Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The End of Art

This whole stem-cell breakthrough is certainly worth keeping track of, but not here because you know about it already; it's all over other sites far more popular than mine. Ditto the hilarious perspective on WoW which serves as the subject of today's visual aid, starring characters which many of us must know (albeit in roles with more contemporary fashion sense). No, today I'm going to direct your attention to neuroeasthetics, and the following question:

Have you ever seen an ugly fractal?

I haven't. I wouldn't hang every fractal I've ever seen in my living room (even during my Roger Dean phase) — but it wasn't the essential form that turned me off those iterations, it was the color scheme. And such schemes aren't intrinsic to the math; they're arbitrary, a programmer's decision to render this isocline in red and that in blue and not the other way around.

I would argue that fractals, as mathematical entities, are, well, appealing. Aesthetically. All of them. It's something I've batted around with friends and colleagues at least since the mid-eighties, and speaking as a former biologist it has a certain hand-wavey appeal because you can see how an appreciation of fractal geometry might evolve. After all, nature is fractal; and the more fractal a natural environment might be, the greater the diversity of opportunity. An endlessly bifurcating forest; a complex jumble of rocky geometry; a salt plain. Which environments contain more niches, more places to hide, more foraging opportunities, more trophic pathways and redundant backup circuits? Doesn't it make sense that natural selection would reward us for hanging out in complex, high-opportunity environments? Couldn't that explain aesthetics, in the same way that natural selection gave us* rhythm and the orgasm**? Couldn't that explain art?

Maybe. Maybe not. Because firstly (as I'm sure some of you have already chimed in), complex environments also contain more places for predators and competitors to hide and jump out at you. There are costs as well as benefits, and the latter better outweigh the former if fractophilia is going to take hold in the population at large. Also, who says all art is fractal? Sure, landscapes and still lifes. Maybe even those weird cubist and impressionist thingies. But faces aren't fractal; what about portraiture?

The obvious answer is that the recognition and appreciation of faces has got obvious fitness value too, and aesthetics is a big tent; nothing says "art" can't appeal to the fusiform gyrus as well as whatever Mandelbrot Modules we might prove to have. But now along comes this intriguing little paper (update 22/11 — sorry, forgot to add the link yesterday) in Network, which suggests that even though faces themselves are not fractal, artistic renditions of faces are; that artists tend to increase the aesthetic appeal of their portraits by introducing into their work scale-invariant properties that don't exist in the original. Even when dealing with "representational" works, evidently, true art consists of fractalizing the nonfractal.

What we're talking about, folks, may be the end of art as we know it. Go a little further down this road and every mathematician with a graphics tablet will be able to create a visual work that is empirically, demonstrably, beautiful. Personal taste will reduce to measurable variations in aesthetic sensibilities resulting from different lifetime experiences; you will be able to commission a work tweaked to appeal to that precise sensibility. Art will have become a designer drug.

Way back in the early seventies, a story from a guy called Burt Filer appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. It is called "Eye of the Beholder", and it begins thusly:

THE NEW YORK TIMES, Section 2, Sunday June 3rd by Audrey Keyes. Peter Lukas' long-awaited show opened at the Guggenheim today, and may have shaken confidence in the oldest tenet of art itself: that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Reactions to his work were uncannily uniform, as if the subjective element had been removed...

Filer wrote his story before anyone even knew what a fractal was. (His guess was that aesthetics could be quantified using derivatives, a miscall that detracts absolutely nothing from the story.) "Beholder" wasn't his first published work; in fact, as far as I can tell, it may have been his last. (That would be fitting indeed.) I don't know if the man's even still alive.

But if you're out there, Burt: dude you called it.

*Well, some of us.
** Ditto.

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Blogger Fraxas said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

November 21, 2007 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Fraxas said...

I've never seen a scale-invariant representation that was ugly, but I've never seen one I thought was 'beautiful'. Then again, I've never been particularly into fractals. I appreciate the applicability of complex math to antenna design and particle physics, and it's certainly convenient to have a formal representation of scale invariance since (as you so rightly expound) - it's everywhere. but beautiful? I'm not sure...

November 21, 2007 at 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter: Your post reminded me of an article I stumbled over about a decade ago--some researchers were trying to demonstrate that the more symmetrical a face was, the more attractive it was. I looked over the photos included in the article and I have to say, even the most symmetrical-faced of those Psychology students they used as models were pretty ho-hum in the looks department.

By the way: There is no such thing as a former biologist. There are only recovering biologists. Didn't they tell you that when they gave you your doctorate?

-Sarah T.

November 21, 2007 at 3:32 PM  
Blogger dystonia ek said...

