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The importance of taste

There’s an endless conundrum in the arts between the relationship of an artist and their own work. Who ought to be superior, the work or the artist? What does it say about an artist to produce something whose quality exceeds their own ability?

The ability to repeat. This is another crucial aspect of the story that is present in every single one of the arts and their techniques. It has its echo in acting, for instance, a discipline where uniqueness and “spontaneity” is so often heralded as a virtue. Ingmar Bergman used to say that repetition was inherent to a great actor’s performance — their ability to reenact the nuance of a scene over and over, be it during rehearsals, stage representations, or shot after shot in cinema. A creator that has the ability to replicate again their own work means they are both in control of their skills and of the result, even when it may seem the result is just a natural effect. Legend has it Marlon Brando used to mumble many of his lines on set to force himself to act again during the later stages of voice recording, given the new context the edited sequence provided for improving a performance.

Oh, but how it is often said that there’s a sense of wonder and irreplicability that occurs precisely in those fine moments by the singular chance of the occasion! 1

While filming Stalker, Tarkovsky had to shoot twice almost the entire film after finding a year’s worth of footage had been improperly developed at the laboratory, rendering the material unusable. He was in a similar situation again years later when he had to remake the complex and iconic sequence of his last film Sacrifice after the camera broke during shooting. (Which involved rebuilding the house that burns down during the scene.) Devastating for moral, but a testament of his creative will.

When taste exceeds one’s ability. Considering it deeply, that should be the most gratifying reality a craftsman, artist, or creator in general could posses. It means their judgement is sophisticated enough that it allows them to indefinitely grow, to indefinitely improve their technique and refine their renditions. The ability to create is swayed by the capacity to perceive a work and know how to improve it.

Leonardo phrased it with eloquence when he wrote: “The painter who entertains no doubt of his own ability, will attain very little. When the work succeeds beyond the judgement, the artist acquires nothing; but when the judgement is superior to the work, he never ceases improving.

If the work surpasses your own ability to judge it, it either means you’ve reached a ceiling when it comes to the refinement of your practice, or that the excellence of a work was done somehow by mistake — in a way despite its creator’s abilities. When taste is below the plenitude of the work the artist is inevitably left behind, a pale shadow of his own work. Yet when taste and judgement prevail, both the work and the creator’s abilities cannot but improve.

Notes:

  1. It’s frequent in art to talk about the sacredness of the moment. Éric Rohmer was adamant about retaining the soundscape from the original scene, since the depth of reality cannot arguably be replicated later in a studio. He used to illustrate it with how the sound of birds is unique and specific to a place. Nevertheless, that goes into quite another subject — the relationship of artifice and nature in a creation and the means of representation. (How excellence and purity in art means doing the effect of nature while still being a human product.) It’s not my intent to dive into this now, so I’m just glancing over it. Another subject for another time.

Drawing

Charcoal, black and white Conté pencils. Cartoon sketch made for transfering onto canvas.

On consciousness as an illusion

What is consciousness if not an illusion of the mind? Perhaps the mere result of a growing need by a living organism to construct intricate responses to external stimuli in their struggle to survive. This requires an acute sense of existence in time, giving rise to both the notion of an indefinite present and the perception of itself as it operates in this state. Has it been a survival trait for complex organisms to develop this real-time figuration of its behaviour towards a moment where consciousness arises in the mind almost as a side effect of its own activity?

For most living organisms, instinct seems to suffice as the inherent inclination towards a certain behaviour in response to a particular situation. Yet, eventually in the history of a complex being inherent inclinations are no longer enough to determine actions because the plurality of the scenarios faced becomes too vast. The responses need to be shaped in the very moment the behaviour occurs, it needs to draw from its own accumulated experience to figure out new action paths. Instincts cannot be the ruler of general behaviour anymore because they are not effective guiding it. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if this capacity to construct behaviour (of transforming instinct into active reflection) might be what ultimately gives rise to what we understand as consciousness?

As such, our decisions and intentions may not proceed from a sense of identity, but actually precede it — and only eventually give rise to it. Is sentience and recognition of this subjective state a characteristic of a sufficiently complex consciousness that now also needs to extend its understanding through time? That is, extend its attention to both the past and the possible future as it figures out how to act in the present, with the side effect that extending such an attention to the past and the future creates a notion of permanence through time — of something that persists through change. This identification of the consciousness with its own operativeness as a permanence may be the root of the illusion of us being the consciousness. (While consciousness might have been nothing but an evolutionary tool of the mind). The result is the illusion of a self, an intangible notion of permanence, a product of the mind acting in a state of present awareness that makes consciousness spring.

The representation of the self as an effect of the mind processing and acting on the world also forges one the most primeval assumptions of understanding: cause and effect. Our understanding seems to thrive in this reality, one which can be dissected in terms of causes and effects as it directs its own behaviour. In such a world the active consciousness is able to reflect on the outcome of its actions to figure out how to act, all of this coalesced simultaneously in a sense of present time and eventually harbouring the notion of will. It is perhaps a necessity of a sufficiently complex mind in a sufficiently complex organism that this simultaneous activity produces the notion of a conscious being.

The ancient problem of free will against a predefined fate for human actions may become, in this sense, a false dichotomy — free will is as much an illusion as predefined actions are spurious.

At a time of concerns around the possibility of humanity creating machines with a resemblance of sentience and intelligence, understanding the development and nature of what we call consciousness is not just a philosophical or speculative effort, but a fundamental background for any conversation around the topic to make any sense at all. Considering consciousness may not be more than an illusion created by the history of the mind as it grew on top of instinctual behaviour, where do we actually place the notion of being? The invention of consciousness may have been a bright spark in time (one which seems at times to hold itself eternal), but nevertheless, nothing more than a moment in our brief existence. Understanding its nature — the reluctance with which it exhibits its illusion — could be another step in our knowing of reality.

I redesign this place more often
than I write on it.