Posted in Of Culturel

Of Art and Logic

right and left brainYou have to understand that at a certain point the logic involved in explaining a piece of art collapses, because you can’t explain art through logic. – Milton Glaser

I have often thought about this, quite inconclusively. It would render so much of what I do and am surrounded by useless. And yet, despite spelling my redundancy, it would also be liberating. Where, to what and how, I have no idea. Even if I tried my hardest best to not logicise a Keats poem or a Katy Perry song, it is what my brain and the universe ask of me. There are two kinds of people in the world, and often these two are found in the same person. One, that wants to experience art and beauty for what it is, as a source of pleasure both light and dark. The other is the unfortunate soul who either wants to work it out, has been taught to work it out or has been asked to work it out. And, there is a pleasure in that too. The more complex and challenging, the better, if you have the time and resources to reach a conclusion. For a conclusion must be reached.

The history of mankind and its relationship with all artforms has been a fluctuation of reasoned and unreasoned pleasure. If you look into the history of any art form, from literature to music to painting, it is defined by conveniently named “periods” that can themselves be categorised into reason or passion. Of course, drawing such histories are themselves acts of furthering the process of logic. Logic is central to everything we do in life. Why do most people wake up in the morning? Why do they marry? Why do they get insurance? Why do they splurge? If you didn’t have an answer to any of these questions, you’d be in trouble. You couldn’t say you wake up in the morning for “no reason, just fun”. Fun is itself a very justifiable activity. Even if some things appear unreasonable, like the common cold, there is still some sort of reason you can gather for it, even if it is too modern for such a classic activity, like spawning a multimillion dollar industry that ultimately creates no valid results.

To explore why logic and art can’t always go together, we need to know why we create art. Is there any logic to it? Alright, so the Greeks made very functional examples of architecture with those columns. But, did they really need those flourishes and figures on top of it? Why do we need new pop songs everyday? Aren’t the thousands of ones we already have testament to how they work as a concept? Why should I bother to make a piece of art? Isn’t there more than enough art already?

Ultimately, art is unlike any other human endeavour. In fact, non-artistic human endeavours often become art when their use is redundant. That is why telephones, typewriters and computers from the 80’s are now in museums and not on worktables where they once belonged, providing a more obvious service to mankind. We see these objects solely for their beauty now and even if we use them, we do so with a sense of nostalgia. These objects become art not just because they are on display for their design and participation in human history but, because they evoke specific human emotions.

Even the most logicised piece of art is cold and useless without emotions that get evoked by it. That is why you get mobile phones in so many shapes and colours with subtly different but, more or less, the same functions. Tell me honestly, is it really all those extra megapixels or that bright orange colour? You use as easily as you throw away these gadgets, clothes, furniture and yet they represent something about you and the time you lived in.

That is where logic and boring old academics like me come in (okay, not really old ). In my first year as an undergrad studying English Literature, I asked one of my teachers what were we actually learning to do here. After quite rampant cross-questioning from the overenthusiastic 18-year-old on this end, she finally blurted out, “I don’t know. Nothing. But, that doesn’t mean you stop studying for your finals.” I have since made up my own answer while considering what I do as I logicise artworks ( for a living and because I can’t help it ) and how, in general, art logicians work:

It is to situate, appreciate and protect. With the first, you try to place a work of art in a place, time and culture in history. With the second, you try to see what it means then and now for our lot ( which is the bulk of logicising ). The third, however, is the most important because everything, everything that is around you, makes up what it was to be you now, whether you made it yourself or not. And someday, someone or you yourself will try to preserve it as a record for future generations, so that they may learn where they came from and who you might have been. Ultimately, Shakespeare scholars and portable tape-recorders collectors are doing the same thing. Understanding and preserving a moment in human history.


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

11 thoughts on “Of Art and Logic

  1. I really like your observation that wanting to experience art and wanting to “work it out” are contradictory impulses that can be found in the same person. I’m often torn between them myself. But as your comments about “pleasure” suggest, they don’t necessarily have to exist at cross purposes; sometimes understanding what’s happening logically can even enhance one’s emotional experience of art. But in order for that to happen, you have to be open to the possibility, as opposed to closing yourself off by dismissing all analysis as “nonsense” (as Glaser does in the interview you link to).