I'm sure I don't need to point out that the admission that you had a Roger Dean phase at any time may invalidate your credentials as an art critic, here.

Oh, and

November 23, 2007 at 6:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Sarah said

There is no such thing as a former biologist. There are only recovering biologists. Didn't they tell you that when they gave you your doctorate?

They never gave me my doctorate. I never let them. In fact, I have gone out of my way to avoid every graduation ceremony to which I was ever entitled, right back to and including high school. The hypocrisy of those events just boils my blood: that you'd have to share smiles and stage time with the same assholes who threw bricks in your path every fucking step of the way, that you'd have to pretend that you and your thick-witted zoo-keepers were "Partners in Knowledge" or whatever crappy slogan they'd decided to slap onto the ceremonies that year. Hell, for some of these things you actually had to fucking kneel to get your piece of paper, as the same shit-for-brains bureaucrat who'd cut post-secondary funding to the bone the year before stood over you dressed up like Count Fucking Chocula, intoning "I accept you in the name of the University of —"

You accept me? What makes you think I accept you, you fat pompous brain-addled twat?

I steered clear of those things. I've got my degrees, stashed away in a trunk somewhere, right next to my various grad awards (one of which they didn't even fill in my name on, because they were so averse to giving me the award — I'd had the temerity to insert jokes into my thesis presentation, you see — that they tried to give it to someone else until the one decent person on the jury threatened to go public with their backstage machinations). I've looked at them only once, between the time they arrived in the mail and the time I put them away.

They're worthless documents anyway. People with far fewer credentials are making a far better living than I ever will.

dystonia ek said...

I'm sure I don't need to point out that the admission that you had a Roger Dean phase at any time may invalidate your credentials as an art critic, here-

On the contrary. You can't appreciate the good until you've experienced the bad. (I will admit, in the interests of full disclosure, that it was only recently that I took down my foam-cored Relayer poster. Replaced it with a picture of a viperfish.)

November 26, 2007 at 1:56 PM  
Anonymous Brian Prince said...

Beauty is an easy way to engage the viewer, but if there's nothing beneath that veneer, you've basically just got a decoration.

There's nothing wrong with pretty veneers, but a world containing only decorative art isn't a world I'd particularly want to inhabit.

As an illustrator (the art world's equivalent of a genre writer), I'm hardly an art snob, but I do think that art with a capital "A" needs context, narrative, symbolism ... lots of subjective, human stuff we don't have the math for (yet).

Although it's certainly arguable that most people don't look past the veneer. Witness the success of Thomas Kincade.

When headcheeses start donning smocks I'll worry.

November 26, 2007 at 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm fuzzy, but aren't faces fractal? It's got landscapes, niches, and predators.

November 28, 2007 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Yeah, but faces don't have scale-invariance. (And since when were "predators" an essential trait of fractal geometry?)

November 30, 2007 at 4:40 PM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

Yours is an interesting thought, because I have found some fractals intensely ugly. The regularity and repetition at different scales looks viral, dangerous or faintly menacing in some instances, and beautiful in others.

I find it fascinating that some viewers get intense and opposite emotional reactions to images with no real natural content. What the heck does the limbic system see in a fractal picture that it then reports such a strong reaction to the forebrain?

And why are some viewers not seeing that makes fractals so neutral?

December 26, 2007 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

These are fascinating questions, and eye-opening as well; I myself have had a neutral reaction to some fractals (Sierpinski gaskets don't do a lot for me), but I've never been actively *epelled by one. Obviously, the thought never even occurred to me.

Menacing, I guess I can see, in the same way that "bugs" (with their jointed, segmented, geometric-type bodies) freak some people out. But I have to kinda squint to see that. I'd be interested in more details...

December 30, 2007 at 11:05 PM  
Anonymous Bob Filer said...

Hello. I'm Bob Filer, Burt's younger brother. Burt would really appreciate your take on his thinking. He was a brilliant man.

Unfortunately he was killed in an automobile accident near Philly in Sept of 1980.

Thanks again for the kind words


November 19, 2008 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Hi Bob. Thanks for dropping by.

I read Burt's story when I was barely into my teens. Four decades later, it was the first thing to pop into my mind when I saw the fractals-and-faces paper. You can tell it stuck with me.

It was exactly the kind of story that science fiction is for — a thought experiment into the nature of what we are, and how technology changes that — and it had to audacity to take place not in a spaceship or a lab, but in the arts community. I was sorry to learn of your brother's death; if that was typical of the kind of ideas he was playing with, we lost a hell of a writer before his time.

November 19, 2008 at 3:56 PM  

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