thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Lore of the jungle

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Ninth in a series beginning with Art in the family.

We talked last time about Henry Plotkin’s idea in Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge that biological adaptation and knowledge – when construed much more broadly than just human or even animal knowledge – come down to the same thing. We must now relate this to works of art and artistic canons.

Darwin's finches

Darwin's finches

First though, if what I say makes any sense at all, I don’t think it stands or falls by what Plotkin says. This is why I said I was inspired by the book. Reading about applying the essentially Darwinian concepts of selection and survival to things other than ‘just’ genetic inheritance struck a chord. If there are parallels between evolution in nature and various kinds of human knowledge – including scientific knowledge – then perhaps there are also parallels with the creation, reception and survival of art objects?

There are of course differences in the way selection happens in these different processes, but they seem to share a logical shape.

In the case of genetically transmitted adaptations the selection occurs in competitive battles for survival. Organisms pit themselves against their environment, which includes other organisms of other species and other organisms of the same species. The individuals which survive to replicate are the individuals which survive to replicate: a key part of the evolutionary vision is contained in what is ostensibly a trivial analytic truth. But it is trivial only while we forget the scale involved: the very few individuals which survive to replicate are the very few individuals which survive to replicate. The vast majority of individuals perish without replicating. The scale of waste is crucial to the Darwinian engine which creates the appearance of teleological design.

The astonishing intricacy and invention of nature is there because it is the tiny tip of a huge iceberg of possibility. It is there because it is what has survived. It is not there because it is right or good or true – or indeed wrong or bad or false.

When we get to intelligence, learning and knowledge (including conscious knowledge) a lot of what we learn and know is adaptive, and could be described as ‘satisficing’ (see How the chaffinch learned to sing) rather than being a perfect fit. If our hunter-gatherer forebears learned well enough so as to survive and replicate in their hunter-gatherer environment (including their competitive and cooperative hunter-gatherer social environment), that was good enough. Hunter-gatherer genes are our genes.

Young velocipedist on Michaux velocipede

Knowing how to ride a bicycle

When we think of everyday knowledge which doesn’t quite qualify as scientific knowledge – whether it is knowing how or knowing that – our working criterion of success or ‘truth’ is fairly pragmatic. We regard as true what works. We know how to ride a bicycle if we can ride a bicycle, regardless of whether we could put that knowledge into words. We know the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening; that dropped objects will fall to the ground; and that other people have minds like our own (even if we’re not quite sure what having a mind actually means). Our knowledge is utilitarian. It helps us thrive. In biological terms, overall it helps us survive and replicate.

Of course it is fairly artificial to consider everyday knowledge completely free from science. Science is a specialised and analytical branch of knowledge but we have lived with it for so long that scientific criteria have spilled over into everyday knowledge, and there is no clear boundary between the two.

Plotkin thinks science, and the development of scientific knowledge, can be seen in Darwinian terms:

…science is a selectional process, like all other forms of evolution…

When we apply selection and survival to science proper, admittedly we get a different selection mechanism. But we do get that similar shape again. Instead of competition against other replicators we have falsification by evidence. But we are left with a similarly profound (if similarly analytic) truth: propositions (statements, laws, theories) which have survived selection by falsification are the propositions which have survived selection by falsification.

It is not that propositions x, y and z have survived falsification attempts and are therefore true. They may turn out not to be true. Tomorrow someone may apply a more sophisticated test which they might fail. Scientific ‘truth’ just is what has so far survived selection by falsification.

So why not apply the paradigm of selection and survival to works of art as well? Again a different selection mechanism: this time it is human choice. There is no real equivalent to the confirmation or disconfirmation of predictions which we get in science. There is no methodology. In fact we have more of a mess than a methodology.

But when we begin to describe that mess we start to recognise features we know are true of art.

Julie Atlas Muz, from "You Don't Own Me." Seattle, 2008.

Performance art

Replication, for example. There is certainly replication in art, but it is varied and multidimensional. Some art definitely survives by replication – music, literature, film. But there are one-offs, important one-offs, which are no less art for being one-off. An individual painting or sculpture, a piece of performance art, indeed a live performance of anything – these are by definition not ‘replications’. But we must scratch deeper: if they are not replicated at all, how do they survive? And if they do not survive how do they get incorporated into a canon?

A material object like a painting or a sculpture may survive by pure luck. But that would be rare. Most likely it will survive either by having powerful friends, or by creating a reputation, or both. At the extreme, we could have a single painting or sculpture locked away in a castle by a single powerful owner, who bequeaths it to his or her descendents. Ah: even in a case like this we need some minimal replication to ensure survival – not of the work of art itself but of the instruction to preserve it.

And even in this case, although the artwork is kept safe for hundreds or thousands of years, just keeping it safe won’t add it to any artistic canon. As we noted back in Art in the family, a work of art must be seen as a work of art. If no one sees it as a work of art it will have no life as a work of art, it will never take part in any artistic canon or tradition or movement. So the replication begins: the artwork is seen, remembered, spoken about.

The context – the environment – in which artworks survive (or do not survive) is also hugely complex and dynamic. It contains just about everything that matters to humans. This is something else we recognise about art, that it can include almost anything, can respond to almost anything. History, geography, biology, economics, sociology, politics, philosophy, psychology, emotion, play, laughter, sex, love, hate, death, crime – all human life can be there, in both the artworks and in the environments in which they thrive and replicate or wither and die. None of these things has to be in the artwork, but they all can be.

This does not make art so free as to be easy. On the contrary artworks must struggle to survive because their competition is so tough, and their environment changes all the time. Like the living world. Each new species, each new individual becomes part of the environment of all other species and all other individuals. Each new work of art becomes part of the environment in which each work of art competes.

One thing that environment is not is fair. It is intensely political. Art chosen and replicated by the rich and powerful survives at the expense of art chosen and replicated by the poor and powerless. If men have more power and influence than women, then artworks chosen and replicated by men will prosper over artworks chosen and replicated by women.

Screenshot from trailer for the movie The Big Combo (1955)

Film noir

The cultural environment is intensely fashion-conscious. One day everything is noir, next day it’s Marxist, then post-Modernist, then green, then Romantic. Even Shakespeare has had his ups and downs – he certainly enjoyed an up after getting the Coleridge and Hazlitt treatment around the 1820s.

But this should be cause for neither cynical depression nor righteous anger. What we feel about an individual masterpiece does not have to depreciated by the market it competes in. It is as unrealistic to see only nobility and lofty spirituality in the world of art as it is to see only beauty and harmony in the world of nature. There is money grubbing, jealousy and naked ambition in the art world, just as there is agony, death and waste in nature.

The art environment isn’t a total jungle though. It operates through choice rather than chance: a theme for next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

16 April 2010 at 7:22 pm

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