Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Art, the Artist, and the Reduction of Both

In Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, a university student called Victor attempts a daring act of creation.  His goal is nothing less than the exact duplication of the form and content of a human being; and what's more, to do it from inert matter.  Frankenstein is science fiction, and Victor's goal has traditionally been depicted as scientific in nature, either admirably or not.  But the same goals have been attempted, piecemeal, in a different context by artists of every generation.  It is the root of all depictions of the human body in sculpture and pigment.  It is also the root of poetry and philosophy, as well as all other attempts to define in words or symbols the nature of the human soul.

He expressed it in terms of chemistry, but Victor Frankenstein's ambition was artistic.  In fact, it was the perfect representation of the creative principle in art.  For millennia, artists had to settle for the consolation of evoking humanity's qualities.  The primary drive of the mad student was to do what had never been done before: to fully recreate man, rather than to merely evoke him.

Unfortunately for Victor, although his experiment was a material success, it was a conceptual failure.  In building a human being, Victor created an independent mind as flawed as its creator's.  He looked upon his magnum opus and found him ugly; when he encountered the creature again, he had grown violent and uncontrollable.  In aiming for a perfect creation, Victor Frankenstein deconstructed humanity and reconstructed a monster.

It is probably possible, in physical principle, to give life to a creature such as Frankenstein's.  With proper regard to medical ethics, the worst consequences of that creation could be avoided.  Shelley's novel isn't exactly a prescient warning for us not to try (or if it is, it's not an absolutely convincing one).  It speaks more generally as a commentary on the nature of creation, as a reminder that a creative act is inherently limited; that the dream come true bears little resemblance to the dream itself.

But what is especially fascinating to me about Frankenstein extends beyond the mere words that Shelley wrote.  In the collective imagination, the name “Frankenstein” conjures the hulking creature, not the ambitious young chemistry student to whom the name rightfully belongs (his identity has shifted over the years, so that he is more often remembered as an elderly baron).  Likewise, it is impossible to discuss Mary Shelley without alluding to Frankenstein; it was the author of the book that gained cultural immortality, not the woman herself.  I believe that something of the nature of all art is reflected in Shelley's case: that just as producing a work of art requires a conceptual reduction from an ideal or inspiration, the act of production reduces the artist into an abstraction.

The Purpose of Art
It would be very controversial to try and identify, once and for all, the purpose of art: the one, true reason why people are inspired to create impractical objects of aesthetic or intellectual significance.  For that matter, the results of that sort of project are invariably blasé.  If you think too generally, then the “purpose” is meaningless.  If you think too specifically, you fail to account for the majority of what other people consider art, and your explanations are once again meaningless.  And if you get lucky and hit it right, then your thesis can take its place with all the other plausible theses, and become collectively meaningless.  So before I do identify, once and for all, the purpose of art, I'd like to apologize for trying.  Call it an irresistible impulse.

When I thought recently on the meaning of art, I began with what was personal.  I knew what I liked about art, and that was the way that it unifies something in my brain.  We speak about intellect and emotion as being separate and opposing forces, but in the presence of great art, I know instinctively that it isn't true.  The pure delight that comes with the recognition of craft and intention, and that strange state of mind where answers and questions circle each other without knowing who goes first; you can't describe these in terms of intellect or emotion alone.  It's like a psychic conflict resolution, or a hint at how things are really supposed to be.

Chasing that sensation can be a thrill, and it's genuinely distressing when your mind is less than receptive to it, whatever your desire might be.  But the moment is infinitely sweeter when it takes you by surprise.  I once rode the light rail from the Portland airport, not looking for much more than idle distraction from my music player.  I heard a few songs in a few minutes, but didn't experience much of anything.  But when Frank Sinatra's rendition of “Blues in the Night” came on, my state of mind synchronized with the song almost immediately.  The song took hold of me and ; I couldn't think of anything else for the whole bus ride home.  I'd never heard it before, but for a moment it was the only song in the world, and that moment ignited the kind of passionate obsession that characterizes an experience with great art.

Things like that, works of art that consume the mind and place it in that rare space between intellect and emotion, are both common and scarce, easy to find yet precious when found.  And for all the satisfaction we take from them, we take as much from producing them ourselves: art is a reciprocal drug, just like religion, or sex.  When I decided to make art as seriously as I enjoyed it, it was to satisfy my urge to be a part of that reciprocal process.  When you reach a certain awareness of art, I suspect that that urge becomes nearly irresistible.

I don't know how other people experience art.  I've heard descriptions that echo mine, using words like “sublime” and “transcendent” to a quasi-divine effect.  There are also people who choose more mundane, scientific language to describe the cognitive effects of great art; others have no articulated feelings on the matter, or don't think they even like art.  And of course, there is disagreement among many about which body of works actually is great art, or whether that body is actually discrete and canonical.  But I do know the sort of thing that I am talking about: whether the reader shares my conclusions will probably depend on the reader's sympathy for my perspective, in addition to their understanding of my argument.

