CategoryThe Art of Criticism

NFC Podcast #7: Art and Boyhood

Our 7th podcast! We talk about Bollywood, art criticism, and Matthew McConaughey.

Heisenberg Art

Here’s an expectation for you: this post is going to be dope! Wait no, never-mind, that’s too high of a bar – I’ll never live up to it. This post will be totally shitty – don’t expect much. Meh, too low – I’m selling myself short (I’m much taller than that). Where should I set the bar? Your point is that the bar shouldn’t be set anywhere – it should be totally unknown. If art is experienced with absolutely no preconceptions does that really give us the best ‘unfiltered’ experience? Perhaps, but the experience will always be tainted by all of the other subtexts in your own life. You can never run away from context – someone’s recommendation is just another piece of context within a myriad of other factors that may or may not help you enjoy a piece of art. Recommendations are, however, useful for helping us guide us through the torrent of possible movies, music and other subjective experiences. There just isn’t enough time in the world and it’s probably worthwhile to not waste it on things we’ll certainly dislike.

But is a specific bar useful? No, it probably isn’t. What we need is to move on from our classical conception of ‘defined levels’ of art appreciation and criticism, towards more of a quantum mechanical perspective: we need to embrace the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in our art recommendations. Heisenberg’s principle says that there is a fundamental limit to how precisely we can know certain physical properties. Like with these types of constants, our language for art should resemble a probability density: it should help us understand how that person feels about the art in general, while still leaving the possibility for other (potentially less likely) interpretations. Art ‘critics’ should instead be art ‘contextualizers’: they should provide us with interesting and useful background information, while also giving an idea of who may enjoy it. Totally one-sided opinionated pieces may be entertaining to read, but they should be marked as that: entertainment.

The probability slanted language can apply to emotional states, humour appreciation, and perceived quality of the art itself. The scale is less important, but the notion of (the lack of) precision is essential. Sure, this would make certain decisions more complicated, but it will be worthwhile in the long run. In the words of Bertrand Russell, ‘one has, in practical life, to act on probabilities…I would encourage people to act with vigour without complete certainty.’

This is of course, my recommendation. Certainty level: 50%.

Do you trust my feelings?

Recommendations are a tricky feat. They come as a necessary tool as any aspiring tasteful consumer needs to decide what books, movies, music, paintings, museums, etc, make the cut into their life. And you’re right, a good recommendation comes down to a mutual connection of empathy. Can I relate to the types of people making a recommendation to me, and trust that my emotional experience of the art will match the one of the recommender? But, I ask thee Valentin, are we doing recommendations right? Before we get there though, lets briefly talk about expectations.

Recommendations set expectations. And expectations colour your experience of consumption. Now, this is different than a blind recommendation you mentioned, This is the recommendations based on a critics review, or a number rating out of 10 on IMDB. This isn’t a “just watch it, cause trust me bro”. Now lets take movies as an example. If you watch a movie going into it with expectations of it being an all time great after hearing amazing reviews, your experience is much different than watching it knowing only the name of the movie. Now, I realize I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before. Of course, expectations matter. But, if you are to experience art and consequently judge that experience, I would argue it’s best to minimize these expectations. In an ideal world, we would experience all art blindly, and base our judgments from the experience and not the ideas of it set out beforehand.

Now on to recommendations. If we so have to to communicate my thoughts on an art piece, whatever the medium, what would be the best way to do so? We get a plethora of critical styles, from analyzing the piece in its place historically in the medium, to the what and how of the piece itself, or just a thumbs up or a thumbs down. One thing that I think is missing in making recommendations is highlighting the emotion of the piece. As I mentioned in my earlier post, emotions are the universal currency of art. So if we are to use words to critique and consequently recommend art, I suggest introducing an emotional intensity scale, or emotional state analogies to communicate opinion. So Valentin, how do you feel about that?

Seinfeld and the Art of Recommendations

Does art require a specific vocabulary? Yes and no. To me, Rachit, precise, descriptive language may help me appreciate pieces of art, but it rarely, if ever, makes me love something I would otherwise be indifferent to.

Western society seems to value art ‘critics’ who can poignantly analyze a piece of literature, music or film. People like Roget Ebert or the critics of Pitchfork, are often artists in and of themselves in the way they can summarize and pick apart dense, layered films and music. Using the right words to describe art, is an art in-and-of-itself. Meta aside: Is using the right words to describe the words used to describe art, an art? If so, we’re goddamn Picassos.

Back to critics: the word critic is pejorative and rightly or wrongly, often adds a bit a haughty perception of these types of endeavours (think of the scene from Birdman where Michael Keaton rips into the New York Times critic). I think this type of categorization is unwarranted – deep down inside we want honest, no-holds-bar opinions from other people. Was American Idol ever the same without the tactless, blunt Simon Cowell?

Great art is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but broad brush strokes are often good enough to help people appreciate or stay away from certain pieces. Art ‘language’ helps us communicate and swim through the incredibly vast ocean of music, film and aesthetic pieces. I think the respect and admiration of the art ‘critic’ has waned, primarily because of the wealth of various opinions that is now easily available to the general public. For movies, instead of following the recommendations of one writer, many people now use aggregate websites like Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes. To me, these services work well for filtering out movies that almost nobody likes – yet are often not very useful for finding things you would like.

That is where the subjectivity of art is obvious. No matter the medium, the joy we derive from experiencing something artistic is contextual. It depends on our life, our personality and our tastes. When I hear recommendations, the words themselves matter very little. It’s the person who’s saying them that is important to me. Can I empathize with them? Do they like the same things I do?

