Saturday, October 04, 2014

I beg to differ

I've been thinking meta lately and coming up with more questions than answers. But, one of the things I am sure about is that there is something wrong with our socially constructed way of valuing art and artists and also science and scientists.

I'm halfway through Van Gogh on Demand, by Winnie Won Yin Wong, a book that explores the plight of many varieties of Chinese artists on different social and economic levels.  I highly recommend the book, based on what I have read so far.  If you can't find it, you can read the PhD thesis on which the book is based for free.

I'm doing major housekeeping on two major data sets.  This weekend, I'm babysitting supercomputer batch jobs that should (hopefully) run for several weeks.  While keeping an eye on things from home, I came across this Is Computer Coding an Art? via How Creative is Coding? This paragraph quoting, Vikram Chandra, stopped me cold:
But the virtues of what might be called “beautiful code” are different than those of beautiful art. “Beautiful code,” he writes, quoting Yukihirio “Maz” Matsumodo (the creator of the Ruby programming language), “is really meant to help the programmer be happy and productive.” It serves a purpose. Art, by its very nature, serves no purpose. Code is practical and logical. Art is about affect, associations, and emotional responses—part of what Chandra calls dhvani. The term, developed by Anandavardhana, a ninth-century Indian literary theorist, derives from a word meaning “to reverberate.” Dhvani is resonance or “that which is not spoken,” as Chandra says. Code is explicit. Art can be irrational and leave some of the most important things unsaid.
I'm especially repelled by "Art, by its very nature, serves no purpose."

Regular readers of this blog know me as a connoisseur of practical art and craft who enjoys amateur dabbling in same.  One friend calls my experimentation and documentation of remaking castoffs into new clothing a piece of performance art.  I take that as high praise.

Back to the point...

I am biased.  I think we should expand the definition of art to those fields and materials practiced primarily by women that produce beautiful as well as useful artifacts.

But, even if art objects serve no materially practical purpose, they .can. serve a purpose.  Does it illuminate some aspect of the world that was there, but not appreciated?  Do the viewers come away with more understanding of the world or a better grasp of what they don't know?  To repeat a cliche, art applies a mirror to society or a window into the human condition or insert your favorite phrase.

(Ok, I am not sure if making a balloon rabbit in polished metal is really art but I'll let other people go there.)

On the flip side, software aka code is not purely an abstraction.  It can control physical objects, such as how a satellite operates or, as I encountered this week, the behavior of tape robots.  One of these days, I want to attend Solid, a conference that explores this theme between software and tangible things.

Coding can create aesthetically-pleasing artifacts such as this 500 mb wind visualization made with help from NCEP and

This computational artifact of 500 millibar wind fields* helps explain weather (especially rainfall) patterns. Like (some) art, it is both pretty to look at, and provides insight.

Coders and artists both belong to the super set of makers.  That's all I know for certain.

Mommy Art (and Science)

* Sea level is roughly 1000 millibars.  500 mb is the half-height of the atmosphere, if you were to look at just one level, 500 mb is a good place to start.  The geopotential height of the 500 mb isobaric surface is an especially useful diagnostic tool to locate dry and wet areas; globally, proportional differences in the geopotential height are largest here.

Do you like the way I snuck in "computational artifact" several times?  That's a term I picked up after reading the new College Board and National Science Foundation Draft Curriculum Framework for the new AP Computer Science Principles class.


  1. Just because that coder doesn't understand the purpose of art , it does not mean he's right. I make art for myself, for gifts, for practical purposes just as useful as any code. I do programming, I sew, cook, and paint. All of those things have a purpose, maybe not visible to his eye. I have ME and suffer from chronic pain, but painting and sewing allow me to concentrate and relax so that I don't need to take painkillers . That's pretty useful.

  2. Even prior to reading your commentary, I choked a bit on "Art... serves no purpose." However, I suppose it's useful to know where the author comes down in his definition, which is really how I read his following commentary.

    I think that there are degrees of craftsmanship and art inherent in any designed object. Take the examples of a Shaker table and a Rembrandt still life as the first two that come to mind. Or maybe take the examples of the Apple iPhone and Levitated Mass. Don't you think that where one draws the line between art and not-art can be a personal choice? They aren't disjoint, for certain, in my opinion.

    Vikram Chandra has done us all the favor of explaining exactly where his art boundary lies.

  3. But... isn't the art of it the part that serves no purpose? Take one of your quilts. It's easy enough to make one a solid color, that would serve the same objective purpose equally well. But the art of your quilts comes from the effort to make them beautiful, an effort that doesn't change how well the quilt serves its purpose.

    What about a Greek urn with a painted design? The shape is utilitarian, and the art is in the design, which has no effect on the urn's ability to hold substances.

    Art serves no purpose, though it is often part of objects that do.