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Mercury and Argos

It tends to be common in the aching philosophy of our time to hide a treasure and then celebrate its finding as a wondrous discovery of intellect. This error seems particularly prevalent in the world of philosophy of art, where the violence of reason is wielded as a hammer to shape reality.

Arthur Danto, for example, characterized painting — ever since the Renaissance and until the avant-garde movements beginning at the turn of the 19th century — as a practice in the pursuit of increasing realism in art. An imitation of the world seeking always higher degrees of fidelity. What concerned artists, Danto would say, was depicting the world as it looked. This allowed him to state there was a fundamental conceptual shift when art “learned” that it could be more than just imitation.

On principles of Renaissance theory, paintings were windows on the world — pure, apparently transparent openings through which one saw the world as if from outside. So a picture drew its beauty from the world, ideally having none of its own to contribute to what one saw, as it were, through it.

Arthur Danto, Abuse of Beauty, 2002.

Such a resolute conviction in his theoretical model (that illusionism was the primary objective of painting) shows a disregard for the actual reality of art and those that made its history. Leonardo wrote among his notes for a book on painting:

The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies every thing placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.

Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting.

It is also evident when looking at some of our greatest painters that the development of their craft was not one of increasing fidelity but often quite the oposite. Their earlier work tends to exhibit more faithful attention towards depicting details of the world than their later work does. At their zenith and the more they dominated the medium, the representation becomes more dynamic, portraying elements with varying degrees of emphasis in a symphony of shapes.

Velázquez final works display this quality with extreme eloquence and sensibility. His forms attain both freshness and aplomb through his extraordinary and varied brushwork. Composition becomes tangibly cinematic built out of impressions of reality. That ability to synthesize and express couldn’t be further away from a quest to depict the world as if paintings were mere mirrors standing in front of it.

Unfortunately, three of his compositions on mythology were lost centuries ago to the fires at the Alcázar of Madrid, with just one remaining: Mercury and Argos. It is a magnificent work that should elude on its own the mischaracterization of mimetic progress as a valid project. It contains that ingredient which eludes the philosopher chasing conceptual simplification: that porosity and style in expression that shine over pale and cold imitation.

The shallowness of specialisation

There’s a pervasive belief in the ineluctable triumph of expertise and specialisation. We dissect knowledge into areas, crafts into specialties, nature into labels. At their best, they are a valuable way of reducing reality and making it apprehensible to our minds. At their worst, they hinder understanding by filtering everything through a preconceived structure, forcing things to fall into dogmatic places, naturally excluding what doesn’t fit into its parsing of the world. Our civilisations run the risk of fragmenting themselves and their individuals when it relentlessly pushes towards utilitarian benefits. We seem to stare at a reluctant and blurry distance to Terence, the great latin poet who stated for posterity: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”

Haven’t we trapped our mind’s inquisitiveness under the guise of utility? Trapped by our own very reluctance to let it push itself. In a way, the structure of our contemporary learning instead of expanding scope and curiosity tends to narrow it. The necessity to foster interdisciplinary and inclusive efforts is often a sign that our spirit has become tragically fragmented. All in the name of a self acquired notion of depth, value, and mercantile utility. Unfortunately, it’s also a false sense of depth—yet a very dangerous one.

It’s not hard to see that we may lack any sort of cohesive view, that we struggle at the gaps our grid of instrumental utility conceals. If the splitting of knowledge into areas was a necessity to allow room for diverse and improved practices, now it may be close to lose the thing that bonded them, and relinquish any sense of inclusiveness. The sciences look down upon philosophy as mere poetic ramblings; all the while philosophy looks down on the sciences as being lost in arbitrary calculations. Both forget that our greatest minds were naturally inclined to pursue both. There’s so many ways in which you can cut an entity until it no longer resembles any entity. Pursuing specialisation for too long will only yield fragmentation of knowledge — something that ails every corner of our understanding. Most often, the hardest problems cannot be deciphered within the confines of just one discipline. Sometimes, they cannot even be formulated at all from their wells.

The promise of specialisation operates on the assumption that a sort of collective geist should arise to achieve what its individuals sacrificed. But who speaks for it? The landscape of our knowledge seems like a field of separate holes where we dig in isolation. The irony is that nobody can tell how close those holes are anymore with regard to each other, or even whether they are close at all, so absorbed we are in their verticality. Could there be a distinct fear that they may forever be isolated islands? What are we to do with this cognitive scenery of moon-like craters? Who is there to dig horizontally so that those holes can reach each other?

It has been said that this overspecialisation is the only way to avoid superficial thoughts in a vast world that is impossible to grasp and comprehend. As everything, the depth achieved is but a matter of perception. Just turn the head sideways and we’ll see what is reverenced as a tunnel of illustrious depth becomes a superficial line of sameness. We are so attached to the holes we are digging that we can’t prevent being shallow—that is, horizontally speaking.

