Saturday, December 6, 2014

Art for art and other relative inadequacies of written and symbolic languages

(This is a middling length piece so I must apologize in advance for its length. In my defense, all I can honestly say is that the subject is too thrilling to be tweeted :) If you do deign to read through, look not too badly at the person who put you through it but rather, think of the piece itself as a fugue where a short phrase is introduced in one part and taken up by others. Can essays do that? Can an essay be for the sake of an essay? Can one exist in its own receptacle? Its own little cocoon? Is it possible that it's sole purpose it to serve itself? Whistler thought he could do that with his butter-fried, symphonic, butterflied paintings . On the other hand, should essays be toned, colored, etched, sculptured, built into the fabric of societal relevance? Pirsig thought that they should with his hard fought, inescapable, tortured, logic.) 

Who goes...  


Recently, at a gathering of a group of highly talented Sri Lankan creative artists, a plenary turned to unpacking the cliché art for art’s sake. Or, what mathematicians call the Pushkin paradox and what aesthetes call the never ending debate.  It was thrown into the mix with the best of intentions since it is a sure fire guarantee to stimulate conversation but, oh my! Oh my my my my my! But I felt for that panel.

They  all  had a few years under their belt and had probably gone through this same debate more than a few times in their lives. Still, they steeled themselves and did admiral battle for the sake of discussion. Art for art or art for society...mmm? It was excellent, insightful and elicited much enthusiasm among the older members of the group. The younger people in that crowd remained studiously silent. Half of my mind was resting on them at the start and as the arguments progressed I gradually let my mind be invaded by that silence and allowed their disinterest to wash clean the noise in my head. You see, they didn’t give a rat’s bum either way.  If the situation of that discussion was otherwise, I would’ve high fived the lot of them.

Let me very quickly outline the paradox. It is quite well known to logicians but not to too many creative artists. Indeed, the paradox might not be relevant to them at all. Why should it? The phrase is tailor made for a fight and most artists love a fight, wherever and whenever one can be located *grins*

As we all know, this phrase is not unique to art. It has been used in other areas of human effort as well. For example, “War for war’s sake”, “killing for killing’s sake”, “sex for sex’ sake” are also frequently seen popping up in conversation.

Now, in all of these, the first use of the word is specific to the subject being referenced. The first “Art” in the phrase “Art for art’s sake” for example, is semantically simple – it relates to creative aesthetics. This is similar to the first use of “War” – relating to political aggression, “Sex” – relating to the biological act, “Killing” – related to the termination of life. However, the second use of the word is undefinable for it relates not to the effort but to the basis for that effort. The basis for effort, be it art, war, murder or sex can, and usually does, dependent on the distance from earth to mars, the time of day, which way the wind is blowing, the health of a person’s digestive system, how many roads a man must walk down if the total number of available roads is less than 42 and so on...

So, since one part of the phrase is completely and utterly dependent on a specific framework of reference and the number of such frameworks of reference is infinite, the phrase is essentially nonsensical. An unresolvable and undefinable semantic best used to practice the art of hoofing useless things into the dustbin. Massive debates have ensued and huge volumes of work generated because of an inability to understand this fairly simple paradox. Both my law of infinite disagreementThe number of points that a group of people disagree upon is geometrically proportional to the number of ways available to frame the problem” and my law of uselessnessThe usability of a volume of work on a nebulously framed subject is inversely proportional to its size” are quite applicable to these types of phrases.

Later discussions with the younger guys in that group indicated that they instinctively understood this and I got to high five a few of them. If this gut feeling on their part is any indication, then the universe of the future is one mad phrase less. Thank you very much.


On to something more relevant. Something more real, kickass here’n’now.  Something about the meaning of a piece of art and how to arrive at it. Something about its creator and that creator’s mindset and approach to life.

One of the panelists, Shehara De Silva spoke of playing a neatsy li'l classroom game using Picasso’s Guernica. I had used it a few hundred times myself in classrooms and was pleasantly pleased that great people like Shehara saw its potential as teaching material as well. It is a powerful drama that grows bigger, more intricate and more intense as you spend time with it. Or so the art buffs of this world would probably tell you. *winks*

Pablo Picasso - Guernica - made to prove the adage "missed the wood for the trees" 

She spoke of taking it from classroom to classroom and asking the kids to describe what they saw and how the little ones got the horror depicted therein while the older and older the kids were the more and more interested they were in individual components of the painting thereby missing the wood for the trees or rather, the suffering for the light bulb. There is of course the case to be made that younger children cognize human emotion better than the intricacies of other interrelationships between people, objects and animals but wait, Shehara's experiment proved something far more dangerous, far more sinister. It showed how education systematically conditions us into breaking apart big things to “solve” them as smaller things. It teaches us to break an apple down into the fruit solids, the moisture content, the nutrient percentages. It tells us that those are the things that define an apple when in fact the only definition worthy of an apple is as something tasty to eat or something that is useful for clouting a bully - on the noggin - from a distance.

