Art criticism, whether written by professionals or fans, is plagued by nonspecificity and a lack of self-justification. Things are implied to be good or bad, without a very good explanation for why we should consider them good or bad. For example, why is an “unrealistic character” a bad thing? How about “emotional dishonesty” or “implausible scenarios”? How about killing characters to prove seriousness? How about bringing characters back from the dead to please your audience? What about music that’s too loud or a scene that’s sexually violent? What about something that “celebrates the laborer” or something that is about “the relationship between abstraction and figuration”?
We can look at all of this disagreement, and say that the only common ground is that a quality didn’t work for someone, or it did. I think that does people’s intuitions a disservice. The fact that the experience of art is subjective is a fact, but for my purposes trivially a fact, the way that the experience of gravity is subjective, but gravity continues to exist whether one is in the Mariana Trench or the ISS. When people describe goodness or “beauty” in art, it seems to fall under five categories:
- A display of skill awed me
- I had a heightened experience
- The work gave me animal pleasure
- It is morally good that this work exists
- The work accurately described reality
I believe it is the confusion of these categories and not the idea of some qualities of artistic goodness being quantifiable or describable that is misguided, and it’s a lack of good vocabulary for what art actually does that continues to make these categories so mercilessly tangled.
I’m going to start today with number five, the relationship between realism and artistic goodness, and I’ll work my way through the others in subsequent posts. What do we mean when we say a work of art feels real? Emotionally real? Factually real? (Is there a distinction?) The Dardenne Brothers are very, very good at what they do, and so have been any number photographers, documentarians or 17th century portraitists. But those artists don’t feel any more artistic or vital, per se, than Picasso or Lord of the Rings. Realism seems to rank about as high as being made more than 100 years ago as far as getting your work of art appreciated goes.
So what are some better words?
“The [beautiful] mathematical facts are those which, by their analogy with other facts, are capable of leading us to the knowledge of a mathematical law… They are those which reveal to us unsuspected kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. … Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.”
-Poincaré (as qtd in Grietzer)
In his Formal Theory of Creativity & Fun & Intrinsic Motivation, AI scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber suggests the idea of “compression” as the explanation for both why art exists and why it is pleasurable. The gist of Schmidhuber’s concept of compression is that the human brain is itself a kind of hard drive with a limited amount of space. Given that the brain is space-limited, it makes sense that information that uses that space efficiently might reward the brain with pleasure. It’s in our interest, in other words, to find patterns so that we can get rid of extraneous data and use our brain for more things. This reward system explains why things like stereotypes (all people are X) or religion (everything happens because of X) feel good; it also explains why we’re drawn to symbolism, metaphor, and succinctness.
Let’s compare a random caricature I found by googling with a random Al Hirschfeld (“Clara”):
Due respect to the artist of the image on the top, but the caricature of Will Smith isn’t very good compression because it doesn’t tell me anything about Will Smith. It’s just Will Smith with a kind of wider face. Except Will Smith doesn’t even have a wide face! The Hirschfeld is pretty good compression though, because it tells me that the person depicted was very busy all the time but also fairly good humored about it. That’s a lot of information, when you think about it (including abstract information), for an image that isn’t even strictly realistic and uses few lines and no colors.
What about a more complex art form? Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a popular filmmaker that’s bad at compression. Let’s take this exposition from Interstellar (2014):
(in a documentary interview style)
WOMAN 1: The wheat had died. The blight came and we had to burn it. And we still had corn. We had acres of corn. But, uh… mostly we had dust.
WOMAN 2: I guess I can’t describe it. It was just constant. Just that steady blow of dirt.
WOMAN 3: We wore, um… little strips of sheet…sometimes over our nose and mouth..so that we wouldn’t breathe so much of it.
MAN: Well, when we set the table, we always set the plate upside-down. Glasses or cups, whatever it was upside-down.
Exposition, like caricature, is a good way to measure compression, because it’s a realm where an author always needs to convey a lot of information in a small amount of space. So what information is this exposition giving us?
- Someone is making a documentary
- People lived long enough to be interviewed (everything turns out okay!)
