26 January, 2009

Ars non Quanta

With the small exception of the host's denasal sine-wave of a voice, This American Life is among my favorite Public Radio (the last remaining radio) programs. If you're a regular listener you may recently have heard tales from people who attempt to quantify non-rational experiences, expressions and events. Among the many fascinating segments was one, "Paint by Numbers" about a group of artists who sought over the course of many years to determine by polling what it is that people are looking for in their experience of art. The authors chose to limit their inquiry to painting and music.

Immediately I noticed that, with respect to art and art-making, the premise was possibly faulty. Do people precondition their desires for aesthetic experiences? Is it possible to desire a specific aesthetic experience? The artists, with the help of confederates the world over, apparently polled thousands of ordinary individuals in dozens of countries. Regarding paintings, nearly every person polled had an opinion, and within a very early sample certain constants of preference began to emerge. For example, across the board blue is a favored color, landscapes a favored subject (hills on the left, trees on the right), a body of water, and perhaps a political figure (?) somewhere in the mix. With their data the working group then set out to produce a few variations on statistically determinate art.

Every one of the pieces was not only a disappointment to the artists, but when presented in public drew uniform approbation from viewers. The variations were specific to place of presentation (e.g., the political figure in the piece produced for American audiences was George Washington, as uncontroversial a figure to the average American as could be imagined). Upon reading further into the backstory I learned that people in the US were marginally more gratified by other, less familiar, variants - say, Dutch themes - than they were by idioms and places they recognized.

The musical experiment I found even more intriguing (being married, as I am, to a musician). Following the same sampling method the artists polled thousands of people worldwide and came up with instrumentation, styles, voicings, themes and other elements of composition that were then compiled into a series of musical pieces. Most popular was the standard rock / blues combo of guitar, bass, drums, synth and low, slightly gravelly voice (male or female), regular dynamic variation, natural keys, and dramatic climaxes in themes of love and longing. Predictably, least favored among all the possibilities were opera voicings, cowboy music, children's choirs, bagpipe, accordion, death themes, augmented chord structures, flat keys, and so forth.

Of the songs composed according to the success formulation every single one sounded like it had been extruded from a plaque of corn syrup. As with mortgage derivatives and credit swaps, the initial raw goods had been so sliced and diced that the resulting product, designed as it had been to mitigate "risk" and presumably afford a pleasing return ended up having no value whatsoever.

The pleasant surprise came when the composer and his musicians began tinkering with instruments, voicings and themes that respondents had labeled as least favored. You'll have to listen for yourself to hear what they came up with.

Their one effort to assemble all the despised elements (e.g., a lyric soprano singing about life on the range backed by bagpipes and a chorus of urchins) resulted in something that at least the artists found interesting and a significant cross-section of random listeners actually liked.

If you've read this journal for any length of time, you likely already know how I'm going to read this phenomenon: Mostly unsurprising, maybe unimportant, but nonetheless affirming. I was glad to hear it reported in a popular format in any case, for the media outlets that do not follow the numerically predetermined path to capture for themselves and their advertisers the largest quantifiable audience slice possible are few.

The artists being interviewed rightly observe that numbers are entirely ecumenical - they not only do not lie, they cannot. Given a large enough sample, what people say they like in the way of aesthetic experience should, therefore, hold up to testing. After all, if Coca Cola can boost sales of a soft drink by fiddling with its sugar content based on sampling and testing, why should they same method not hold true in application to the several senses?

Numbers can, however, be misapplied. While it's obviously possible to quantify what people have liked aesthetically, what they will like in the next instance is the interesting question underlying our artists' inquiry, and where I think they got their premise wrong. However faulty the premises, in this case I still think the question was the right one, for in a somewhat oblique manner they addressed what may be close to the core of a modern aesthetic malaise, the one every sentient being understands in their bones. In attempting to quantify aesthetic pleasure, to dragoon that most ineffable of human experiences into a business model, we have produced the environmental equivalent of the focus group-derived art above. The proposition is both neatly and grossly endorsed by a visit to your nearest strip mall or government building, or by a listen to any Top 40 playlist (syndicated for decades to local transmitters by centralized industrial operations, such as Clear Channel Communications - a representative of the "music industry". Now there's an oxymoron).

Paradoxically, we yearn most for what we can never know we want. Ask people what they want and they're all too happy to tell you. Net result: HumVees and Zima, McNuggets and boy bands. Ask people what they yearn for and they're likely to describe something they resolutely do not expect. What people seem to find most gratifying is likely to arrive utterly unexpected and in a form they could not have anticipated, laid at right angles to what they thought they knew, such that it prompts a reassessing of assumptions, however slight. Of profound aesthetic experience people allow that they were displaced by it, and that maybe it even included bagpipes and cowboys.

If I may be said to have any religion at all my default is science. Science is, at bottom, an expression of faith in certain codes, however granular and reduced. At the core of the method is mystery, as honest prelates in the assorted -ologies readily confess. I do not have any faith in art, for no faith is required. Unlike conventional notions of spiritual revelation, the revelations of art are practically a commonplace, available 24/7 to the feeling person. The barren calculus of capitalism and production, with its maximizing of yields and scientific reproducibility of results, despises real art and, as we see above, is incapable of producing it.

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