About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Theory of parameters

Can we discuss art? “De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum” is a Latin saying that has survived the ages – it all boils down to whether you, personally, like something or not. Taken to its logical extreme, these sayings would render the entire business of art critique, music and film reviewing and literary criticism irrelevant. On the other hand, people who argue that any form of art can be discussed on its merits in a meaningful way have, whether they like it or not, an underlying idea about what good art is and that that idea is universal.

So, on the one hand, nihilism, on the other hand, Platonism. There is no middle ground, once you think about it – you can’t claim that art is personal and then discuss it, and neither can you claim that your or anyone else’s opinion is worth more without an inherent belief in a fixed sense of aesthetic values.

Move away from dualism

Maurice Merleau-Ponty claimed that man, especially in the West, was malformed and twisted by dualism. Even before him, thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Hegel attempted to reconcile dualistic notions into something larger – Aquinas tried to reconcile pragmatic Arestotelianism with Platonism, while Hegel formulated his theory of dialectic materialism, which would become the basis of the work of Karl Marx. However, even their theories still suffered from the grandiose ambition to house even the wildest contradictions under one theoretical roof. It took us until the 20th century, with Wittgenstein, Russell and others, to realise that no one logical system will ever be adequate to explain one phenomenon in its entirety.

Why this derail into the philosophies of dusty, dead white men? Isn’t this thing supposed to be about music?

It is. Through discussions with friends, I developed a theory which I like to call “the theory of the parameters”. It simultaneously explains why and how discussing art is meaningful, and why there are limits to it.

We all have parameters

Even the most uneducated person in the world has a notion of art, even if they don’t define it as such. For example, their criterion for appreciating a painting could be: “Does it feel like an adequate reproduction of reality?” or “Is it beautiful?”. Then most likely, the old Flemish masters and the hyper-realists would be very pleasing to this person, while they would consider Mondriaan to be nothing even approaching art. While a person with only one criterion for appreciating art is likely very rare, it doesn’t make their opinion worthless.

Consider an art critic. They have different sets of criteria. Examples could be: “Does it tell me something about the society the artist lived in?”, “How original is this work?”, “Does it tie in with existing traditions of art?”, “Does it have a sense of irony?”, “Was there any technical skill involved?” or “Does it have a message about art as such?”. One of this critic’s criteria might even be diametrically opposed to the one criterion of the anonymous in the paragraph above: “How far does it deviate from reality as we know it?”

I call these criteria ‘parameters’. In discussing any form of art, these parameters come into play, and someone with a bigger, more varied set of parameters will automatically have the upper hand in a discussion, because (a) they will usually know more about the matter at hand and (b) can argue their point of view from several different points of view at once. So, no, someone who only likes realistic art doesn’t have a worthless opinion, but it is highly irrelevant. Discussing art is not a win-or-lose game, but someone with just a few parameters will run out of steam quickly, and place severe limits on any type of meaningful discussion.

But how does that explain there is no consensus in the art community?

This is not only because they may have different parameters, but also because they weight them differently. I’ll offer two examples, this time from the world of literature.

Ancient Greek and Roman writers usually shared a great deal of parameters, sometimes summed up in the expression “imitatio et aemulatio” (“imitation and improvement”). Their idea of great literature was literature that not only blatantly copied earlier writers, but tended to add its own touch of genius. So, to be taken seriously as a writer by the ancients was to have a deep understanding of all preceding literature and ground yourself in that tradition, then try to add a few touches of your own. The Romantics, however, introduced “creativity” as a new parameter on the art scene (one that hasn’t left the great reservoir of major parameters ever since). They found tradition to be constrictive. So there we probably have two equally skilled groups of artists with a radically diverging set of parameters, although they likely would have had a whole list of them.

A more subtle example takes us to the modern world of movies. A good friend of mine and I share a great deal of tastes. We also both like David Lynch movies. We might even say we share a great deal of parameters. He thinks “Lost Highway” is superior to “Mulholland Dr.” while I think the exact opposite. I understand his points about “Lost Highway” being more original, more radical in its exploration of the soul’s darkest corners and has some cool things going for it, such as a cameo by Marilyn Manson and music from Rammstein, but I think these points are not that important. For me, the superior acting, more sure-footed direction and multi-dimensional script of “Mulholland Dr.” take precedence. So, we assign different priorities to our parameters. This is but one example how you can agree to disagree, and still don’t find discussing art is pointless.

How are new parameters developed?

People’s minds can obviously be changed. The best example is education. An art teacher, for instance, typically guides students through several art genres and styles, and attempts to explain why the artists of that day made the choices they did. I had an art teacher who repeated an experiment every year: at the start of the school year, he would show a slideshow of about fifteen paintings, and asked us all whether we thought this was art or not. He repeated the same slideshow at the end of the year, possibly to gauge his own effectiveness as a teacher, but also as a form of self-reflection on how our opinions had changed.

It doesn’t have to be typical top-down education process only that affects how our parameters develop, multiply or change priorities. In my early adolescence, I thought of Verhoeven’s film “RoboCop” as a pretty good action movie, but too focused on excessive violence to be taken seriously. One of my brothers made me see that “RoboCop” is about much more than just violence, and nowadays I also appreciate the movie for its subtexts and various other elements that escaped me the first time, because I simply did not have those parameters yet. Interestingly, Verhoeven’s status as a “dirty old man” is still a debate among cinephiles.

As a last note, I am not passing judgement on individual parameters or how they are informed. This framework is just a general idea that attempts to make a case for art, music or literature discussion as not pointless at all.