- America is basically the dust bowl again
Of those three pieces of information, it seems like only the last is necessary. Moreover, it’s unclear how we’re benefiting from being told that people had to turn their glasses upside-down, when the movie goes on to also show these things happening. Not only could those 5 minutes of film have been removed, the movie continues to hit the “it is the dust bowl” talking point again and again throughout the film, a unit of information that gets repeated without additional depth being added.
What about Alien, a movie also set in a weird and future universe, in which you’d think even more time would need to be spent on exposition to catch a viewer up to speed? Alien begins with a slow pan over the richly-realized, lived-in world of the Nostromo. We see containers of food, spacesuits, an overall aesthetic of practicality. The ship turns on, the crew reawakens. In five minutes we experience world, mood, and narrative. We learn as much, if not more, in those five silent minutes than in the first half hour of Interstellar. Similarly, the picture of Will Smith only gives us literal information (what Will Smith looks like, more or less). Compare this to the abstract information Hirschfeld gives us: what Clara is like, what aspects of her stand out, Hirschfeld’s attitude towards her. Interstellar tends to facts and Alien to abstraction. Interstellar needs us to know the bullet points—wheat blight, dust, cups–and how to feel about them–bad?–and strangely leaves us with less information about either the world of Interstellar or the world we actually live in. “Show, don’t tell” is a classic maxim because it intuitively understands the principle of compression. Alien shows us in specific ways what living on the Nostromo is like, and that approach accomplishes two things: it gives us richer information, and it gives us more organized information. Interstellar gives us shallow information, and too much of it.
There’s also a type of even more ephemeral, abstract information that gets transmitted in well-compressed art, that’s something like “attitude towards the world,” and its medium is style. In the case of Hirschfeld, that attitude is a kind of sardonic whimsy. In the case of Alien’s opening, it’s a sense that beauty is a complex, intriguing quality that can be found in mundane places. Alien indulges in strange flairs like a series of jazzy jump cuts as the lights from the ship’s rebooting computer flash over an empty emergency helmet, followed by sweeping orchestral music as the crew reawakens from their cryosleep. In other words style, despite seeming like excess, is actually often the essence of saying things efficiently.
If compression is density of information, bandwidth is volume. How much information could a work of art store, ideally, and what kind of information?
Both The Wire and “Drug Addict” by Duane Hanson are about the human consequences of drug use. In exploring this general topic, The Wire crafts a tremendous narrative that helps us understand the systems that create and interact with the drug trade. It understands that “systems” occur at multiple scales: at the personal and interpersonal level, the small community level (like families or workplaces), on up to bigger and more complex levels, like a school system, city government, or organized gang competition. The Wire isn’t a character story, precisely, but it understands that the concrete and human levels are necessary for understanding how the more complex things come to be, as well as what the consequences of those complex things are. It presents a picture of reality that makes it very hard for a viewer to have simplistic thoughts about that reality.
“Drug Addict” isn’t the same level of excellent relative to fine art the way The Wire is relative to television, but it is good enough to be illustrative. The work is an extremely life-like sculpture of a man slumped against a wall with a needle hanging out of his arm. When you walk by it in a gallery, you think for a long moment that the man is actually real. The point of the sculpture is to make an invisible population of drug users abruptly present and human. The viewer is meant to suddenly confront their biases (were they angry that a man like that was in a gallery?), and perhaps be more persuaded to care about invisible people or harmful systems.
The information “Drug Addict” provides is complex for what it can provide, but The Wire provides objectively more. Moreover, The Wire and “Drug Addict” are specific in different ways. “Drug Addict” is fairly precise and successful in the way it confronts the human tendency to objectify, but doesn’t make it much easier or harder to have simplistic thoughts about drug abuse or class differences. Even the most absolute perfectly complex version of “Drug Addict” would still probably provide less information than The Wire.
