You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.
What is powerful, part two
[Apologies for the barrage of posts - I'm trying to be more disciplined about spending a couple hours writing in the morning, and, well, I generate a lot of verbiage. The editing part still needs work obviously. But you'll have to suck it up. Or just skip it.]
In the previous post, I suggested a definition of powerful, as it relates to art and ideas, as being that which connects people. But being the contrary person I am, I'm immediately going to offer another viewpoint. Last night while thinking about what the value of a network of ideas was versus an individual idea, I wondered if I could tie this whole discussion into the science of networks, as described in Six Degrees. Perhaps in the tipping point phenomenon. I mentioned in my first cognitive subroutines post how I occasionally have flashes of insight, where ideas realign into a new pattern. Is that a tipping point in my neural net? Do different people have different threshold levels of evidence, such that some generalize quickly, and others need a preponderance of evidence?
Then another thought struck me. The thing that makes the small world phenomenon work is the unanticipated links between disparate parts of the network. The small world phenomenon doesn't work if people only know their local friends. It's only when a few people (not many at all according to Watts) can link their local set of friends to a set of friends far away. The far links are the powerful ones that make the entire network "small".
Once I thought of it that way, the extension to ideas was obvious - ideas that connect wildly disparate modes of thought are powerful, because they link up different areas of the idea network. The most powerful ideas are the ones that cross disciplines, connecting things that nobody thought were even related. Maxwell unifying electricity and magnetism. The electron shell theory providing a basis for the chemical periodic table. I like this perspective because it makes the connection to the science of networks explicit. We can think about how the different idea networks interrelate, and how to construct links between them that will make the idea network as a whole more compact.
So this is a different definition of powerful than the one in the previous post. That previous post started with art and moved to ideas; can I do the reverse and apply this new definition to art? It's unclear. What does it mean to connect different areas of art? To take one example, music that breaks barriers is often seen as revolutionary. Rock and roll built off of the blues, but brought it into the mainstream. I suspect the same is true in art, but I'm not sure I know my art history well enough to come up with any examples. Perhaps Gauguin's incorporation of Pacific Island art into his work.
Now we have two definitions of powerful. One is about the effect something has on us personally, and our connections with each other. The other is about the effect something has on the network, growing the capabilities of the network by providing more links, where the advancement of the field is perceived as being a good in its own right. Is one definition "better" than the other? It's hard to say. But I find it interesting that my speculation on art as a web has opened up into this whole separate discussion on value and power. Down the rabbit hole we go.
posted at: 12:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
What is powerful?
In yesterday's post, I quipped "art is in the network, not in the nodes." While walking around yesterday, I started trying to figure out what I meant by that. It's a cute quip, but what does it mean? I also wanted to tie it into the ideas I presented towards the end of this post, where I say "It's about the network of ideas. An individual idea isn't very useful or exciting to me. It's about how it hooks into a big picture." Again, the network, not the nodes.
Where to start? Let's start with the idea of value. Or to put it more bluntly, power. What does it mean to be powerful? In art, we think of a piece as being powerful when it has an effect on us. Generally an emotional effect, but it may have an intellectual impact on us. Picking up from yesterday's discussion, though, the power is not in the piece itself; it is in the connection between the piece and the viewer. We can all think of pieces of art that have a powerful effect on us, that are disdained by the world at large. The TV show Buffy is a good example - many would not even call it art, but it resonated strongly with me. It may not be powerful to the general audience, but it is to this audience of one. I think this demonstrates that the locus of power is not in the work itself, but in my connection to it.
What do we mean when we say a piece of art is powerful, when we imbue the object itself with that quality? We generally mean that it has a powerful effect on most people that view it. There are always going to be curmudgeons or naysayers who dislike any given work. But the greatest of works are the ones that speak to everyone. They bring people together, by evoking similar reactions in a whole group, demonstrating that no matter what their surface differences, they have the same reaction to this piece. They create an instant community. I think Brahms Requiem is a good example of this. When we performed it soon after 9/11, it brought the whole symphony hall together into a powerful statement of mourning and hope.
How does this definition of power extend to the world of ideas? Are ideas powerful insofar as they help create connections between people? This is an attractive definition. What is the single most powerful idea in the world? "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." This idea has bound together hundreds of millions of people into a single faith. It has provided the basis for innumerable communities, both local and global.
What are some other powerful ideas in this bridging sense? The idea of the scientific method is one. The world of science extends across nations and continents. Perhaps sports, as I mentioned in that instant community essay. It also explains why it's so important to me to do my thought development in a blog, in public, garnering feedback. The ideas in and of themselves are interesting, but what I really want is to think of ideas that provide a new viewpoint on the world to myself and others. And I can't do that in isolation, only in connection with others.
