Why Nerds Have Bad Taste

This is a continuation of my Better Art Vocabulary series. You don’t need to have read the others, but feel free.

I grew up encouraged to an old-school sense of taste. Not as old-school as opera and $300 bottles of wine, but as old-school as liking literature and paintings and museums for no real reason other than that I was supposed to, and thinking that other stuff was kind of…unclean. I have two peculiarly strong memories from when I was young: one was my mother saving up to take me to a DaVinci show in New York, and the other was being caught watching Pokemon–which struck about the same fear in my heart as being caught masturbating might have done. Taking me to that show was a truly beautiful thing to do, and an important youthful artistic experience, but it caused some internal conflict. Why did certain artistic things deserve sacrifice, and others shame? 

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Frontierland

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960


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A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 2

To recap, in my last post I talked about some of the things people mean when they say a work of art is “good”:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

Today I’m going to drill down on #4, the big M, m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y. What do we mean when we say (or think, or imply) that a work of art is morally good or bad? Is talking about morality with respect to art a necessary mode or a failure mode? That is, does it matter? How much?

When I was in high school, smart kids would eagerly remind you that Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all”–and feel very clever. I had the entire preface to Picture of Dorian Gray in my Facebook quotes from 2005-2009  so I know what I’m talking about here. But even Oscar Wilde doesn’t really get into what he means by ‘moral’. And this is a problem because just about anyone can clearly perceive that art can have effects that are bad or intents that are good, and those things seem related to morality. So let’s taboo the word ‘morality’ and replace it with some other concepts.

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A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1

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:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. 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?

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The Physics of Stamp Collecting

Ernest Rutherford’s famous line, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting,” has bothered me ever since I first heard it. I’ve used it to make fun of biologists, and I’ve used it as a critical perspective on physics.

Rutherford almost certainly meant it as an insult to non-physicists, but there is a deeper and non-prejudiced philosophical thought underneath the dichotomy. To get there you have to ask: is there such a thing as a physics of stamp collecting?

I’ve discussed the quote once before, in my extended post on foxes and hedgehogs (short version: foxes are stamp collectors, hedgehogs are faux-physicists), but let’s dig a little deeper.

Turns out, the distinction between sustaining and disruptive variants of deliberate practice, which I discussed last week, is a consequence of the distinction between physics and stamp collecting.

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Ritual and the Productive Community

Ryan Tanaka is a musician, writer, programmer and product manager living in the Los Angeles area. For every article that he writes, Ryan also improvises a musical piece as means of organizing his ideas. (Below, or here.)

Excerpt from my 9th “Angry Birds” String Quartet, based on the Yellow “Accelerating” Bird (Click to hear a sample recording)

In a previous article on my blog, I wrote about the possibility of creating “Sacred Spaces”, highlighting the ingredients necessary for the creation of communities within technological contexts.  Some of the ingredients include: rituals, symbolic gestures, leadership roles, group identities and group histories.  Without these basic elements to help sustain community identities, the prospects of organizations surviving for the long-term can be said to be very bleak, even with economic and/or political support.

Out of all of these ingredients, the idea of ritual can be said to be the most important, since it exists at the heart of all community-based infrastructures.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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Romanticism and Classicism (Assembly Required)

I’ve been obsessed with the concept of an aesthetic recently. In particular, aesthetics applied to things other than art and design. I’ve come to believe that your aesthetic posture is one of the most important determinants of how you think.

This post was threatening to snowball into a 10,000 essay (here’s why) so I decided to spare you the pain and provide three sampler pieces of the dozen or so I am trying to assemble into…something. Instead I’ll leave you to try and assemble something out of these pieces yourself.

Hint: you may want to try viewing a variety of distinct examples that are not formally pieces of art using these three constructs. Like say, coffee, the Republican/Democrat parties (in America), popcorn, a slum, a forest, a language, a mathematical result, a piece of code, an approach to planning a vacation, a way of organizing a desk…. So here you go, your first DIY ribbonfarm post.

First, always a good idea to start with a 2×2. Here, the challenge was to come up with a useful y-axis.

Next, an attempt to link aesthetics with attitudes about time. Paired-term lists are always good for exploring a dichotomy, and time is a reliably fertile variable to attempt to link to just about anything else.

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Technology and the Baroque Unconscious

Engineering romantics fall in love with the work of Jorge Luis Borges early in their careers.  Long after Douglas Hofstadter is forgotten for his own work in AI (which seems dated today), he will be remembered with gratitude for introducing Borges to generations of technologists.

Borges once wrote:

“I should define the baroque as that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its own  possibilities and which borders on its own parody…I would say that the final stage of all styles is baroque when that style only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.”

The baroque in Borges’ sense is self-consciously humorous. Borges’ own work in this sense is a baroque exploration of the processes of  thought. As one critic (see the footnote on this page) noted, Borges writings “serve to dramatize the process of thought in the apprehension of truth.”

Unlike art, complex and mature technology (not all technology) is baroque without being self-conscious. At best there is a collective sensibility informing its design that can be called a baroque unconscious.

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Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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