On seeing the pattern

Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at Flinders University and Founder of the Experimental Art Foundation, Donald Brook takes on the March 2012 issue of Artlink titled 'Pattern and Complexity' and guest edited by well-known curator Margot Osborne.

A recent issue of Artlink (Vol. 32 No. 1, 2012) called Pattern and Complexity developed the theme of Guest Editor Margot Osborne's essay Pattern and complexity in art and nature. It was associated with an exhibition under her curatorship, held in the Adelaide RIAus Future Space Gallery called Art Pattern and Complexity. The exhibition catalogue essay had the title Pattern and complexity in art and science, and a popular issue of Artlink (Vol. 28 No.2, 2008) guest edited by Osborne was called Art Mind Beauty.

Before commenting on the way seven resonant abstract nouns are permuted in these titles I must forestall a possible misunderstanding. The suggestion that artists would do well to take an interest in scientific, mathematical and rational speculation is welcome. Everybody should do so. The question is: are artists peculiarly constrained - are they perhaps even compelled by the logic of their vocation – to take such an interest; and if so, why?

On the face of it Osborne’s essays, catalogue notes and selections of works of art chime responsively with what many commentators have been saying for fifty years or more. I was myself an early participant in Frank Malina’s cross-disciplinary journal Leonardo, and introduced a course called 'Art, Science and Technology’ into the University of Sydney’s Fine Arts degree back in the nineteen-sixties. My scepticism about the web of theory currently being spun by Osborne and others1 is not driven by any hostility to science or technology. Articles such as ‘Make with the mind’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1969)2 in which I anticipated that digital computing and neuroscience would make it possible to manipulate the external physical world by mental acts clearly show this.

It seemed then as it seems now that cultural evolution is far more profoundly shaped by developments in science and technology than by the relative sideshow of the visual arts. We were therefore tempted to harangue artists with the advice that if they wished to recover the respect they think they once enjoyed as cultural frontrunners they would do well to pull their heads out from where they have been inserted for the last couple of hundred years and get to where it’s really at.

This rhetoric might have seemed cynical – or pragmatic at best – had it not been for the backup story which argues that most people grossly underestimate the significance of art because they do not understand its role as the fundamental driver of cultural evolution. But what it means for art to be the fundamental driver of cultural evolution and what, if anything, artists need to do about it were, and still remain, unsettled questions for a reason that is both simple and obdurate. The timeless word ‘art’ (as in the art of healing) has been conflated with a modern word that is used to name the class of works of art. In this usage, to take an interest in art is to take an interest in works of art such as paintings, sculptures and architect-designed buildings (or, in adjacent cultural domains, poems, plays, ballets, novels and so forth).

Despite the fact that the label ‘art’ is often applied honorifically to the class of works of art, we all understand that many works of art are of little or no consequence. Scepticism about the claim that these things are the fundamental drivers of cultural evolution seems justified. The artworld’s unprincipled recognition of some trivial and occasionally bizarre objects as works of art is easily ridiculed as an elitist appropriation of power and status on the basis of unprovable and often bogus claims to expertise.

Of the two identically spelled words that are conflated when the artworld protests that art is underestimated, the important one is not the one that names the class of works of art. It is the one that was in use long before an artworld emerged and began to assert its uncanny ability to recognize works of art. It is the word that we have always needed to mark the difference between the unexpected sense of illumination that sometimes overwhelms us when we contemplate things of all sorts (including works of art) and our very different admiration for uncommonly skilful performances. The difference between art and craft is of fundamental importance, and it does not coincide at all with the difference between works of art and other things.

The epiphanies or illuminations that we collect under the rubric of art are the ones that extend our ability to think, to feel (and perhaps thereafter to acquire new skills) in ways that we had previously not known to be possible. We cannot summon them up at will. They come upon us unexpectedly; often incidentally to the act of doing something familiar or of seeing something familiar done by someone else, and quite independently of how well it has been done. We know how to make a mousetrap, how to make a picnic lunch and how to make picture of a haystack, and we have plenty of sensible ideas about what will count as a good one without drawing upon any concept of art. We also know how to make a work of art without calling upon any concept of art; and if we think as amateurs that the works of art we make on Sunday aren’t good enough we can probably get better at it by going to college.

