Monday, June 23, 2008

Abstract Art

As part of a special program in high school, one of my classmates, Chris, applied to work under an orchestral conductor during his senior year. Chris was a brilliant musician, but the interview process with this particular conductor was a grueling two hour endeavor, much more than the typical person in the program would have gone through. The conductor wanted to find out if Chris could do more than play music well. He wanted to know if Chris understood what music was. Chris related that the experience was more of an intellectual sparring match than an interview, and everything revolved around answering one question:

What is art?

Now there are all kinds of meaningless philosophical answers to this question. "Art is whatever you say it is" or "Art is beauty". If you dig into these answers, you just end up with the tautology "Art is art". That's true, mind you, but not very helpful. However, the music conductor had a very good answer to the question, and he accepted Chris' application when Chris understood the answer.

Art is expression.

When I heard the answer, it really resonated with me. That's a real answer, not a tautology! The purpose of art is for the artist to convey a point to those people experiencing the art. That means art can be measured by two factors:
  • How important the point is to the audience
  • How well the audience understands the point
Note that the audience is a crucial part of art. Immediately when I heard this answer, I understood why I'd always hated abstract art. It's bad art because it neglects the audience. Generally abstract art boils down to one of two types.

Type 1: "This black square set against a mess of orange and red circles represents the current triumph of humanity against nature, but the ultimate futility of the struggle." While that might be a good point, it's not particularly novel, and the point isn't conveyed very well. Other artists have done a much better job of creating works that express this point without even intending to. Fundamentally I feel like this art exists so that art snobs can feel elitist, because they "understand" the point and other people don't. But obfuscating your point doesn't make you clever; it makes you a bad artist.

Type 2: "This black square set against a mess of orange and red circles doesn't represent anything because art doesn't need to have a point. It can mean anything and everything!" In that case, the artist isn't expressing anything at all. They are doing an exceptional job of doing nothing. It's not art because it's not expressing a real point.

This doesn't mean art needs to be hyper-realistic. Reality isn't as fuzzy as the impressionistic paintings Monet did of water lilies, yet millions of people from different cultures and backgrounds have all recognized the beauty of that artwork. The true test of art is not whether its point is realistic, but whether the point has been successfully conveyed to the audience.

With that as the framework, I'd like to talk about something different from Artificial Intelligence: the writing of this column. You might notice that I express a lot of stuff in layman's terms, glossing over details, sometimes going back to them and sometimes not. It's my goal that this column will never require more than a first year undergraduate's experience to understand. That's explicitly because it's crucial that people can understand what I'm writing. If I can't explain things simply, then I'm not doing my job as a writer.

Each week I pick a topic that might be interesting. This column is partially just a personal soap box-- I talk about things I find interesting and usually I relate it to AI. But I cannot escape the purpose of art, that art is only meaningful to the extent that your audience cares. So I want to get a better understand about what topics and styles you, the reader, appreciate the most. It's my job to write about things you want to read.

I analyzed the articles I've written and they fall into one of four categories:
  • Technical discussions of exactly how an algorithm works. Discusses actual code.
  • Overview discussions of how to approach an algorithm. Discusses situations that would require programming, but not actual code.
  • Reflections on artificial intelligence and computer science in the abstract. Discussion relates to philosophy.
  • Philosophical discussions. Usually relates to intelligence, may or may not relate to artificial intelligence.
I'd love to know what kinds of articles people enjoy the most so I can plan a good mix of them. Please, post your preferences in the comments! And if you're interested in hearing a particular topic covered, also mention that and I'll try to cover it at a later date.


Chris said...

Hey, I like all four categories you listed. If I had to choose my favorite two, it would be the more technical topics about how certain algorithms work and how to approach these problems.

But it's good to read a softer, more philosophical post like this one on Art.

Thanks for your great writing.

~= Chris =~

BvG said...

I think your mix of topics is quite good, even if once a week is of course far too seldom for my taste, as good things should happen more often then that. ;-)

said that, My preference for topics would be:


Surv said...

2>3>4>1 for me. But in general I'd also like one more topic. Which is the guideline you had in mind for the entire problem, not just a part of it, and the one you actually ended up following.

Joel said...

I just found this column the other day and have read through it up to this point in just a couple of days.

Personally, I think you've got a good mix or articles, but if I had to give my preference, I would say I like 1 and 2 the most, and then the others in order. So...


Great column, by the way :)