But even then it seems as if we are in a more dangerous situation. More precarious. We assume that focusing on a specialisation path is a necessity for deepness on a time of too much things to learn and explore. But then we lose all sense of curiosity, the very will to explore. We suspend the desire to know whatever lies beyond our field. What can imagination do if you only feed it from the same source? By its very nature it perpetuates a status quo, because there’s no thinking allowed outside of the holes we have chosen. Depth without breadth becomes the epitome of a particular kind of shallowness.

Great individuals have shown to have maybe one thing in common — they never deprived their curiosity of its natural state to move in all directions. Categories and disciplines are mental tools we use to superimpose a sense of continuity on a world which is essentially constantly transforming itself into existence. Creating, learning, and teaching are fundamental acts of discovery and development, intuition and inspiration, trust and openness; reaching out to the potential we have come to exist with.

Written for a profile in design.blog.

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.

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.

Not to Write

I’m not going to write about why I don’t write. That would defeat any stance of honesty. On principle. And it’s quite evident, it would just mean going after windmills with a dragon’s valor. There’s no reason in denying that. Yet again, the fact still is—I like to write. But perhaps more revealingly, I quite enjoy reading. And that’s known. If you don’t read, you can’t properly write.

Now, all things considered, I’m usually valiantly writing. And I can agree with that. In practice. That practice is the beehive of any achievement. No matter how inspired it may dress up as the charm of a unique instant. No matter how mischievously romantic it tries to mask itself to the unwary. In the end, it always flows the same—to create is, essentially, to repeat.

What’s the genealogy of a written thought? That’s a wrong start. Never start at the beginning. For that we call experience—who has the time for that? The fundamental will—to write. That is often misleading, for there is a more primeval thing we ought to do from deep within—which is to look. Even before thinking, we have to look. Where have we looked recently? For we read, and we look, and we write. All curiosity is bound to it.

But it’s vague. That is to say, in what direction? In what direction ought we look? Since this is but a path of many… Nevertheless, I have no doubt that behind all of this there is a fine seriousness, a modest, dauntlessly hard work for which we aspire. Perhaps even collectively. And it’s quite reassuring that a genuine cheerfulness is to be found—if not at the end, then at the turn of the path. Have you ever heard the echo of such a tune before? It’s not silence, but it very much looks like it. At least from the outside, since in its innermost cave it’s quite the opposite. So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

We are back to our problem, where all lengthy things require grace. Not a pompous one—that’s not truly useful. It’s the grace of knowing that nothing is really completed until it becomes the very action of doing. And with it, it carries its essential joy. Which is to say, its very shape. Then all is fine—we can sit back. We can contemplate. And how have we forsaken the act of contemplating! Most likely unwillingly. But as most unwilling reactions, it’s a dangerous one.

Contemplate, and repeat. In the end, it can be, because it still is. Such is the way of it. Creation is tied to the time of the act itself. Completion is then nothing but some sort of stoic abandonment. The renounce of the ongoing practice of doing. That’s not what we seek. We seek better. That’s why I’m not going to write about why I don’t write. In the end, who wouldn’t prefer a status line devoid of flamboyant wit?—: “I should write more“.

By virtue of design

I have been taking some time to develop a new design and having it properly work as a journal of thoughts. That meant gathering some old writings and shaking the dust out of them, rewriting pieces. Always a good experience. I want to make use of this opportunity to put on words some thoughts about the force behind this iteration and also about design in general. I plan on making this place a sitial for experiment with design while allowing me to write comfortably.

This site works above WordPress and its front design grows around the excellent p2. I wrote before about the state of comments and the outlanders policy on the site and it is time for the pendulum to go steering back to its former place. At the shade of P2, comments are now more blended with the site. It works wonders in Webkit and looks quite good in Firefox. I do not know about the rest of the herd.

As individuals who are deeply involved with design we ought to question from time to time the implicit ideas behind the notions we follow. Some time ago Jason Santa Maria wrote a nice article about proportions and ratios and how they matter to design on the web. Leaving behind all the singularities he writes about, the question leads itself to the actual role and meaning of design. To understand how a medium should deal with design principles we should question how design works in and of itself, because that means how it copes with said principles. Then the inevitable next step are the ancient faces of form and content.

When it comes to my view of form and content I hold content as having its shape –always. And design is, in this sense, the content itself given that it changes the perception of the body of words in a page —what is often and thusly regarded as the content. Design is not about giving a message; it constitutes the very message due to the fact that we perceive the synthesis of the content and its shape. We cannot separate content from design. What we perceive as content is actually the union of the very content and the design that conforms it. I argue that maybe the quest is not to find what new principles the web unleashes, but how the canon of perception may be applied to it and evolve from it.

I do not believe that design is conveying information per se. I believe design is the information and the information is the design as they are molded into one unity; and as one unity they remain so long as the perception takes place. I do not think we can regard the information separate from the design that shapes it –this is, at the moment someone perceives the unity. The thing is that human expression through the web is still conveyed by virtue of perception, and our perception does not elude the guides and rules it has followed throughout time.