In other words, narrative art forms like novels, plays, film, television, etc. are of the higher bandwidth variety, while more figurative mediums like painting are lower bandwidth. “Low bandwidth” sounds like a criticism, but I want to be clear that that’s not the case. High bandwidth art forms are better for conveying complex information about the systems that make up reality. Low bandwidth art is better for conveying complex moods and practicing stuffing large amounts of symbolic information into an inherently limited space. Low bandwidth art is compression practice. A painting or a song can give very complex mood or emotional information; moreover, it requires less information and time to understand. Dostoyevsky is highly information-dense, but the further we are from 19th century Russia, the fewer tools we have to absorb that density. He also takes a while to read. Low bandwidth information also diminishes without context, but its intended impression tends to remain very much alive. I’m reminded of the urban legend of the Peace Corps volunteer who intended to impress the locals with the great artistry of Hamlet, and was disappointed when they laughed at Hamlet’s actions as stupid and illogical, and I compare it to the popularity of Cycladic figurines despite the fact that we have no idea what they represent or why.
So bandwidth represents a trade-off: either more details that necessitate more contextual knowledge and time commitment, or more universal and more convenient ideas, but less specificity.
I could argue that one of the main drivers of abstraction in art in general, but definitely visual art in particular, is the attempt to push visual bandwidth to its limit. It’s so easy, for example, to make fun of this:
I don’t think I care about declaring whether Black Square is good or bad art, but it does something that plain realism, plain “stylization” or even plain pattern can’t do. Like writing the letter A on a canvas, it forces a thought process about what a plain black square could possibly represent. How much meaning can we shove in there? None? Too much?
So from compression we have the idea that art contains information, more or less densely or accurately packaged. From bandwidth we have the idea of artistic mediums containing more or less possible information, that can either be factual, abstract, or a combination of both. The packaging of information, in turn, helps us find patterns in the information. If a work of art encompasses a sufficient amount of reality, is sufficiently accurate, and the packaging is sufficiently good, it might help us interpret a lot of reality. In a great response to Schmidhuber’s piece, Peli Grietzer (in collaboration with Owain Evans), rejects the idea that compressive “stimuli” in art–a stimulus can be a mood, a line, a scene–are valuable because they are merely interesting, but rather because they enable one to “use fewer bits” to represent the same history in one’s head:
A major part of modern aesthetic discourse concerns stimuli that ‘resonate’ with many previously disconnected things one has encountered, felt or thought, and in so resonating reveal new affinities between these previously disconnected things…These aesthetic merits are often understood to be closely related to the capacity of art to define new concepts via prototype (cf. Shelley, Coleridge, Carnap, Dilthey): when the novel affinities revealed by an artwork are sufficiently strong, one talks about an artwork ‘articulating’ a general phenomenon or pattern that is otherwise hard to pin down, or about an artwork serving as the prototype that defines a category that is hard to otherwise define. (E.g. ‘Kafkaesque experience’, ‘Pinteresque conversation’, ‘Orwellian society’.)…For example, it is often stated that Kafka’s short stories capture a structure of experience — the ‘Kafkaesque’ — that one finds in a range of disparate experiences (or conceptions of experiences), making a Kafka story equally evocative of e.g. the experience of going to the bank, the experience of being broken-up with, the experience of waking up in a daze, the experience of being lost in a foreign city, or the experience of a police interrogation.
Just as the experience of finding correct organizing principles fills one with pleasure, the experience of an insufficient organizing principle can fill one with dread and revulsion. This experience of pleasure and revulsion goes a long way towards explaining the experience of a work as “good” or “bad” because the experience of a work being good at compressing reality is also related to skill (compression is difficult) and morality (a falsehood is dangerous or a truth is valuable). Just because our brains are limited doesn’t mean the data it can’t store aren’t potentially significant. In Schmidhuber’s words, “You shouldn’t throw away any of the data, if you can.” But a pile of data isn’t actionable the way sorted data is. Compression is not argument, per se, but because it involves the sorting of data, it sure can feel like argument, and this makes it feel like morality. Compression allows us to put information to use. To act, you need to come to a conclusion (however good or bad the conclusion is).
Thanks as always to Gabriel Duquette for his help in developing some of the ideas in this piece.