Wednesday 12 February 2014

What do Creative Artists Do?

Is it possible to articulate a scientifically-grounded description of the activity of a creative artist? Their way of thinking seems so fundamentally different from that of scientists; the type of people who work in the sciences and in the arts seem so fundamentally different in disposition. Where the principal aim of the scientist appears to be to attenuate the reality of the world to that domain for which they can create an abstraction (and which might be expressible by an equation, or some software), the aim of the artist is to embrace the entire complexity of the world; to be immersed in reality, and to use its constraints to delineate the form of what it is they wish to express. Artists will seek out complexity and revel in its beauty; scientists will seek to reduce it. They are different, but related processes.

But what does my statement "delineate a form" mean? I can only speak from the perspective of a musician, but in music (on the rare occasions where I manage to finish a composition) I have a feeling when the ideas that I have laboured with for so long fall together in a way where it 'feels right'. What is this feeling? What is a 'form'? Scientists tend to work with ideas rather than forms: they seek an idea. I suggested a while ago what I thought this 'idea' is, referring to Katherine Hayles description of reflexivity: it's something like "the identification of a generating system responsible for observed complexity." Scientists start from complexity and work backwards. Artists start from complexity and seek more complexity to feed a process of discovery of form. How is a form different from an idea?

Reality constrains us. Form is revealed through the exploration of boundaries produced by the constraints. The processes of the creative artist might be considered to be 'negative' in the sense that it works against the analytically perceived world to grasp the unperceived (or even the unperceivable) world. In order to explore the boundaries, the complexities of reality must be amplified. I tend to think of the human heart as the best generator of complexity: art entails a deep opening of the heart: a process of letting everything in; assenting to everything. It is very close in spirit to Bataille's description of eroticism. Sometimes artists use devices for generating complexity: a simple set of transformations of an idea. This is not science; it is not 'music by numbers' - it is simply a way of stimulating the psyche with richness.

But if we are to let everything in, how does the artistic process work in managing everything, and how does it differ from the scientific process? The artistic process is a bit like a many layered multiple scientific process: there are rich patterns of analysis, of breaking down, of reduction. And each of these processes leads to some point at which there is a contradiction in the logic. This point is the point of boundary, and a point on the line of the form of a thing. As the analysis is approached from multiple angles, so the boundary of a thing starts to emerge from the different points that are articulated in individual analyses. The form presents the contours of the deep constraints of being. It's rather like the process of 'mapping' a fractal image through the exploration of the numerical properties of each point that demarcates the form of the fractal.

Demarcating is what happens when an artist makes notes, or plans an artwork. From generated complexity, their processes of analysis seek different solutions to problems that are thrown up. Each attempt at a solution articulates a boundary point, and gradually those boundary points start to specify the form.

But it's all pointless unless it communicates. How does it communicate?

This I think is the key feature of the artistic enterprise. Scientific ideas can be communicated through semantic representation. Artistic form emerges through the identification of constraints which are inherently social from the very beginning. It is because they are an articulation of a shared biology, a shared humanity and experience that the communication is built-in to the act of creation. The performer who reads and performs the score must themselves trace the contours of form for which the artist has left their markers. Revealed in sound or colour or movement, the transformational effect on a listener or a viewer is the same process of articulation of shared constraints.

I think this 'communication' sits behind what we consider to be 'semantic' communication of ideas. Our appreciation of concepts rests on the appreciation of the constraints operating on the minds of scientists, just as our appreciation of art is a recognition of the shared constraints that art articulates. Art asks the hardest questions about communication and society. But perhaps a deeper conceptual articulation of that process is not entirely beyond us.

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