Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Variation and Perfection

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “variation” and I’m beginning to realise that it plays an easily overlooked but vital role in our understanding and appreciation of a constellation of concepts including “uniqueness,” “rarity,” “perfection,” “quality,” “value,” and “greatness” etc. These are things to which we might aspire and they lead many people in the world to extraordinary lengths simply for the hope of experiencing the vaguest glimpse of them. Global culture is, to a large degree, driven by this desire: to be the best, the greatest, the highest quality, the most efficient, the most economical, the most sustainable, the most valuable, the most perfect.

All quantifiable things, by definition, lend themselves to being measured, and it is through measurement that we might seek to improve them. As Lord Kelvin famously noted: “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” But not all things that can be measured, can be improved. We can measure the hue, intensity and brightness of a myriad of colours but we’d likely be certifiable if we sought to improve say indigo, crimson or ochre. These colours are what they are. We might prefer one particular colour over all others, but this does not make International Klein Blue either qualitatively or quantitatively better than any other colour. Our preferences are subjective aesthetic choices, not objective facts.

When discussing aesthetic matters we can still talk in terms of “quality,” “value” and “greatness” etc. but the further we venture into this territory the more unwieldy and contentious the criteria we might apply. Once again, we are dealing with preferences – very elaborate ones - but preferences nonetheless. Over time we might find that we share the ‘taste’ of a certain connoisseur and that their preferences lead us to a fuller understanding and enjoyment of our own experiences but there is nothing objectively more True about their opinion than that of any other equally well informed and experienced consumer. Truth, in fact, doesn’t actually figure in the equation, since we are not dealing with facts so much as feelings and sensations - not measurable things ‘out there’ so much as complex and notoriously difficult to quantify internal states. If you’re at all doubtful about this claim then consider for a moment the extent to which societies institute teams, juries, boards, committees and panels etc. to make critical judgements in cases where the possibility of subjective bias may lead to faulty or damaging decisions. In such cases we substitute inter-subjectivity (collective judgement) as a proxy for the goal of pure objectivity.

So where does variation fit in? Perhaps the easiest way to approach this is to introduce the experience of food (though the principle could be applied to any sensory experience). Imagine the most perfect meal you’ve ever eaten. Would you wish to dine on this same experience day in, day out, morning, noon and night for the rest of your life? Doubtful. The experience would very soon become monotonous to the point of disgust. My point therefore, is that where aesthetic matters are concerned, quality is nothing without variation.

Yet another important aspect of what makes anything valuable is “rarity,” such that when rare things become abundant they cease to retain their value. Paradoxically though, what we also find, is that rarity and variation pull in entirely different directions. Rarity calls for uniqueness and scarcity whereas variation calls for multiplicity and diversity. This might well explain why there is such a widespread emphasis on originality within the fields of aesthetic choice, since originality simultaneously provides something rare (the first of its kind) and variation (by adding something different to what we already have). It might also explain why true perfection is an ideal forever tantalisingly out of reach.


Seán said...

I was reading Vincenti yesterday, and he made clear the difference between an engineer's approach and an artist's. Engineers also require the generation of variation, but they then subject the population of various possibilities to rigorous testing.

First we test in our heads whether it is remotely likely to work, then we subject the product either to a true proof test, or to a partial or proxy test.

I'm guessing artists do things analogous to all of this, but as their "proof" is whether people "like" it, it all gets a bit vague(by "like" I don't mean they want to hang it in their living room)

However, Vincenti gives an example of how engineers found out how to reliably control something previously thought to be utterly subjective, the perceived "flying quality" of aircraft according to their pilots.

Since the YBAs might arguably have already commercially optimised the production of art based on engineering principles, this may not be news.

J. Hamlyn said...

Yep you're right - artists have, at best, intersubjective connoisseurship (though the criteria are often pretty robust) whereas engineers and scientists etc have empirical testable facts.

And when you say "testing" I guess in many ways it comes down to the difference between 'experimentation' (in the true scientific sense) and 'play'. Art has adopted the term 'experimentation' because it helps bolster its credibility as opposed to 'play' which is seen as being trivial, frivolous or pointless. As we've discussed before, I don't think it makes sense to expect art to conform or to answer the questions that science can answer.

Seán said...

...though if your aim is to make money by selling your stuff, your testing procedure can be just as quantitative as an engineer's...

J. Hamlyn said...

if your aim is to make money by selling your stuff it's probably not either wise or statistically advisable to do it by making art!

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