Art as a Reduction
The problem with art, of course, is that it is defined by artifacts and performances, which are inherently finite.  No matter how transcendent and boundless the experience may seem for the audience, the artist is always aware of its limited nature.  The artist was there to watch it transform from a state of pure inspiration into an imperfect, material reality.  With resources and skill, art can hew  closely to vision, but a perfect match between a startling idea and a physical manifestation is simply impossible.  A composition requires choices, and choices mean compromises.

Artistic criticism, in at least one of its many forms, is about taking an artist to account for the choices he or she makes in realizing an inspiration.  It's a worthy and necessary task, but one that often breeds megalomania and loss of perspective in its practitioners.  Artists may often be forgiven for dismissing their wildest critics, but I suspect that most of the best have thoroughly internalized the sort of criticisms commonly fielded: “Is this coherent?  Is its potential fulfilled?  Was this worth doing in the first place? Will anyone see this with the same eyes as I see it?”  An artist has to ask these questions, otherwise there is no point in art: it becomes like commerce, except that it is entirely pointless.

When skill and inspiration are mutually limiting, an artist has to accept every work as at least a minor failure.  There just isn't anybody out there, past or present, so perfectly blessed with the ability to generate perfect ideas and artistically execute them with perfect competency.  There's really no such thing as “perfect,” anyway; it's either unattainable by clumsy human hands, or a philosophical impossibility.  Everything's got something wrong with it, whether it's a lapse in judgment or a slip of the brush; something that defies the artist's best efforts.

It strikes me that if there's ever to be a universal purpose for art, it had better reflect a universal characteristic, a rare and controversial item if ever there was one.  But if there is something universal across all forms of art, something that applies as well to Dada and scribbles as it does to neoclassicism, it's got to be this: everything is less than it could have been.  If art is inevitably a process of reduction from an ideal conception, then what is the point of art, except reduction?  It is, at the very least, the only thing an artist can be sure of when he or she tries anything.

The Artist as a Reduction
There is a lot to be said for reduction: complexity reduces to simplicity, and the many reduce to the one.  The concept of minimalism, which is often ascendant in artworks of the modern era, is a testament to the power of less.  But to suppose that artists make things for the purpose of reducing a concept exposes a potential contradiction.  The repeated attempts of ambitious artists to closely approximate an inspirational concept, stretch the limits of their talents and demonstrate virtuosity, does not look like an attempt to reduce anything.  It is a reduction nevertheless, as I insisted earlier, but it is seemingly in spite of their efforts, and often contrary to their stated objectives.  If reduction is the purpose, then what is there to make of strenuous efforts of craft?

The answer lies in the conception of art as communication and self-expression.  Descartes wrote “cogito, ergo sum,” demonstrating through logic that a human being's own existence is the only thing that he or she can be sure of without relying on additional assumptions.  A more extreme view of this has been expressed by some solipsists, who hold that their own minds are the only minds that actually do exist, with all other apparent minds being either zombies and automatons, or elaborate hallucinations.  An audience of solipsists would be very unsatisfying for a proud artist: if the artist should show them his latest masterpiece, each one would assume that the experience of that artwork originated in their own minds, and was thus their own creation.

Regardless of solipsism's philosophical merits (it has few), it is a nightmare scenario for an artist, because artists are compulsive communicators.  More importantly, they are self-expressive: their art ultimately comes from inside of themselves.  When people invest time and effort, which could and theoretically should be used for self-interest, into creating art, their work becomes a proxy for their selves.  Therefore, any effort to communicate that work to others is an effort to communicate the self: the self is the thing that is truly being reduced by the artist, into a form which can more easily be transmitted into other minds through light or language.

I believe that art is a human defense against radical solipsism: a desperate attempt at communicating to skeptical others that the artist exists (which implies, of course, a fundamental belief in “others” on the part of the artist).  It is a stunning leap of faith, as well as a sobering reminder of human limitation.  Self-expression through action is strongly motivated by the assumption that anything less is inadequate; in order for other people to really get it, a person has got to give them some kind of symbol of their existence.  A work of art is one such symbol.

There are no true solipsists: the brain has an irresistibly strong bias toward believing its senses and attributing actions to the wills of other minds, even when it can be demonstrated that this is actually false.  This “theory of mind,” as scientists refer to it, ensures that we see others around us at all times.  And yet somehow, humans live in constant fear of being unseen, unacknowledged, or unremembered.  This is because humans are selective in their perceptions and prefer simpler explanations for their lives.  Human minds, defined in multiple dimensions by history, personality, and potential, are simply too difficult to digest, and so our awareness of them is limited: how many of the more than six billion minds on this planet can we claim to understand half as well as our own?  How can we expect to be understood under such impossible circumstances?

