember thinking: “please, for the love of God, don’t say “cause I’ll never be with you.”” Alas, he didn’t listen to my inner voice, thus causing another, very familiar feeling: embarrassment.
The same happens with books. Nothing kills a book more than being able to see its sewers. Reading a passage and thinking: “here the author was trying to be deep” or “now he wants me to feel sad.” When you manage to picture the author writing these lines, to simulate his thought process when writing, the book is doomed.
Art lives at the outer border of understanding. Sometimes we can get a glimpse of the author’s thought process, but the glimpse dies quickly and we’re just left with awe. Take Bach, for example. You can listen to Bach and try to follow each one of the many parallel melodies he manages; you probably won’t succeed. You can follow one for a while, then another. Sometimes you’ll be aware of two and maybe, at a moment of clarity, you’ll be able to gaze upon the whole in its full glory for a split second, enough to marvel at the genius of this man who not only was able to follow the voices but to write them, and then you’ll be back into darkness, having experienced awe. The same happens when you listen to Clare Fischer’s solo piano excursions or to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”
In literature, the feeling of awe comes (to me) from perfectly-rounded novels like Kundera’s “Immortality” or Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Works where each page counts but, maybe more importantly, where after reading the last page you are left with a feeling of completeness, of perfection. Nothing is there by accident; everything makes sense. You can perceive that roundness, that wholeness, but you wouldn’t be able to create it. You are unable to reproduce the author’s thought process, you can’t simulate their mind. You are smart enough to understand why what they did is so awe-inspiring; you’re just not smart enough to be able to create something like that yourself. Their work seems to come from a different, more elevated place that you will never be able to reach.
It is also possible to feel awe at other acts of human creation that would not generally be considered art. I felt awe when I first learned about general relativity and Riemannian geometry. I felt it when I saw the Euler formula for complex numbers and when I first learned about quantum mechanics and Hilbert spaces. I felt it when I discovered Gödel’s theorem and I learned about its implications for my beliefs on mathematical truth.
Would I define art this way? I am not sure. Maybe art is anything that strives to cause this feeling, the varying levels of success being the difference between great, good and bad art. Maybe not. And of course, whether the art is considered good or bad will also depend on the observer: that which is too obvious to me may be not so obvious to you and vice-versa. The divide between the musical tastes of musicians and non-musicians seems extremely pronounced and is easily explained by the different capacities to simulate the creation of that particular piece.
Anyway, these are my fifty cents on art. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.