Friday, 2 September 2011

Brought to Brook (Memetic Innovation as a Threshold Concept)

In a previous post I mentioned a conference keynote given by Donald Brook and his claim that “experimental art” is a tautology. Soon after posting I was contacted directly by Brook wishing to politely clarify some points and to offer me a copy of his paper so that I could study it more carefully.

After a momentary impulse to stand my ground and argue the case I decided instead to give his paper a closer look and to try to follow the thesis. This led to a flurry of emails which I’m pleased to say Brook was generous and patient enough to engage in.

In educational theory there is an increasingly popular idea known as “Threshold Concepts” which describes those areas of difficult conceptual terrain encountered as one ventures further into any specialist domain. These thresholds invariably challenge already established conceptual schema (in fact they often overturn them) and once assimilated they transform the learner’s view of the subject forever and may even alter their view of themselves and of the world. Powerful stuff where epistemology and ontology collide!

I’m not entirely sure that Brook’s ideas have been exactly a threshold concept for me but they have certainly proved troublesome, discursive and liminal: all characteristic elements of threshold concept thinking.

Now comes the difficult part – to describe the concept.

The initial idea, as I see it, stems from the identification of a split in the meaning of the word “art”. “Art”, according to Brook, is a homonym and the two senses of the word are so often conflated that any discussion of the term quickly leads into a mire of unnecessary philosophical complexity and specious argument.

Art version 1 or “art#1” as I will call it, is a trans-historical, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary human capacity for creative innovation and it’s the art we speak of when we discuss the “art of gardening”, the "art of crime" or even the “art of craft” for that matter. Brook dubs this form of art “memetic innovation” (not to be confused with mimetic innovation). Following on from Richard Dawkins’ and others theorisation of memes (which are the cultural equivalent of genes) Brook sees art#1 as those unexpected – and to that extent unintentional - discoveries within all fields of human ingenuity (not just that field where artworks are made) that can be recognized, shared and repeated. This aspect of repeatability is crucial since it is this that allows a mere epiphany to endure beyond being a simple flash in the pan to become a disseminable meme (this raises some very interesting ideas relating to the nature of survival to which I will return shortly).

Memes, like genes, propagate themselves as copies. However, there is an important difference, as Brook writes:
“Genes are replicated, which is a causal process, whereas memes are imitated, which is an intentional and voluntary process. The one thing they have in common is that they may be perfectly replicated (or imitated, as the case may be) or they may be imperfectly replicated (or imitated). Perfect replication (or imitation) ensures the perpetuation of a kind; imperfect replication (or imitation) results—through evolutionary adaptation—in the historical emergence, shaping and extinction of a kind.”
So like genes, memes undergo variations which may or may not be better adapted to their current environment. Those that are, survive and propagate themselves further, those that do not, tend to be superseded or to die off in classic Darwinian fashion.

“Art#2” as it will be known here, is the name the artworld gives to those objects and experiences, in all their myriad forms, that it classifies as art: it is “the class of works of art” as Brook puts it. Brook’s insight into the bifurcated nature of the term "art" allows us to gain powerful conceptual traction when dealing with, for example, what has become known as the “Institutional Theory” of art widely popularized by Arthur Danto and particularly George Dickie in his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). Simply put, the Institutional Theory of Art claims that art is anything that the artworld says it is. It’s an extremely prevalent justification (most likely because it takes no brain power to trot it out, ie: it’s a resilient meme) used by gallerists or artists like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst.

In 1980 the British aesthetician Richard Wollheim took the Institutional Theory of Art to task by arguing that art should have reasons for being art. If there are no good reasons then there is likewise no good reason to consider the artifacts claiming to be art as art. Furthermore, if the artworld adopts something as art then we should examine the artworld’s reasons, since the claim that “it’s art because we say so” is simply neither a compelling nor a persuasive justification.

Dickie returned to the debate in 1998 but Wollheim’s emphasis on reasons continues to stack up very well, though it is perhaps true that a few concrete examples of what he meant by reasons would have provided clearer evidence of what was required as necessary and sufficient conditions for considering something as art.