Making art is not a skill. Because it cannot be purposefully made nobody can be taught how to make it. E. H. Gombrich stood on the very edge of this insight but with his back resolutely turned to it when he wrote (in 1950, in his influential book called The story of art) that "... there is no such thing as art. There are only artists." He was a participant in an artworld that stubbornly conflates the two radically different words, both of which are spelled a-r-t. For him the ‘story of art’ was, as it remains to this day, a story (or a bundle of stories) about works of art. The genuine insight that most people do not take art seriously enough is trashed by mistranslation into the pitiful whimper that people do not take works of art seriously enough. The fact is that – just as it is with most of the works produced in every cultural domain – most works of art are entirely artless. They are nevertheless often rightly appreciated for their many other virtues.

The identification of art with works of art is the founding heresy of the artworld. It has been sustained by a bogus philosophical discipline called Aesthetics, in which mysterious attempts are made to elucidate the concept of art in terms of beauty, or aesthetic quality. Aesthetic quality is then attributed to works of art in such a way that an interest in art becomes, essentially, an interest in the aesthetic quality of works of art.

A step too far
Even after this pattern of conflation became clear to me I was still tempted by the thought that art must be somehow more potently or more distinctively available in works of art than it is in cultural artefacts of other sorts.3 The realisation that art is an epistemic concept (concerned with the acquisition of knowledge), and that it is not an aesthetic concept (concerned with delivering a recondite form of pleasure or satisfaction) does not immediately overturn the juggernaut of common speech in which art is assumed to be what artists make, and not to be what molecular biologists, mathematicians and engineers make.

The reasoning here is straightforward. The ‘knowing that…’ of the formal intellectual disciplines and the ‘knowing how…’ of the casual bricoleur4 are not perfectly distinct. Works of art do indeed have the social role of extending our minds by offering us new and unexpected ways of expressing joy or grief. They make available to us regular ways of celebrating nature, of worshipping gods and shaming tyrants, ways of ridiculing politicians and of cooking fish, that we had not previously known to be possible. The insight that art illuminates our understanding of the world whether or not it gives us any pleasure was a step forward. It was, however, a step too far to draw from this the conclusion that artists are required (as if it were part of their job description) to engage overtly with scientific and mathematical speculation about pattern-generation, complexity theory, the intricacies of neuroscience and the underlying regularities of the universe.

Going nowhere
Some recent attempts to bring science and technology to the rescue of the artworld’s faltering credibility do not go (as I was tempted to do) too far. Because they fail to distinguish between art and works of art, and because they do not square up to the consequences of this distinction, they go nowhere. The scientific vocabulary is deployed instead toward a reaffirmation of the same mistake. The fundamental point that it is art – not the work of art – that shapes cultural evolution is soft-focused, self-contradicted or invisibly buried in texts of the sort that Osborne approvingly cites, such as Martin Kemp’s Seen/unseen: Art, Science and intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope (2006) and David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution (2011).5 On the supposition that they may be equally beautiful no clear answer is given to the question why a Jackson Pollock is standardly recognized as a work of art while a Hubble stellar photograph is not. If art (understood in terms of beauty or aesthetic quality) is the essential business of artists, why should they not enrol as eagerly in Astronomy as they currently do in Fine Arts? Surely it cannot be that, when choosing the path to glory, making works of art is the easy way for dummies?

Osborne tells us that "Beauty may be conceived as an integration of emotive, visceral and cerebral dimensions in an uplifting experience."6 She does not say that we are overtaken by these uplifting experiences only in the presence of works of art, and it is implicit in much of her exposition that this cannot be the case. Evidently the beauty that is attributed to commendably patterned instantiations of the Fibonacci series or the Mandelbrot set in a butterfly’s wing or a baby’s smile cannot be the sufficient condition for recognition as a work of art because in that case most things (arguably all things) must qualify as works of art. Alternatively, to suggest that beauty is a necessary condition for recognition as a work of art is to say very little if most things are commendably patterned, and to say nothing whatsoever if all things are commendably patterned7.