Artists, instinctively, see a solution for this.  If they could reduce themselves from multidimensional entities into simple ones, then they could effectively communicate any aspect of themselves to any receptive member of their communities.  Their beliefs, attitudes, and emotions would become relevant and compelling outside of their own heads, and with a little luck, remain widely-known long after they have passed.  This is why artists feel gratified and even ecstatic when their work is well received, and also why they love art from others: they recognize that same impulse in their own hearts, to hear and to be heard.

Self-Portrait at the End of the World
Assembling this framework in my own head was helpful in making sense of my own work.  Themes like loneliness, dissatisfaction, and the dreadful gap between minds have a way of popping up in my imagination, and I am certainly not alone in this.  I've often said that all great artworks are at least a little bit sorrowful; even a happy song can imply the sadness that would be heard in its absence.  But aimless sadness is no more artistic than mindless giddiness, and understanding why is critical for any would-be artist's own success.  The sorrow, I feel, is twofold: sorrow at our isolation, which prompts an act of artistic reduction, and sorrow at the sacrifices we must make to achieve that reduction.

Deciding how to express this idea was challenging, but what I realized was that I had to somehow become smaller than myself in some way.  If the goal was to reduce myself to an abstraction, then I wanted to produce something that challenged my role as “author.”  I aimed at abstraction in a new work that was made from pieces of myself: in practical terms, something recycled from my previous work.  I wanted to build something meaningful out of something apparently meaningless.  Most of all, I wanted to try something I'd never tried before.

While flipping through the files on my computer I remembered a very short piece I wrote when I was twenty, about a year and a half before I began writing creatively in earnest.  It was called The End of the World, and had a sort of bleak, almost magical-realist element, concerning stranded motorists disappearing into some unfathomable oblivion off the 52, near Santee, California.  I opened the file and settled on a working method of deconstructing the story: I removed words at fixed intervals in three sets.  I then took those words, placed them into three chunks, and put them on a master sheet for the sake of reference and contemplation.

One early thought was to produce a poem or story that was grammatically and structurally correct, yet semantically empty.  I counted up all the words in each set, and then proceeded to categorize them according to their parts of speech, grouping nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and so on.  I started working with crude diagrams and building new sentences out of the words, making sure to avoid investing them with too much meaning.  But problems soon presented themselves.  I had too many words to work with, particularly small, auxiliary words, and it was too difficult to fit them all into sentences that didn't seem hopelessly contrived (it might even have been impossible).  Furthermore, I found it hard to keep myself from arranging words into conventional meaning: it was essentially turning into a game of Mad Libs with all the parts of the sentences revealed, which basically defeats the whole purpose of Mad Libs.

So I scrapped the idea, because I was out of my depth.  Soon, a new idea suggested itself.  If arranging them by part of speech was too tough, then I could forgo sentences altogether and turn my efforts strictly toward meter.  I marked each word according to the patterns of stressed syllables and divided them into sections according to their metrical quality.  By working with meters rather than words, I could write a more thoroughly abstract poem.

Purely for the sake of being weird, I decided to use an offbeat metrical pattern, alternating lines between iambic and trochaic pentameters.  Combined with the anti-sensible nature of the words themselves, the intent was to produce a poem that would be physically difficult to read out loud, particularly when one strong beat led directly into another.  Initially, my plan was to chop the lines up, resulting in more and shorter lines: the result I found was absolute metrical chaos.  Thinking better of it, I decided instead to keep the lines at five beats long; otherwise, the poem was artificially long and painful to look at.

I titled the finished poem Self-Portrait At the End of the World, in reference to the nature of its composition and to the source of its lexicon.  I ended up being more proud of it than I had expected: I realized that I had actually written six poems in one, by separating the three chunks and interweaving the trochaic lines with the iambic ones.  Reading lines out of order, more conventional poems sprung out, essentially an accident of their creation.  Furthermore, the arrangement of words actually made a certain kind of sense, in spite of their quasi-random distribution, and in some cases echoed the themes of the original story: reading only alternating lines produced new combinations and new possibilities.

The Self-Portrait, by its nature, had basically written itself.  At the same time, its composition was mine, and I considered the project a qualified success.  I had my very own ungainly Frankenstein's monster to show to the world.

The critics' questions, of course, followed hot on the heels of the Self-Portrait's completion.  “Is this coherent?  Is its potential fulfilled?  Was this worth doing in the first place?  Will anyone see this with the same eyes as I see it?”  Of course, it isn't coherent.  I don't know if it could have been more so, or if it was supposed to be.  I do think it was worth doing, because doing it was gratifying in many ways.  But I don't believe anyone will ever see it in quite the same way that I do.  It's the nagging doubt that drives me as an artist and a writer, that makes me want to be heard and acknowledged.  It is that constant impulse to transform myself and become part of my own work, and disappear inside of something worthwhile.  It's that motivation to keep trying what is fundamentally impossible, and hope to receive in turn the benefits of the inevitable.

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