Brook’s theory allows us to take this argument one step further and by a completely different route dispensing entirely with the field of aesthetics which Brook views as spurious. Through it we are able to establish that the art that Dickie and the Institutional Theorists speak of (the art that most of us think of when we hear ‘authorities’ speak of art) is predominantly art#2. It may also contain examples of art#1 (memetic innovation) but the Institutional Theory provides no purchase upon this distinction.

In an essay of 1947, on the subject of Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell writes:
"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good' ... Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."
This aspect of survival, which pertains equally to artworks as it does to literature, can be seen as an analogue of memetic replication. Memes survive by being imitated, and culture, as a closely woven tapestry of memes, reproduces itself through the imitation of these memes and evolves as a direct consequence of memetic innovation: through favourable variations in imitation that are recognised and exploited. The test of literary, artistic or cultural merit, according to this theory of memetic innovation therefore, is not simply measured by survival but through the continuing duplication of its underlying memes. Art#2 survives by being repeatedly made in the likeness of previous art and is fuelled by those rare, unpredictable and invaluable variations that comprise art#1.

Art then (or rather the art#1 of art) comprises all those firsts of a kind: the first use of perspective, the first use of cubism, the first work of abstraction and so forth. Everything else is merely a repetition of a then recognizable form*. There may be a certain latitude for the refinement of a newly discovered meme (think for instance of Picasso’s refinement of Braque’s invention of Synthetic Cubism) though this is arguably simply the exercise of greater determination, deviousness or quick wittedness on the part of Picasso and is therefore not a form of memetic innovation but simply the skillful exercise of art#2. Art#2 can quite comfortably be thought of as craft: bereft of innovation what else could it be? This is not to say that art#2 lacks skill or meaning or is an entirely redundant form of cultural production and discourse but simply that the initial insight or discovery (the art of art) is only ever manifested in the first of its kind: the originary memetic innovation.

If the implications of all this have not struck you yet it may well be that, as in my case, you initially perceive all this as fairly straightforward. However, to return to the theory of Threshold Concepts for a moment: a further characteristic of Threshold Concepts is that they are reconstitutive ie: it’s not so much the initial acquisition of the theory that is troublesome but the consequences of the application of the theory for ones conceptual schema and this only emerges once one begins to apply the theory to already existing examples (like the idea that cultural survival – Ars Longa - is intrinsically linked to the replication of memes). Also, due to the nuances and complexity of many Threshold Concepts, it can take time to fully assimilate the theory with the result that learners often find themselves switching between feeling that they’ve grasped the concept one moment only to find the next moment that they need to start right back at square one (as I often have). On a side note, I imagine there is some very interesting – perhaps even innovative - work to be done on the nature of Threshold Concepts as memes and the importance of reproducibility and digestibility in concept formation and dissemination (Threshold Concepts are invariably the hummingbirds of the meme world: highly specialised). Equally, there is perhaps a challenge for Brook to package the theory of memetic innovation such that it might itself become a meme rather than a rather thorny academic epiphany.

There’s much more to say about this theory and I’ve already skirted over a lot of the important details (like his claim “there's no way to make art; only to find it?”) but this blog post is already far too bloated. Inevitably there are more questions raised than answers provided here but if you have a desire to follow up on the theory I have included a couple of links below. There’s also a 145 page book available, published by Artlink, Australia - though the price tag is prohibitive. It’s also likely that the organisers of the Conference where Donald Brook presented his keynote will publish his paper. If so I’ll post a link here too (here).

*Brook also points out that: “It’s important to see that there is both absolute memetic innovation (nobody could do whatever-it –is before somebody did it) and relative or subjective memetic innovation (lots of people could do it, but nobody had mentioned it to me). You might be astonished to find that something working as a merely repetitive commonplace for you is a revelation for me!”


“The Aweful Truth About What Art Is” is now available for download as an eBook here
Here’s a good review of “The Aweful Truth About What Art Is”:
And several edifying and entertaining essays can be found here, some quite closely related to the ideas of Memetic Innovation:


James A said...

Interesting post, Jim.

Is there an parallel here with Kuhn's idea of "normal" science (art#2) and paradigm-shifting science (art#1)?