Take Seinfeld for example. What words would you use to recommend it to me? It’s about people in New York. It’s a show about, in its description of itself, ’nothing’. You could tell me its funny, but funny is contextual – just like ’touching’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’. Communicating broad ideas is certainly important – but when it comes to art, the only convincing way of recommending something is to say ‘just trust me, have I ever recommended something you didn’t like?’


Re: Iguanas and Art

I’ve missed this pulpy goodness. The unbeknownst, unrestricted world of creative fiction proved to be much more prone to insanity than expected. Not to say that we’ve given up on it – in a more optimistic light, we’ve chosen to let the art flow naturally through our citric veins. And from this deepened appreciation of the written art form, we’ve begun the dive into this weird, almost undefinable concept called Art.

Now before pulling out the scientific lens on this elusive word, I want to talk about its place in my life. A lifetime of trying to understand ‘what is’ and ‘why is’ has left me anywhere from confused, to depressed, to intellectually stimulated, and often nihilistically neutral. Art, in it’s most loose understanding, transcends these questions. The moments of losing yourself in a Salvador Dali painting, jamming to a funkadelic D’angelo song, tearing up in the first ten minutes of Up (guilty), or just immersing yourself in the cascading shower of a thunderstorm are moments where these questions don’t matter. They transcend the why, the what, and the how — in these moments in time, you just don’t care. And that’s why it is so powerful. Cross culturally, works of art and their authors, that induce these feelings are revered to a godlike pedestal.

Now, to pull out the scientific microscope, why is this so? The core of this kind of transcendent feeling is the experience of a deep emotion(s). This is where the subjectivity of art comes into play. What kind of art, or in what format of art, relates to someone on this level is highly dependent on the eye of the beholder. But, this subjectivity can still be measured … to a certain degree. And we already try to do this. When a piece of art, in whatever shape or form, sheds this deep emotional connection to the shared consciousness of a critical mass of people, it climbs the collective pedestal. As you highlighted, the ‘mini-olympic’ arena of art galleries try to showcase these select pieces of art in a meritocratic fashion.

What the previous paragraph demonstrates is one ‘variable’ that is at the core of the meaning of what Art is – a collective emotional connection. One of a series of variables (ex. another variable would be the unrepeatability of an art piece). Keeping this spectrum of what constitutes Art in mind, I want to pay attention to this ’emotional currency’. I realize I am steering the conversation away from where you initially intended – the cross cultural examination of art and it’s place in different societies. However, where I want to direct the conversation towards is inherently tied to a cultural analysis. That question is how language shapes art.

The subjective emotional transcendence that a piece of art facilitates, often can’t be described or communicated. Words aim to recreate and resemble the experience of an art piece, but fall short. So, I present thee Valentin, with a couple of questions: is there a ‘right’ vocabulary to discuss art? Is using “this is the best song ever” a wrong way to discuss music? Does one need to develop a stronger descriptive and emotional vocabulary to properly understand and appreciate Art?

~ R

Iguanas and Art

Well, Rachit it’s been a while. We took a long break, but now we’re back. We should say that we weren’t completely ignoring our NFC duties – we started some fiction writing that we hope to publish some time. But for now, back to our regular scheduled quibbling over philosophical minutiae.

For our next topic, let’s talk about “art.” What does it mean to us? What role does it have in our society? In the spirit of high school valedictorian speeches, I wanted to start this topic by trying to define what Art is. Wikipedia has this wonderfully specific definition: “art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities.” So basically, art is anything, it’s in the eye of the beholder. That’s not a very fruitful definition so let’s try Merriam-Webster’s: “[art is] something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” That’s more specific, but there are words like ‘imagination’, ‘skill’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘important’ – all concepts that are just as vague. I want to ask you, how is ‘art’ connected to other parts of human culture? It’s hard to imagine that other animals have analogous concepts. I could imagine a pack of Iguana’s playing a primitive version of soccer, but somehow it’s much more difficult to imagine them appreciating a sunset. What is it about Art, with a capital A, that makes it so human?

I think there are two insightful comparisons here. First, art and sports. Much like sports stars, exceptional musicians and artists can be paid incredible sums of money. There are athletes and artists who appeal to the masses, and those that only appeal to experts in the field, those that can understand the subtleties of what it really means to be an artist or athlete. Unlike sport, art, however has no clearly defined rules – it has almost no rules. But what it does have is a pervasive culture of meritocracy. We want to believe that a piece of art speaks for itself and it is unaffected by the reputation or societal standing of the artist. We have ‘art galleries’ that are like mini olympics – showcasing art of amateur artists and exposing them to the masses.

The second comparison is of art and science – or more objective ‘knowledge.’ Largely, art is about personal moments: subjective experience. Science is exactly the opposite – it’s about reproducible, as objective as possible, facts. You’ll probably know where this is going – the ‘b’ word, balance. Of course society needs both. We need art to feed our ‘souls’ and science to feed our ‘minds’. But can we say anything more here? Do certain cultures place more value on one or the other? How does that affect their economic and societal progress? Is it dangerous to place more emphasis on one side of this equation – valuing objective ‘facts’ over subjective emotions?

Lots to discuss, and I’m glad we’re back at it. I hope the new year brings more insights and never-from-concentrate ideas (with lots of pulpy goodness).

Yours in wonder,