An Emergent Theory of Art

Oct 12, 2015

9 mins read

While recently listening to an episode of Radiolab 1 I was inspired to ruminate on my opinions about art and culture. One of their stories was about a system of pictorial symbols created to replace all languages with their inherent ambiguities and thus negate the possibility of misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Needless to say, the idea did not take off. However it was successful as an intermediate form of communication when teaching literacy to children with cerebral palsy.

What this Radiolab story (perhaps deliberately) did not address was that any language or writing system is inherently symbolic and therefore is inherently open to the problems bound up with interpretation. This is obviously a structuralist or post-structuralist position, the specifics of which I am not going to delve into. However it was interesting to note how in the story that despite the best efforts of the inventor of the symbolic system to literally represent reality, dialects and adaptations arose in the individual groups of children with cerebral palsy who used the symbols.

Nevertheless, something one of the interviewees said struck a chord with me. She described the use of the symbols as the distillation of essence of poetry, she thought that it forced you to think differently and re-examine, or be conscious, of the meanings of words and their juxtaposition to one another. Which led me to a very interesting question I have sporadically considered; What is the meaning of a word?

The way I see it I agree with Stephen Fry’s observation in his excellent blessay Don’t Mind Your Language… 2 when discussing universal grammar:

A parent doesn’t teach language, much as they may think they do, they just occasionally spoon-feed a bit of vocabulary: moo-cow, baa-lamb, colours and so on, usually – you’ll never hear a parent say “and these are called ‘stairs’ or ‘to wash’ means ‘to clean with water’” – the child absorbs that kind of vocabulary without teaching.

Here Fry is mainly talking about the structural underpinnings of communication however the point about vocabulary is illuminating. No one learns a language by reading the dictionary; rather the acquisition of words and their use occurs in an osmotic sort of way that you are largely unaware of. It is for this reason that it can often be difficult to precisely define words that you either read of speak in everyday life. For instance, what does the word “the” mean? Or “love” mean? (to be cliché).

The way I envisage it is that the learning of a word is a continual process and that our understanding of the definition of any particular word is contingent on our past experiences of the word being used and using the word ourselves. It is an amalgamation or composite of these past uses and just as importantly their context. This encompasses the content they concern, the words they are adjacent to in sentences and the sentences themselves that they appear in, amongst everything else. In a sense, every word (and instance of its use) is conceptually linked both forward and backward in time in our cultural perspective in terms of their relationship to other words and concepts. I imagine a complicated web like structure of resonances or allusions because it is really the interactions or links which are key in determining the meaning. This necessarily gives words a subjective, individual and fluid like quality.

It should be noted that words can have multiple meanings; however these are not mutually exclusive and can overlap. For example, this memorable moment in J.R.R Tolkein’s The Hobbit:

“Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” "All of them at once,” said Bilbo.

It could be assumed that all this subjectivity and multiple meanings would exponentially diversify the ecosystem of our cultural perspective. However this is not the case. Here it is useful to consider Information Theory and the redundancy of language.

A language such as English is inherently inefficient; the same could be said about any number of symbolic representations of the world. What this means it that the distribution of words, syllables, letters, symbols etc are not evenly nor randomly distributed throughout communication. Communication is inherently ordered. For instance, the occurrence of “u” after a “q” is very likely. The same can be said of phonemes and indeed words. This is what allows auto correction, compression, talking in a noisy environment and our ability to read abbreviations and misspellings. We do this by the triggering of resonances drawing on our past experience of a word to infer what someone will likely say next. We do this all the time and naturally this leads to us taking words for granted and not reconsidering their meanings anew with each use. Consequently, this restricts what words mean to us.

This is not a bad thing; in fact it is essential as redundancy ensures that words mean something (a deliberately vague word) we all (sort of) agree on. Furthermore we can guess and learn new words based on their context. Language is a balance between innovation and conservation. This rings all sorts of evolutionary bells.

However this brings me back to seeing the use of the symbols as the distillation of essence of poetry and if we take symbolic systems to be the mediating factor in our understanding of the world it is applicable to all art and indeed culture. The novel placement of words in a poem (or motifs in a song or images in a painting etc.) forces the re-examination of the meanings of words by their juxtaposition to one another. This breaks our expectations of redundancy to understand the world in an unexpected or alternative way. Furthermore it forces us to understand how we understand. In a sense the meaning of an artwork is an emergent property of the connections between its constituent parts and not a single thing in and of itself.

It is an interesting thought to consider that in cultural evolution the unit of culture may be in the connections or collections of resonances. I consider this a Systems Culture perspective.

Such a perspective has interesting ramifications about how we understand memories. There is a cool debate over whether memories are like video being replayed or are in fact recreated in the mind with each remembrance and that each remembrance is in turn influenced by previous remembrances. The latter option supports the emergent theory of art and is in turn supported by our understanding of empathy, and visualisation 3. Another angle is the interesting collision between individual and collective memory and how the overlap between the two can be part of the artwork itself.

An emergent theory of art raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship of the artwork and the world (which it is both commenting upon and part of), authorial intention and the role of the reader or perceiver of the artwork because it is of course subjective and context specific. An exciting consequence of this is how an artwork can have different meanings for different people and even different meanings for the same person at different moments in time. Yet curiously there are still things which can be said about it. I believe that this is what lies behind the common themes that are perceived in an authors work over their lifetime.

What can be said about art brings me to another conception of art, that it is the expression of the individual human experience to others. That which is generally considered inexpressible. This view often presupposes a distinction between thought and language, our experience of reality and expression but this is not necessarily the case and not a debate I wish to pursue here. In contrast, an emergent theory of art differs from such a view in that rather than an expression of the individual human experience, it is rather a function of it. I guess how big a difference that is a matter of personal taste and opinion of agency.

To conclude I would like to stress that this is just a theory of art, one of many, and by definition the result of my cultural resonances. The balance between innovation and conservation of language rests upon its ambiguities and misrepresentations are the price we pay in the unwieldy phenomena of emergence. I don’t assume that this is an original idea, some linguist somewhere must have thought of it but I don’t know who so I’ll credit it to the cultural ether.

  1. Radiolab episode Season 11(3) ↩︎

  2. Steven Fry Blessay and there is an audio version here ↩︎

  3. I think I heard about this in Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion which to me highlights how narrative is the most important element of how we understand the world. Narrative, the causal connection of disparate events, is of course analogous to cultural emergence. ↩︎