A child would in all probability see how the elements in red define the horror in the painting and proceed to wash the whole of it in red

We are educated out of the truthful simple joy of  savoring the instinctive idea of an apple and instead given tasteless facts to digest. We are systematically blinded to root realities and thereby, that basis of truth required for creative effort is cauterized in us. Year on year, as we progress through our process of education, we are weaned away from constructive activities and instead, focused on the endless debates of Pushkin’s paradox. We are gradually coerced into contrived creative effort that replaces actual creative effort.

This is similar to being told to stare sightlessly at 3D stereograms to see that elusive image hidden 3D deep in a cacophony of visual noise. Lets unpack that a bit folks.

Since we’ve all done this many times, before reading further, indulge me. Take a look at the following 3D stereogram. Do the usual, relax your eyes, unfocus them if you like. Look in, look out, look sideways. Make it your ultimate goal in life to "get in". Let the 3D image pop out and see what it shows you.  (Don't read on until you get it btw). 

Now, all of you probably saw the hidden message but how many of you saw the words in the stereogram itself? *evil chuckle* “get over the frogs, hover frog” is poetry my man. How about the tag line at the bottom? How kewl is that eh? But you missed all of that because you were told to look for something else right? Because I told you to look at it in a particular way, you obeyed. If the roles were reversed so would I! Ah well… there you have it… 

Believe me, it is far easier and far more creatively honest to see the pain in Guernica than to torture some hidden meaning out of the juxtaposition of a lampshade, light bulb and paraffin lamp blazing down on a maddened horse.

In fact, if you really want to know why that painting became and what it really means, all you need to do is look at the horror of Picasso as a human being and the horror he visited upon his near and dear and ravish his interpersonal relationships into giving birth to his supposed fine art.


But there is another side to all of this. In some cases, a greater set of intrinsic linkages are necessary to appreciate the counterpoint. A more multifaceted approach required to see the meshing of seemingly unrelated harmonies. 

Take a look at Salvador Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper below. It speaks a forceful message of this world and the next. It is probably as famous a portrayal of this event as Da Vinci’s. To all intents and purposes, that is all there is to it and that is all there should be to it.

Or is there something more? Some, hidden message in there perhaps? Well yes, there is something more to it and no, there is nothing hidden in it at all.

Dali contrived the layout with the so called golden ratio in mind. The massive dodecahedron in which the characters are framed showed this purpose and that message is as hidden as the lines on one's palm. The use of that supra-ratio (phi) is seen in the slicing and dicing of the various component parts of this picture and the said slicing and dicing is as important to Dali’s Sacrament as it is irrelevant to Picasso’s Guernica.   

Is this an important message? Is Dali trying to tell us more than the fact that like all beings inhabiting a human body, Christ too would eventually have to have a last meal, black hair turned golden by what we can surmise is the wash of sunlight, seated Japanese style for a Biblical time's version of fine dining with no plates, one glass, two halves of a single loaf, at a 20th century conference table covered with pagan era parchment, in the company of 7 humans, 1 Ringo Starr, 2 yodas and 1 R2D2, all of them ensconced inside  a 21st century CEO's glass cubicle? mmm? Well that depends on perspective.

If you are a fan of Adolf Zeising who argues over 457 pages in his “Der Goldene Schnitt”  that the golden ratio is the most artistically pleasing of all proportions and the key to understanding all morphology including human anatomy, art, architecture and even music, you can think, yeah baby! 


I think Zeising is a crank and merely note that there is a vague case for his stance although I choose to let it escape me. For me, the real importance of Zeising’s work is that J.K.Rowling used the title of his book to name that fast moving little golden ball in Quiddich the golden snitch (*heh* now you know!). The painting itself, well, what can I say? I’ve used it for years to teach of the connections between math and art.

The two golden spirals meet at the cusp of the painting and determines the placement of the two apostles in the foreground
Closer to the point, is all of this required to see this painting for what it is? An arresting, wonderful evocation of pastel shades of sunlight encapsulating and telescoping, yet breaking apart and setting free an infinity of positions, possibilities, events and geographies through which we can wander in wonder? A middling behemoth 8 ¾ feet by 5 ½ feet hanging on a landing at the Washington National Gallery? A sensory assault so powerful and so intense that it persuaded me to duck down under the arches on 4th street and smoke a joint so that I could absorb its full flavor over 5 ½ hours? 

Short answer? Yes. Long answer? YESSSSS! 

Here, the mathematical references are not only evident but necessary to understand the sheer scope of the “wonderful evocation of pastel shades of sunlight... yadi yada yoda ” within the mathematical order where it resides and through which and by which it moves. That knowledge expands one’s appreciation, intensifies one’s feelings and enhances the colors in one’s emotions.