    1. Thank you very much, Various Historian! You put it in words much better than I did. I think I understand where Glaser is coming from. Most artists I’ve read about, especially in their own words through letters and memoirs, I’ve noticed that they are much more eloquent when it comes to talking about artists they like,rather than their own work. I guess when an artist has to talk about his/her own work, they are unable to maintain a degree of separation sometimes, even if the piece of art is separate from themselves and after being in the public eye, has got an independent life of its own. How an artist views his/her work is often different from how a member of the public views it. The relationship may evolve and change in both cases. Glaser does show much analysis when he talks about the inspiration and making of the album cover. Maybe, it is not too healthy of the artist to be self-analytical or entertain external analysis. Maybe that’s why they mostly hate reading reviews and being interviewed!

      1. That’s exactly what bugged me about the Glaser interview. As you point out, Glaser shows himself to be capable of analytical insights–especially when he talks about “unifying separate occurrences” and “connecting seemingly unrelated events.” So when he dismisses analysis in general, it seems to me to be a defensive gesture. It’s true that such an attitude is not that uncommon among modern artists, but I have a hard time accepting that most artists inevitably resist analysis. I think that artists who are grounded in philosophical and/or religious traditions that teach analysis can comfortably participate in both non-logical and logical responses to art. So the modern resistance to analysis seems to me to be culture-bound, rather than universal. I guess, though, that part of the reason for the resistance is that analysis is often cast aside during the process of making art, and for understandable reasons. When I’m writing “in the zone,” I don’t stop to think logically about every step in the process either. So while I find modern artists’ defensiveness annoying, I can, like you, see where they are coming from.

      2. I think that this tendency might be due to the state that formal analysis is in today. Whether in a popular or academic sphere, it usually doesn’t provide much support to artists. The former is almost always scathing and the latter lives in its own bubble, often comprising of too much academic jargon. I am sure most artists are curious about how their work is received. But, these are the channels through which they get creditable feedback ( I don’t think many would go through blogs and amazon reviews to find out, though I may be wrong ). And when that feedback is either brutal ( often for the sake of it ) or impenetrable, the obvious response would be to get defensive. Though all this is generalized perception, I think these behaviours can be attributed to impatience. It is just too competitive out there, critics often resort to dismissing or explaining things away because there are too many new ones coming in. They don’t have the time or will to consider that there are human beings making these things who are likely to take whatever is said about their work personally. That is why many artworks get reevaluated ( if they are lucky or worthy ) retrospectively, when monetary and publicity stakes are no longer in consideration.

      3. I hadn’t considered that aspect, but that may well be one part of it. In a complex modern society, the philosophical and religious traditions that I was thinking of no longer hold as much sway as they used to, and so instead of drawing upon them, many artists take refuge in the kind of defensiveness that you describe. I think that there are other factors at work as well, but your explanation does help to account for how our modern culture tends to produce artists who actively resist logic and analysis. The tension between creating art and trying to explain it goes back at least to Plato’s “Ion” and “Phaedrus,” and I find it quite fascinating.

  2. I’ve always been very resistant to the urge of artists to simultaneously present some sort of written ‘explanation’ with their artwork. For me when artwork is made public, it should stand or fall alone – and we should be free to experience it just as we do experience it. That might include logically, emotionally, or any mix of the two. I like the idea that the artist doesn’t control the art even though they created it.

    1. That is practically true but, if a piece of art is meant for public consumption then the artist or someone involved in promoting that piece of art, has to determine its saleability to an approximation. Even if the artist himself/herself is not concerned with saying it, someone has to communicate what it suggests. And in interview scenarios, like the Milton Glaser one which inspired this post, the bulk of the conversation lies in the artist trying to explain his process and reasons behind his piece of art. An artist may not like it, or may not be the best analyst of his/her work but, it is often required for the work to be known in the first place.

  3. This is an excellent post, and one that I have a similar experience with. As a literature student at university you dissect books to the point that they’re barely recognisable, it got so ridiculous I had to stop reading for a couple of months after I finished because I couldn’t get myself out of the frame of mind and just enjoy a book without looking for thematic links desperately. Clever post.

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