Art as a web

DocBug put up an interesting post, wondering why we put all the fame and glory on a particular artist, when their work is often the result of a dense web of collaboration, influences and support. I started responding to that post in a comment, and then realized I had a lot more to say than I thought I did, so I’m responding in my own blog.

Here’s the basic concept. Our culture has a tendency to try to objectify things, not necessarily in a pejorative sense, but in the objectivity sense most commonly associated with journalism. That there is a thing, and it has these properties that are part of the thing’s ineffable nature. That things are one thing or another, in a Platonic ideal sort of sense. By associating qualities specifically with an object, rather than describing the object as possessing a quality that it could later give up, it tends to confuse things. This is one of the reasons that people like Robert Anton Wilson suggest we use a version of English called E-Prime, which abolishes “to be” and all of its variants.

How does this apply to the situation in question? We want to be able to easily assign credit or blame to people, to have a simple relationship between cause and effect. To take an unrelated example, when somebody does something hurtful to us, it’s easier to say “They are evil” than it is to understand why they might have chosen to take that action. It’s simplistic thinking, but it has pervaded our society, and holds true in art as well. If we like or dislike an art piece, we give credit/blame to the artist. We tend to project all of our personal feelings and perceptions of the art onto to the artist, and, in our own minds, give the artist all of those qualities.

This is why it is so easy to get in an argument about art; two people may have very different reactions to a piece of art, which they both associate with the piece of art itself, rather than with their own relation to art. So they can’t understand what the other person is talking about, because they are seeing two completely different pieces of art, even though they’re looking at the same physical object. The meaning is not in the art itself, but in each person’s individual connection to the art.

And this is where I think I can tie it back into the original point that Bug was making. Art has no value in and of itself. If an artist makes a beautiful piece, and nobody ever sees it, or if a composer writes a beautiful song, and nobody ever hears it, is it art? I would contend that it is not. Art is about creating that connection between the artist and the audience via the piece of art. In geekspeak, art is in the network, not in the nodes.

That’s also true for the creation of art, as Bug points out. Art does not get created in a vacuum. Artists need tools to do their work. They influence each other. They are influenced by what’s going on in society. Looking at a piece of art divorced from all of its sociopolitical context is almost nonsensical. It’s making the mistake of assuming that the piece of art carries all of its context with it, that any qualities associated with the art are contained within the object, not in the network. I’m pretty sure I’m restating the basic postmodernist position at this point, from my meager understanding of it, so I’ll leave it at that, and move onto another question.

How did we end up here? Why is our American society so inclined to try to stuff all of the properties of an object into the object itself rather than the network of relationships surrounding the object? How did we get to a position that our president could declare entire nations evil, and be taken seriously? (okay, that’s not directly relevant to this essay, but I think it’s a manifestation of the same phenomenon).

Here’s what I think. A hundred years ago, Americans would have had a very different perspective. At that point, we were all deeply embedded in our communities. There was a tight web of relationships in any given town, as none of us could be self-sufficient, so we had to know the butcher, or the farmer, or whatever. (I’m idealizing here – go with it). This let us appreciate the power of the network, of realizing how we depended on each other in a long-term sense.

In the modern age, we’ve moved to a far more self-sufficient model, where our relationships with many people happens in a purely transactional mode. I go to the supermarket, I pick out some stuff, I hand them money, and I leave. All of the networks and relationships necessary to make that happen, from the shipping and distribution networks, to the bar code scanner, to the credit card reader, is hidden. It’s implicit, not explicit. So I treat the supermarket, and all of its employees as mere objects, rather than as people. I feed in money, I get out groceries. No human interaction. To use Fight Club‘s description, we are a single-serving society.

I’m going to posit that Asian and European societies do not have this same object-oriented perspective. (Wow. I just realized that object-oriented is the perfect nerd description of it, because a software object in OO design carries all of its properties and methods with itself. Damn.) Asian societies because of the pervasive influence of Zen and Buddhism and Hinduism, which explicitly state the way that we are all interconnected. And European societies, because they have done a better job of clinging to the human side of interaction, of having the denser communities.

The connection between the American single-serving society and the American tendency to view art (and everything else) in an object-oriented fashion is still a bit fuzzy, but I think it makes sense. When we treat everything in our lives as objects from which we are trying to get stuff, and which we evaluate based on whether it has the qualities that we need at any given point in time, it’s not surprising that we start to associate the qualities directly with the object itself, rather than with the network of relationships associated with the object.

I think there’s some really fertile ideas here, especially in trying to think about what it means for the value to be in the network, how that could be measured, and how that could be applied if we recognized it explicitly. But I’m going to pick up on those another time. Or not.