What is art? Part 2

In an earlier blog I talked about the difficulty of defining art, mentioning that it’s a problem that concerns musicologists and philosophers more than it concerns artists, musicians and the like. I do occasionally dwell on the problem and, with more than 60 years involvement in the arts, that ‘occasional dwelling’ adds up to quite a bit of dwelling. Nevertheless, I still don’t know the answer. No one does, which isn’t the same as saying ‘no one will’.

At first sight, it might appear that this blog has little to do with the everyday process of music ‘creation’ (I prefer to say ‘production’ but the word has an unfortunate ring to it, reminiscent of the naive positivism of the post WW1 period). My purpose, here, is to warn that careless and thoughtless use of such words as ‘creativity’ ‘gifted’ ‘inspiration’ etc. can impede a musicians growth. It will also impede the efforts of those entrusted to teach young musicians.

Since the previous blog I have taken a few steps back to look at the broader aspects of the problem, realising that we do not even have a theory of consciousness and self-awareness, and there are those who still question the idea of ‘free will’, anyway. The idea is this: if we can ascertain the position, mass and momentum of a particle then, in principle, we can predict exactly what it will be doing in 1000 years time. The fact that it would be incredibly difficult doesn’t alter this principle. Hence: no free will.

Of course, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would foul up that argument and there are also complications introduced by quantum weirdness of one kind or another (to cut a very long story short). There are even those who claim that *time doesn’t flow at all and that, at a fundamental level, there are only processes affecting quantities. I had this idea in my teens.

Theorist, composer and teacher Joseph Schillinger did some wonderful work in expanding our ideas regarding musical materials and their shaping forces (he taught some of the top writers in Hollywood) but he earned a bad press because of his belief that art production could become completely deterministic. This idea ties in with the limitations of free will, above. If (IF) we could quantify all possible nuances and inflexions – harmony, rhythm, melody, articulation forms, dynamics, tone colour…etc. etc. then, if we had powerful enough computers, we probably could produce music that would fool the expert. After all, midi programs use randomization and humanization effects that work extremely well. We hear the results every day without realising it.

The conclusion needs to shift away from ‘could we’ and ‘should we’ to ‘what’s the point’.

In the previous blog I also pointed out that we really have no right to speak of ‘creativity’, anyway. Nothing new, we are told, can enter the Universe. We all carry a store of influences, the most significant of which are soaked-up during our early, impressionable, years when life itself and all its experiences was brand new. When we ‘create’ something we are really regurgitating these ‘complexes’ in a modified form. This is why, in my book, I point out the importance of manipulating musical materials. This, initially cerebral, approach enables us to break free from our store of clichés and stimulates us to create ‘outside our own imagination’. It works for me.

It is often said that that if we try to understand WHY we are here and who created it all we will spend a lot of time and effort, which usually means a lot of money, too, and have little to show for our investment. 

I claim we will make no progress at all. 

If we were able positively to affirm the existence of a Deity, all other theories would become redundant overnight. It was Big G all along. But we can’t and, because there is no evidence against the existence of a Deity, either, the only sensible stance to assume is that of the agnostic. Those who align themselves with closed-system ideologies – the ‘isms’ – are merely advertising their intellectual mediocrity.

I am only sure of one thing: that I’m not sure of anything.

If, on the other hand, we try to understand HOW everything works, we will make progress from day one. This is the way it works for the artist, too. Unfortunately, if (IF) I am correct in what I have said so far, then we can’t use expressions such as ‘gifted’ or ‘inspired’, however much we might be flattered by the compliments.

One of the reasons increased effort is being expended in the task of understanding the mind is that Artificial Intelligence (we’d all better get used to seeing the initials ‘AI’) is growing in importance. The fact that a lot of people will make loads of money will guarantee the subject remains at the forefront of research efforts. One of the problems that concerns them most, apart from the fact that the mind might not work with **computable processes, anyway, is the question of whether or not consciousness is a supremely evolved state of general mentality or whether it is a separate ‘compartment’ altogether. Are dogs self-aware, as we are? What about your goldfish?

There’s a danger my discussion will go off the rails here but I would just like to point out that, if computers became self-aware, able to fear for their continued existence, for example, then they would have rights, too. They would also acquire responsibilities. You might be able to sue your robot for spilling a tray of coffee all over you. It has even been suggested that marriages between humans and robots will become legal by the year 2050. Let’s face it, most of you musicians are sci-fi fans as well.

Another reason for research into the workings of the mind is the need to understand mental illness, something we know very little about. Trombonists, for example, are all crazy. They take up a fiendishly difficult instrument only to find there aren’t any gigs.

Britain’s Sir Roger Penrose has gone further than most people into the subject of AI and the human mind and his books ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ and ‘Shadows of the Mind’ are essential reading if you’re into all this. A warning, though. It’s heavy stuff (but well worth the effort).

The answer to the AI problem might lie with a new physics, one that lives in the twilight zone between the quantum world and the macro world we directly experience.

*Read: Carlo Rovelli ‘The Order Of Time’.

**This is because there are problems that are determinable but their outcome can’t be predicted by algorithms. (We’ll see.)

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