The same goes for Albrecht Durer’s famous engraving Melencholia or Ennui. Scientific and mathematical symbolism is peppered all over it, overarches it, envelopes it. There is no need to second guess the meaning of the work – the notion of “thinker’s block” is what it is all about. The mathematician cum magician Martin Gardner does an admirable job of extracting the essence of it: “Unused tools of science and carpentry lie in disorder about the disheveled, brooding figure of melancholy. There is nothing in the balance scales, no one mounts the ladder, the sleeping hound is half starved, the winged cherub waits for dictation while time is running out in the hourglass above. The wooden sphere and curiously truncated stone tetrahedron suggests the mathematical base for the building arts. Apparently the scene is bathed in moonlight. The lunar rainbow arching over what appears to be a comet may signify hope that the somber mood shall pass”. 

Hum! Heh! Well... sure! The only thing that interested me was the magic square at top right. It is a 4th order square commonly known as a symmetrical square. Cooky thingy. Durer switched the two central columns of the classic square (with no damage to its properties) so that the bottom two figures depict the year the etching was done -1514! This is 2014 so it is the 500th anniversary of the etching. Ah! Joy!

That darling little cherub would ask me - hey you! Is that all you got from this masterpiece? me: yes that is all.  

cherub: Is that enough for you?  
me: Yes, thank you very much,  
Cherub: Really?  
Me: uh-huh. The way it is positioned and the way it has been used, I can transmogrify the square, its artistry, its design elements, its magic and its histories into any and all elements in the engraving and any and all interrelationships in it as well. 
cherub: But...but... as Martin Gardner said, arn't any and all elements and interrelationships quite visible in it without you having to do any transmogrification?  
me: sure. But what's the fun in that? If I were to look at this the way you want me to, I would simply be looking at art for society's sake. My way, I can look at it in terms of art for art's sake.  
cherub: (outraged sniff) art for art's sake? 
me:sorry, art for math's sake. duh. 


There is a quote I rather like. This is from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance.  Pirsig is not  only a perfectionist but a very rigorous thinker. Just like Isaac Newton, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell who consumed 379 pages of the Principia Mathematica to prove the seemingly mundane quantitative fact that 1+1=2 , so too, Pirsig meticulously designed the entire book to lead up to this one seemingly mundane qualitative fact. To me, personally, this one is very special.

Here is how it goes: "And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good - Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" Indeed no! my friends. From here to eternity the answer to that question is a resounding, reverberating NO! What artistic endeavor we choose to promote to eternal life as a thing of beauty whose loveliness never decreases is entirely up to us as individuals, no?

The problems arise when we attempt to justify our sense of "this is right, this is good, this is beautiful, this is eternal" to third parties. The debate on art for art is just one of many tricks we use towards that end. The debate is killed at the get-go by the sheer inadequacy of mediums of communication  even to hold it all in - let alone express a single part of it. Artists feeds on others and others feed on artists - sometimes. Artists feed on art and art feeds on artists - sometimes. All of us feed on society and society feeds on us - sometimes. Then, the rational solution to Pushkin's paradox simply seems right.

Pirsig? Well he is simply - right.

In this little chit-chat, all I have done is highlight the variety and variousness of thought and executed a series of small brash strokes that serve only to put a little light and shade into a firm-lined two dimensional tapestry. There is nothing transformatory here at all but perhaps, it is marginally edifying. Something that might result in a bit of widening and deepening of a well known, well trodden terrain.


Depending on one’s mood of the day, mathematician, poet, musician or cinematographer, the import of little things in big aesthetic effort have a significantly transformative quality to them. Not in terms of collectives but at a highly personal level. This is probably the only type of transformation that creative arts are ultimately capable of. Like Shehara’s counterpoint to an IRA massacre during the conversation – was it the Kingsmill massacre she was referring to? I am not certain. No matter. It took me back six years, to a windswept churchyard in Sligo, Ireland, in the thick of winter, staring down at a grave. Thinking about what old Joe McGowan, one of the most knowledgeable of Irish historians, had been telling me a few hours earlier at the mansion of one of this dead man’s lesser known mistresses. Two, mistresses actually. From one very famous Irish family. Proving that he wasn’t really a very nice man.  Cold hard fact, clinical and effective, from Joe. Unbeknown to him, he transformed my reading of those times in Ireland and one of the more acclaimed of its many actors. I brought up in my mind the lines “My arms are like the twisted thorn, And yet there beauty lay; The first of all the tribe lay there And did such pleasure take; She who had brought great Hector down And put all Troy to wreck”. I buried those lines with the man who wrote them, cast a cold eye in life upon his death and took my leave of those times and climes. You see, truth is adamant, be it viewed through the eyes of logic or the eyes of art and both logicians and artists … sometimes fail themselves in that respect.

I am at left, taking my leave while leaving my take
(This is a small personal dedication to the American painter James Abbot Whistler and the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde. The two of them had an acrimonious relationship. Whistler was a leading proponent of "art for art's sake" and the perfect counterpoint to Wilde who was the diametric opposite of that school of thought. I am grateful for the newspaper battles between these two formidable artists which were later published as the "The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler" if I remember the title right. I spent many joyous hours as a teen reading these over and over and the human touch to their rarefied worldviews that came to the fore in their very public battles was a real teenage joy. Incidentally, Whistler never liked Ruskin or his protege Turner *winks*)

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