Thursday, February 26, 2009

Classical Art Good Generative Art Bad

I quite enjoyed the discussion today, mainly because we wandered around in some very interesting territory. Sadly, an hour and twenty minutes was nowhere near long enough, especially if I get on a roll about Reich or Lucier or Eno – I could talk about those folks all day long. They completely changed my life. Or rather, they provided a vocabulary for me to talk about what I have observed for most of my life. Bob and I deliberately held off until this point in the term to explore these generative artists. What I really wanted to know is how this work relates to what the students have been doing. Do they see the same questions and solutions? Do they sense a kind of affinity with artists that are working in a generative way? How would the conversation have been different if we looked at their work on day one? But time runs out.

One of the comments – that most likely went unheard by most – was a comment that Robert (V) made about something Emily ® had said. In my response to see more flawed work she pointed out that there are flaws in work all over this campus. This was not intended to be a disparaging remark, but simply a point of fact – that as students and teachers we make errors in execution. That is part of the beauty of live art – it is capricious and hard to repeat exactly the same way. Robert’s point was that “we see flaws because we are taught to see flaws.” It is really a brilliant statement that captures the essence of what we have been exploring this term. In the Lecture we read for class today Eno creates a very binary list between Classical Art and Generative Art. Generative (music) is out of control, unrepeatable, unfinished, sensitive to circumstances whereas he sees Classical (music) as under control, repeatable, finished, art that subdues conditions.

While I agree with Bob that GenArt magnifies issues that are at the very heart of the Western artistic tradition (his blog example is of Michelangelo staring at clouds and water stained walls for inspiration – Bob referred to this in class as “the ground”), the expectation is that trained artists marshals randomness into something more cohesive. No two performances of Shakespeare or Miller or Mozart or Bach will be the same, but there is a strict limit as to how far afield those performances can go. Only certain choices are sanctioned to fit varied interpretations. Should I decide to play an Aria from say the Magic Flute (there are arias in this one right?) and use a jack hammer, a screaming infant and a dog there may be purists who will assume that I have somehow violated Mozart’s intent.

While that is an absurd example, the same is true for musicians that unintentionally hit wrong notes or actors that forget their lines. These are flaws – interruptions, elements outside the proscribed boundaries of the artist’s intent. The irony here is that there are multiple versions of Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart was one of the first to deal with randomness as musical structure. As Philip Galanter points out in a paper entitled, What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory.

“The first use of randomization in the arts that I am aware of is an invention by
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart provides 176 measures of prepared music and a
grid that maps the throw of a pair of dice, and a sequence number (first throw, second
throw, etc) into the numbers 1 through 176. The player creates a composition by
making a sequence of random dice throws, and assembling the corresponding
measures in a sequential score. Perhaps Mozart knew intuitively that purely random
music isn’t terribly interesting because he found a primitive way to mix order and
disorder. The short pre-composed measures provide order, and the throw of the dice
provide disorder” (page 14).

But, when I think of these two artists I don’t often dwell on their randomness first. The point with all of this is that yes, randomness and chance have been employed thought the history of Western Art, but by-in-large Eno has a point. My training first as an actor and then as a designer was all about control – either of my body, voice, mind or external technical equipment. I was taught to bend these tools to my will (which in turn was bent to the will of the production or the director or the text). Robert’s comment illuminates this process – we are taught what choices are good and what are not and to look for “flaws” in our own work as well as others.

Generative Art obliterates this. Where is the good and bad in a piece designed to work randomly or develop on its own after set in motion by the artist? Where are the flaws in a work that is designed to destroy itself (we discussed Tinguely’s Homage to New York in class)? Where are the interruptions in a piece like Eno’s 77 Million Paintings or Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain if they are designed to simply run their course? While the projects designed by the students may not have done what they wanted (some have used the language of failure) they still did something - which is the point. As Eno states - the job of the artist is to create the system and then decide what to put into that system. Lou Reed played around a bit with generative structures with Metal Machine Music, but it is unlikely to be mistaken for Music for Airports.

What fascinates me about all of this, especially with regards to the Western artistic tradition, is that there are clear boundaries in such things as plays, musical compositions, films, dance pieces – beyond which the piece ends and external material is considered unimportant or an interruption. If you don’t buy this just start shouting out random phrases the next time you are in a movie theatre, concert hall or performance space. Do the same at performance of Cage’s 4’33” or at Eno’s generative CD-ROM.

I would add to Eno’s list that– stealing a bit from Robert Venturi’s notion of a Difficult Whole - Classical Art is exclusive – it is designed to create a whole by deliberately leaving things out. By deliberately drawing a bold line of beginning and end. Generative Art, on the other hand, is inclusive and rhizomatic – it is capable of absorbing and or responding to just about any input. Where do these works begin and end? I mean really, Lucas’ drip art continues to evolve as it sits in the hallway. For those on the UNCSA campus that doubt this, wander around in the hallway and listen to or look at all of the interconnections between these pieces. Not just the pieces, but the hallway itself – sounds, objects, posters, people included. While you could do the same thing by mashing up all of the performances on this campus in a given term, those dreaded purists might object.

This is why I find Generative Art exciting – it opens up possibilities for dialogue and conversation that traditional forms shut out. Eno is right on the money when he says that artists create new metaphors. Changing the aesthetic paradigm so that it no longer includes flaws or good or bad creates a form of awareness that is different from the past. Generative Art (part and parcel of the whole idea of post-modernism and/or post-structuralism) creates a new way of exploring art and intention and product and value and judgment and whole and and and . . .

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