A revised version of beauty theory is nowadays offered by scientifically minded aestheticians. It suggests that beauty is not, after all, an emotional response to the lucid patterning of the object that is contemplated, where this virtue is conceived as an intrinsic or formal property. It is conceived as a functional property of this object. More specifically: it is suggested that the object provokes an ‘aesthetic’ response to the extent that it is intuited to be a potential driver and shaper of biological evolution. There is a skeleton of truth buried somewhere in this aesthetic grave, but its prospects of a new lease of life are dim. Unfortunately, the concept of art and the concept of the work of art are still conflated, and yet another layer of confusion is added by conflating biological evolution with cultural evolution.

There is too much here to argue in detail,8 but an outline of the case is easily sketched. Biological evolution and cultural evolution must be carefully distinguished. Although the broadly Darwinian explanatory pattern of the two theories is the same, there is a crucial difference between them. In biological evolution the effect of variant genes flows in a deterministic way from the unpredictable environmental circumstances into which newly propagated and slightly different individuals find themselves projected. By contrast: in the case of cultural kinds the historically shaping effect of variant memes depends upon collectively supported exercises of choice. For example, the cultural practice of royal succession by male primogeniture might have been differently constructed, and it is still reversible by diligent persuasion. If the force of reason were illusory, then feminists would most certainly be whistling in the wind. A radical deterministic rhetoric to the effect that all freedom of choice is illusory must deal with the fact that when we choose between different and simultaneously available memes there is no algorithm that will predict the outcome. Choices are made by individuals and endorsed by communities, and arguments can be influential in the construction of such endorsements. We may be open to persuasion that options offering us no personally uplifting experience may nevertheless be the way to go.

This is not to say that the consequences of cultural evolution do not feed back into biological evolution. Of course they do. Our present preference for the quick fix of fossil fuels rather than the slower benefits of renewable energy will lead to the extinction of many species; perhaps including our own. But the fact that cultural evolution may have significant consequences for biological evolution does nothing to save a garbled thesis in which art is first identified with beauty, then hijacked by the artworld and counted as if it were not the driver of cultural evolution but, instead, a deterministic driver of biological evolution.

In summary
The refurbishment of a threadbare aesthetic theory with a scientific vocabulary is not helpful. The seven abstract nouns pattern, complexity, art, beauty, mind, nature and science all have their own distinctive flavours. They deserve to be savoured individually or in highly selective combinations: not thrown together in a conceptual stew.

Dr Donald Brook is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at Flinders University. He is the Founder, in 1975, of the Experimental Art Foundation.

1 One might mention, in the recent Australian context, several of the contributions to Ian North’s anthology Visual animals: crossovers, evolution and the new aesthetics (CACSA, South Australia, 2008).

2 See Asher Moses at http://www.theage.com.au/news/technology/hey-thats-my-electroencephalograph/2008/05/09/1210131212598.html?page=fullpage

3 Even in my recent book The awful truth about what art is (Artlink, Adelaide, 2008) I see retrospectively that my own alertness to uses of the word ‘art’ interchangeably with the phrase ‘works of art’ is less than exemplary.

4 According to Wikipedia, ‘A term introduced by Lévi-Strauss (1962), describing a type of thinking and symbolisation; the opposite of “engineer”’.

5 In an editorial essay in Artlink (Vol. 32, No.1,2012): 18.

6 In an editorial essay in Artlink (Vol. 28 No. 2, 2008): 12.

7 The question whether it is possible for any pattern to be discommendable is not addressed.

8 Extended argument about cultural evolution can be found in The awful truth about what art is (cited above) as well as in numerous papers by me such as ‘Art history?’ History and Theory 43 (February 2004), 1-17 and ‘Experimental art,’ Studies in material thinking 08 (April/May 2008).