The Voyager Images III

…and third thoughts, which started out as a reply to Tom’s comment to Wednesday’s post but grew:

Calling something “art”, like calling it “engineering”, “religion”, “warfare” or “terrorism”, is in itself a piece of political analysis, since the value we give activities depends on how they’re labelled. Sending a space probe to Saturn as scientific exploration will get more funding than sending it as an art project or an exercise in landscape photography, even though the Cassini images are breathtakingly beautiful. Would the space probe have been launched if the beauty of the images was the only justification? But the formal justification – scientific research – can, in this case, be seen as another form of aesthetic appreciation. Of what Earthly (literally) use is an understanding of, say, the dynamics of Saturn’s rings? Understanding is another form of aesthetic enjoyment- less sensual, more intellectual, but still aesthetic.

That’s a digression from the idea I’m really interested in exploring here, however clumsily. What happens when the ostensible target of a cultural activity is imaginary or hypothetical? Does it become art, by default? And is that just because in the 20th century “art” was expanded to comprehend just about everything that’s not immediately useful, but which is not team sports?

This is, in a sense, an inverse of the modernist gesture of labelling one’s own activities or objects (urinals, glasses of water, etc) as “art”: labelling someone else’s behaviour as “art”. This could be, but is not necessarily, a way of trivialising or satirising it. My unmade bed, which I label as “art”, acquires aura and status – well, if I’m Tracy Emin, anyway. But if I call your space program “art”, the implication will probably be the reverse.

Another thought: religious artefacts tend to become artworks over time, as the faith that built them changes or disappears; veneration is replaced by aesthetic appreciation. The same thing may happen to science.

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7 responses to “The Voyager Images III

  1. Calling something “art”, like calling it “engineering”, “religion”, “warfare” or “terrorism”, is in itself a piece of political analysis, since the value we give activities depends on how they’re labelled.

    Sure. But being adults, we know that when we say “the terms of reference are “, we’re reducing to a single word a whole set of assumptions about the conversation about to take place.

    (Not least of which in this case is the term-of-reference “comments in some blog or other by a pair of people at least one of whom isn’t even a gifted amateur in terms of the theories about to be explored”.)

    After the first time it’s been done, is it truly useful to take a historical analysis and pounce on it, announcing “Aha! But all historical analyses are actually political“, or similarly “Understanding is another form of aesthetic enjoyment- less sensual, more intellectual, but still aesthetic”?
    philosophy-of-science, etc.

    Isn’t that just a negative tactic of conversation, imposing unreasonable demands of precision given the terms available, forcing qualifications like “the emphasis of discussion will be historical, however …”? It’s always frustrating to read discussions that, in that way, get stuck on the preamble of defining their terms of reference they never manage to utter the propositions composed of those terms which presumably motivated them in the first place.

    Anyway, the true inverse of the “Fountain” found-object-becomes-Art gesture would be to ignorantly disregard the Art-ness of someone else’s art-object.

    You could nick off with Duchamp’s toilet, plumb it into your WC and take a dump — all for purely functional purposes.

    (Of course, to do that with a knowledge of the pedigree of “Fountain” would be regarded as artistic in the extreme. Objects lie dormant for centuries before they ever become Art, or never do so, but they stop being Art only when they’re forgotten.)

    “Another thought: religious artefacts tend to become artworks over time, as the faith that built them changes or disappears; veneration is replaced by aesthetic appreciation. The same thing may happen to science.”

    In the case of mathematics, the interplay between notational aesthetics and underlying logic is fascinating.

    Some mathematicians are engaged primarily in an aesthetic activity: pursuing more “elegant” (usually read concise) modes of expression for existing truths.

    For example the competing functional notations of Newton and Leibniz. Newton’s notation enables an abstraction like the Church calculus, but Leibniz’s notation enables the notations for partial differentiation and calculus on manifolds.

    The comments apply to the nebulous practice of “refactoring” in computer programming, which really tends to be every coder’s favourite activity (short of the brief orgasm of Getting It Working): the fast and furious creation of something So Much Better Than What Went Before. The temptation of changing a functional system just because to do so “feels right”.

    “What happens when the ostensible target of a cultural activity is imaginary or hypothetical? Does it become art, by default?”

    Not necessarily maybe, but it definitely finds itself subject to many generalisations to which Art is also subject. Like “it’s all a load of wank”.

  2. That comment got so hideously mangled I’m tempted to post an errata section, but I won’t. These damn text boxes are too small …

  3. Brian Eno claims to have actually taken a piss into Fountain – not directly, because he couldn’t reach. He had a bag full of urine hidden in his shirt, from which a tube proceeded out of his fly and then into the artwork, and he only got a few dribbles out.

    I’ll be the first to admit that the phrase “is itself a piece of political analysis” does read like a leftover chunk of my 80s theory education, but I’ll standing by it: categorising an activity as “art” or “religion” or “science” or “wank” is an implicit value judgement, and value judgements of other people’s activities are political.

    I didn’t say “Aha! but all historical analyses are actually political” and I don’t think of “political” as a “hah! gotcha” word – I feel like you’re arguing with someone else there.

    As for “understanding as a form of aesthetic enjoyment” – your description of refactoring and mathematical elegance seems to capture that idea pretty well. If science were not aesthetically rewarding, there would be far fewer scientists.

  4. Oh, I wasn’t arguing with you there. Just pointing out that as far as critical theory is concerned (bearing in mind I hardly know much about it) it seems the twentieth century was the era of the “aha – but so and so is just as such and such as this and that” moment, and I now prefer reading arguments that move past those moments – past that just of absolute relativism and inclusion, and away from the awesome unfocussed reductiveness of the refusal to reduce.

    I like the Eno anecdote, and I apologise for the ramblings about refactoring and so on, they were a bit gauche, if probably true. I think the “design patterns” concept that’s still growing up as a tool of software engineering could end up having an interdisciplinary scope.

  5. Yeah, I think we probably agree about the C20th’s habit of reducing things, and I can see how you got there from my initial musings.

    Re refactoring; no apology needed; it was a better example than anything I’d given of the role played by elegance and/or beauty as a motive in very abstract problem domains. I’ve spent a lot of the last month or so deciding whether or not to let myself refactor bits of a particular project I’m returning to: sometimes it’s worth doing, sometimes not. (I try to remind myself: my aesthetic satisfaction is not a project requirement)

  6. The term “refactoring” itself is brilliant.

  7. Yeah, “refactoring” is spectacularly vague, almost Wodehousian. I wonder who coined it?

    re design patterns: the idea came from architecture in the first place, I think. Some day I am going to get around to reading A Pattern Language; I’ve read that it has been far more influential in software engineering than in architecture.

    The Eno anecdote is from his book A Year With Swollen Appendices – published in about 1996 I think.

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