I think the interesting thing here is that we have a definition of powerful as the quality that allows people to connect to each other. Art or ideas do not have an inherent value; they have value in their ability to connect people. Being the social creatures that we are, we place the highest value on things that let us create social bonds among us. I like this idea a lot. It re-orients us to the value of human connection, and indicates that our connections with our friends and family are our most valuable possession. And that is a message that I totally support.
posted at: 11:43 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Lazy couple days (March 20 and 21)
After staying out til 2am the previous couple nights, I ended up sleeping in until noon on Sunday morning. I had kind of planned that - the weather forecast had said that it was going to be cold and rainy on Sunday, so I figured I should get my fun in while I could. I puttered around the apartment for a bit and did some laundry, before heading out to meet up with the sister of a friend. We hung out at a Belgian frites place in the Village, had a couple beers, went out for falafel, and then she headed home, because she's working as a teacher, so had to be up early.
Monday was more of the same. Cloudy, not quite raining, and cold. Again, I ended up puttering around the apartment a lot, playing with some blog entries and reading. There's nothing to do in New York on a Monday, it turns out. All the museums are closed, except for the Guggenheim, whose website said that half their space was closed in preparation for opening a new exhibition this weekend. Broadway is shut down as well, so no plays in the evening. I was at a loss for what to do.
I did eventually drag myself out, and over to Katz's Delicatessen, made famous by the scene from When Harry met Sally (they have a little sign over the table that says "I hope you have what she's having!"). I got a pastrami on rye, and, wow, it was good. Thick slabs of juicy hot pastrami. Simple, but yummy.
I headed over to Times Square, where I stopped by the AXA Gallery, which has a retrospective on Times Square after one hundred years. It has pictures of Times Square over the past century, from the initial excitement of movie theaters and electronic signs, through the down years of porn theaters and crime, and the renovation back into a place safe for the whole family. Kind of neat. I didn't know that Times Square was named as such when the New York Times put their offices there for a while back in the early 20th century, for instance.
After seeing the Tim Hawkinson exhibit at the Whitney last week, I wanted to check out the Uberorgan installation in Midtown. So I stopped by there in time to see the 6pm performance. It's basically a music box/player piano, blown up to be absolutely immense. Kinda neat.
Then I spent some time browsing at a bookstore called Rizzoli, and then off to grab a hot chocolate before heading to the evening's entertainment, a performance at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, featuring the music of John Adams. I'm torn about John Adams - some of his stuff is amazing, and some of his stuff is just kind of there. And that impression was reinforced by this concert.
He was apparently in town for a program where they select some up-and-coming young musicians and have them work with a modern composer on one of his pieces. This year's composer was John Adams, and the piece was Chamber Symphony. To fill out the program, they had a few other short works by Adams, and a session where a Carnegie director interviewed Adams for a while on stage. I always find it interesting to hear what was in the composer or artist's mind, so I liked that part, especially with the works being played immediately afterwards. For instance, his work for two pianos, Hallelujah Junction, was inspired by an intersection near his cabin of the same name. He loved the name, wanted to write a piece to go with it, so he started with the most famous Hallelujah, the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah. And when he says that, the music makes much more sense, as you catch the allusions to the chorus in his work.
Of the pieces themselves, I really liked Hallelujah Junction. The two pianos playing together and drifting into and out of sync reminded me of Music for 18 Musicians, a piece I adore. And I also liked Road Movies, a work for violin and piano, which probably had a lot to do with the spectacular violinist, Leila Josefowicz, who reminded me of Lauren Flanigan in the way she threw her entire body into the music, wrestling it into submission. Adams himself noted that sometimes the composer gets too much credit, and that she and the pianist took the piece beyond what the notes on the page alone were.
The second half wasn't nearly as compelling. I didn't like either American Berserk, a work for solo piano, or the Chamber Symphony. There was lots going on, and the performances were technically excellent, but the music didn't have the same core as the first half, I thought. It was great to see the young performers in Chamber Symphony, though - they were clearly having a blast, and they were pretty darn good.
Overall, it was a worthwhile experience - Zankel Hall was a really great space, seating about 500 people underneath the main Carnegie performance hall. It was much smaller and more intimate, and that was appropriate for the night's performance; even though I bought tickets at the last minute, I was in the 13th row (of 20), and had a great view. I was introduced to a couple pieces that I really enjoyed - I'm likely to get Road Movies, the CD that features Hallelujah Junction and Road Movies, using the performers I saw. So, yay.
posted at: 09:40 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events/nyc | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal