Thursday, March 6, 2008

the wave-particle-like duality of art

I’ve always thought of art as a fundamentally subjective experience. The objective physical creation of the artist is only given relevance, value, and even meaning in the various personal minds of the audience. The heart wants what it wants applies not merely to matters of the heart but nearly all matters of non-functional preference. As much as art can be intellectualized and rationalized, explained and deconstructed, it is the immediate and visceral reaction of the experiencer that incubates any subsequent thoughts or reflections on the piece. That’s all fine and good and not much new there, but it’s not the complete picture. Pieces of art can, and to a certain extent must, be considered not merely in the idiosyncratic vacuum of each person's brain, but in the broader context of other influenced and influencing, or related, works. What’s great about art is the unique and unrelatable experience it provides, but what gives this experience shape and meaning is the analysis, even if purely on subjective grounds, of that piece of art vis-à-vis other similar works. An illustration: yes, Van Gogh’s works are awesome by themselves and that’s all that really matters, but don’t we have to at least agree that the fact they are so much, and inarguably, better than Gauguin’s counts for something?

Is it inconsistent to assert that the internalization of art is a subjective experience, while nevertheless admitting that there must be a set of objective criteria with which to evaluate it? Another illustration: the following pictures were both taken at Angkor Wat, the first by myself and the second by someone else.

I think it would be difficult to argue that my picture is not objectively worse than the second. Though the pictures are from opposite ends of the same structure, the intentions of each basically line up: awesome ruins, reflection in moat splits the frame, solemnly blue sky interrupted by a divine-like break of the clouds centered above the structure, etc. Going against my version is a lesser quality resolution and damper colors (my wimpy zoom and amateur digital camera is no match for whatever pro-digital-slr-whatever the other photog got to use). Also, the other shot is perfectly and evenly framed, whereas I would have loved to cut off mine on the right just after the tall structures in the background and before the appearance of the branches on the left. And of course my beautiful photo is sullied by the presence of ugly, ugly tourists walking the bridge and climbing the steps. The off-angle view in my work is actually, I think, more interesting and provides a depth you don’t get in the professional, straight on approach. But nevertheless, I think it’s too little, too late, mine is probably inferior. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes, but doesn’t intellectual honesty require that we declare a winner when there is one?

Another more salient example comes from the recent Academy Awards. Now, yes everyone knows, award shows are stupid, and the Oscars are particularly dumb, but awarding Best Picture to the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men over P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is especially egregious and cannot be justified on any objective grounds for evaluating art. The latter is clearly the more ambitious project, both thematically, as an allegory for this country’s dual strains of unbridled capitalism and fanatical religiousness, and how adherence to either will lead you to ruin, as well as cinematically, as Anderson uses a variety of long, drawn out shots, steady cams, moving cams, an insane score by Johnny Greenwood, and coaxes performances from Daniel Lewis and Paul Dano that each range from frightening brutality to pathetic vulnerability and everywhere in between. No Country is a great little picture, but it does not profess or try to be anything nearly as magnificent. It’s a nice little thriller, chase/stalker flick with a likeable protagonist you root for and a psychopathic weirdo you are terrified of, with meandering and barely sufferable interludes featuring a retiring old-timer cop who pontificates on what it all means. Good stuff. But there is no wild range of emotion, no novel shots of people scurrying towards and then away from an exploding oil derrick, no interesting score, no descent into the abyss, and no social commentary. There is much too much happening in Blood to digest and appreciate on one viewing, one needs to watch it again to get the subtleties, the interplay with the music, the information contained in the numerous dialogue-less shots. I can’t imagine anyone needing to see No County again; once you know what happens, what else is there? It was almost surely its social commentary that sealed Blood's fate. It brings to mind Julie Christie’s remark on the Oscar winning German film, The Lives of Others: “I’m not sure I can bear to see a film they gave the Oscar to, that tells you what awful people Communists are.” Amen, sister.

So how can art be at the same time a subjective experience that cannot be evaluated on anything more than a personal basis, yet also a creation that exists in the context of many other creations who all succeed and fail to varying degrees on the basis of objective criteria? In much the same way that light acts simultaneously as a wave and a particle, no one knows.

What we’ve learned:

1) Producing art is fun. Talking about art, less so.

2) I need a better digital camera.

3) There Will Be Blood is very good.

4) Julie Christie is awesome.


Mr. Hari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Hari said...

its funny, julie christie used to be on top of the game, was in Shampoo and McCabe and Ms. Miller, both great movies from the 70s, dated Warren Beatty, then she just disappeared. next thing you know shes nominated for an oscar. eh, i guess its not that funny

Kid Nix said...

shampoo horns an ever greater film. rajeev i rec. u watch it with sr. guzman. yeah art, apropos to music, is totally subject to the listener man. however there is a (i think) widely recognized scale of "good" and "bad" music. i think there are two different schools of thought on that as being evaluating music as a musician urself and the other being those who evaluate music and havent the slightest what a guitar is or does. the latter tend (in my exp.) to be the people who make mainstream musicians millionaires. when i think most people i know (who are musicians) think all the shit on the radio is just that...shit. so yeah man...ur right talking about art sucks. lets just play our digital cameras as loud as we can.
soon enough...soon enough...

rananda said...

fred - dont get me started on the whole i'm a participant so i am on higher ground in discussing the subject. shit made me nuts both in regard to music and in hockey for a long time. and now that i have thankfully become a participant in each (though to very low levels of success, more appropriately, high levels of failure), i guess i can say it does give you a less obstructed view into what's going on. i still call bullshit on that, though. we're all just experiencing roughly the same thing, whether we have a prior frame of reference or not. i love watching mike green skate a hockey puck up the nice, whether i know from experience how hard it is to do the same or not. same goes for listening to elliot smith, or even or own li'l hari, play guitar and sing.

Kid Nix said...

its not so much higher ground...sports i dont think you can really compare...but with music or art i think you can. a person whos got experience first hand (and is successful or not) might have a better idea than most at what is "good" or "bad". not saying that it means anything at all to anyone else but him/herself. i do though, have more respect for lebron james and kobe and their ability to take over a basketball game and make it look easy...having been in similar situations...on the street and in organized ball. someone without that frame of reference might still be amazed by a performance by one of the two...but i think i feel like i can RESPECT it more. does that make SOME sense? and i again, that only means somethiing to me. when u go around telling people u respect kobe more than he/she does b/c uve played basketball...thats wrong. thats not what im saying. is this making sense? good.