USS Clueless -- Art, an unintentional manifesto

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(An unintentional manifesto)

What is art? That's a question people have been debating as long as the word has been with us, and I'm sure not going to settle it now. Scott McCloud says that art is any human endeavor which isn't directly related to sex or reproduction. That's certainly quite broad, but it's not clear that a more narrow definition is defensible.

Still, that's not how I would define it. His definition would include watching clouds, not to mention engineering. What we engineers do is unquestionably important but I don't think of myself as being an artist and indeed, to me, calling an engineer an artist is usually something of an insult, because it implies an overemphasis on esthetics at the expense of functionality. It seems strange to me that from his point of view the act of observing art is itself an act of art.

My own tentative definition of art is that it is a means of communication. (Of course, as an engineer I look for the function of anything: something is what it does.) There are some things which normal expression can communicate quite easily ("I'm hungry"). And there are concepts and feelings which are not easily communicated at all. Art is the process of communicating things which can't be easily communicated.

There's a difference between telling someone what dread is, and actually making them feel it. That's art. A good author rips us out of our bodies and transports us somewhere else, to actually live another life. A good painter makes us see something which doesn't exist, and to believe that it is real.

With that highly dubious definition, the differentiation between good art and bad art becomes easy: good art communicates important things, does so very well, and does so eternally. Good art is profound. Bad art is trivial and local or does not communicate well (or at all). Lousy art is banal.

Spectacle is not necessarily art. Is it art to convince ten thousand people to strip and pose for a group photograph? I don't think so. Rather, it's politics. It's intended to make a statement about nudity to those who think that it's dirty. But it's trying to convey information, not emotion: not everyone thinks nudity is dirty. Fair enough, and a legitimate message. But not all messages are artistic.

Too much of what passes for "art" relies on spectacle. Some forms of "art" have a particularly low rate of greatness. In many cases pieces of art are treated as valuable more because everyone else thinks they must be. I'll stand up here and now and say that I don't care how much a painting by Andy Warhol sells for; it's still crap.

The message of art doesn't have to be profound for the art to be profound. "Mountains are pretty" is a perfectly reasonable message; the point is to make us leave our bodies and travel to those mountains, to viscerally feel their presence, to come to know them in the way the artist wants us to. The profundity is in the artist's ability to move us, not in the message he delivers.

And that is why spectacle for the sake of spectacle is not art: there's no message to be had in "Wow! Someone just blew a lot of money on that!" or "Wow! That took a lot of time to make!"

Art doesn't have to speak to everyone, or indeed to many. But if it speaks to only a few, only for a while, it isn't great. The greatest art speaks to eternal truths; we are still moved by The Iliad.

Art doesn't have to be serious. "Duck Soup" is great art, though we're so busy laughing that we don't have time to realize just how profound it is. The Marx Brothers appeal to us because they really do on screen the things we all think of doing but don't, because they'd be too silly or too offensive. We all feel those things but we all assume we're the only ones; the Marx Brothers tell us "No, it's universal", which we know because everyone else is laughing. The profundity is that we get the message without even realizing we have.

Great art keep speaking to us. It doesn't wear out after one experience. The greatest art has layers of messages, delivering something new each time we experience it. I have been listening to The Planets all my life. I nearly have it memorized note for note. And yet, as I grow and mature, I keep finding new things in it. I now expect that I will never wear it out.

So, with this engineering view of art, I am contemptuous of almost all single-frame static graphic art. There are few paintings which inspire deep study. A person goes to an orchestral concert and sits in rapt attention for an hour listening to a symphony by Brahms, but even a great painting usually inspires a minute or two of study before moving on to the next. There are a few people who do study paintings, but usually they're studying technique and not message. The number of paintings created in the twentieth century which in my opinion achieve greatness is extremely small: You've got the Guernica, and not damned much else. A big piece of canvas covered with dribbles of paint is a curiosity, a spectacle. But there's no message.

What message is communicated by a twenty-mile-long curtain? What does it make people feel?

Great art is memorable; it sticks with us. On one visit to NYC I visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. I walked through the entire thing. I saw many paintings and sculptures there. I don't remember a single one of them. (Oddly, the only thing I remember is the helical balcony on the inside of the building.)

Great engineering can be great art, but it's a secondary effect and has a rarified audience. The most artistic engineering work of which I know is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is, of course, superbly functional. But to this engineer it touches something deeper, which is perhaps difficult to explain (of course). It is elegant. An engineer calls a design elegant if it achieves the ideal of being a perfect solution, with a minimalistic and simple design. You can look at it, study it, and not see any way it can be improved; any addition would be unnecessary, any subtraction would make it fail, any change would make it more complex. The lines of the Golden Gate are clean; the curve of the suspension cable appeals to me as a mathematician; the design of the towers as an engineer. Not a piece is out of place. It is lovely (even to a non-engineer). (It went through a Richter 7 earthquake without a scratch; that earthquake took down part of the Bay Bridge.) And when you study its design, and the way it was created, it just becomes all the more awesome.

Great art doesn't have to be created. I look at some of the most spectacular pictures from instruments like Voyager, and the HST, and the VLT, and they inspire in me a wonder at the complexity of the universe. I am part of something wonderful. I am small. I am unimportant. (This is a message many don't want to hear.)

I like to think that USS Clueless is art, though I would never pretend that it is great art. If I have a message, it is this: if you know how something works, it is even more beautiful. Knowledge is wonderful. I try to understand what I see; I don't like mysteries, and I don't take anything for granted. I finally realized a while back that to many people the world is a magical mystical place, full of gods and spirits and ghosts, with things happening for no obvious reason. They flick a light switch and the bulb goes on -- but they don't know why. The inside of the refrigerator is cold, but it's a miracle. They look at a stereo, or a computer -- or a person -- and see only its skin. They don't know what's inside.

The world is not like that for me. I look at a refrigerator and in my mind's eye I see the pump, the circulating fluid, and the application of laws of physics. A refrigerator is beautiful to me in a way that someone who only sees skins will perhaps not understand. I look at a computer and I understand it on many levels. I know the software. I know the chips. I know the transistors. I can see the signals passing around.

I look at a person, and if I wish to I can see inside. I see circulating blood. I see organs performing functions. I see neurons switching signals around. I see genes turning on and off; I see proteins being made; I see enzymes catalyzing reactions.

These are miracles, but I use that word in a different way. To me a "miracle" isn't something inexplicable; it's something extraordinary and complex.

I look at what everyone looks at, but I apparently see what few see. I've been trying to let you all see through my eyes, to communicate my way of looking inside things. That's why I don't link to things unless I have something to say about them. My purpose is to find things which have aspects most don't see.

Here is my message: The universe is immense and endlessly fascinating, and the more you know about how it works, the more fascinating it becomes.

I feel privileged to be part of something like this. There's a rare beauty associated with atheism; I don't need a god to tell me I'm special.

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