J. Hamlyn said...

Without a shadow of a doubt James - nice connection and what a great way to bring up the issue of progress again.

"Kuhn states that science does progress, even through revolutions (1962/1970a, 160ff.)[...] Rather, he favours an evolutionary view of scientific progress (1962/1970a, 170–3). The evolutionary development of an organism might be seen as its response to a challenge set by its environment. But that does not imply that there is some ideal form of the organism that it is evolving towards. Analogously, science improves by allowing its theories to evolve in response to puzzles and progress is measured by its success in solving those puzzles; it is not measured by its progress towards to an ideal true theory."

In my communications with Brook I put my thoughts about the lack of progress of art to him. His reply was crystal clear:

within the science world it is a consistently applied criterion for the endorsement of a new candidate as a scientific theory that it shall be empirically testable. Otherwise it will not be a scientific theory. (A digression here: what about the new cosmologies? Will the theory that there are universes in the multiverse with an entirely different physics be empirically testable? How? Put that in the too-hard basket for the moment ). The relevant contrast is with the artworld in which there is NO consistently applied criterion for the endorsement of a new candidate as a work of art. Hence there is no over-all impression of progress.

Anonymous said...

There's a strongly voiced counter to meme theory at the following site:

But what is Brook saying really - that there's no way to tell good art from bad other than how widely imitated it is?

Brian said...

Jim, I have not read Brook's paper but I assume he is an artist - not a scientist. He seems to simply be tying in thoughts on art (some of which seem quite insightful) to a scientific framework. But I would question the need to do this. Popper - some of whose thoughts I find reasonable - said something like (I'm paraphrasing here) scientific thought is always open to proof or otherwise, and this is one of its characteristics. Religion, or political thought, for example, are not scientific to the extent that they are to do with belief, or can become dogmatic, and incapable of proof. However, this also means - as you touched upon in your piece above - that science, to remain scientific, constantly has to undergo change to its tenets and cannot by nature be dogmatic. Despite this, there is sometimes an element of dogmatism to scientific theory. The 'meme' phenomenon has been in vogue for a few years now: but let us just imagine that in 18th century England - at the dynamic turn of the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and a dynamic era for scientific thought - Reynolds might have come up with a revelatory 'scientific' theory that the fluctuations in art were due to the 'humours' or to the 'ether' or some other as yet disproved scientific theory. Or perhaps saw a reason to tie the aesthetic response to electricity (I think you know what I'm driving at here). It might have seemed quite credible to his contemporaries, in much the same way as the 'meme' theory appeals to the modern mind. In my view this is yet another example of research in the arts turning to science to seek credence and respectability: Art has no need to do this, and for me this is where research could be directed - in finding just why art belongs to a different language to science, and why it remains - and perhaps is by nature - an enigma. I do not think art can be explained in terms of practical science, especially a limited science such as biology (which is the field of Dawkins et al). You will invariably find that the real scientists (as opposed to the self-styled artist-scientists) have no special insight into art, unless they have a natural sensitivity towards it, and in that case they would not seek to explain it 'scientifically' any more than would an artist.

J. Hamlyn said...

@Anonymous: Thanks for the link. I know that memes have their detractors but Susan Blackmore is surely the easiest of targets? As a prominent champion of memes (I hesitate to say meme theory) Blackmore has probably done more to discredit meme theory than even the most staunch critic.
Your question regarding good and bad art is a really interesting one. I’m almost certain that it’s exactly what Brook is saying, which is why I used the Orwell quote that offers a very similar thesis. There’s a corollary to this though isn’t there: How are we to interpret the enormous popularity of numerous facile videos of cat mishaps and bedroom dancing on YouTube? Are these really to be taken as the most powerful originary memes? I’m sure Brook has an answer for this (and I’d be very interested to hear it) but my own response would be that evolution doesn’t make qualitative choices. Things survive because they are replicated/imitated but it’s important not confuse proliferation with survival. There are plenty of examples of explosions of life that cannot be sustained for long periods. I guess we have to take a longer view to form a clearer picture. But it’s true that this says nothing about quality.
There’s another aspect that can be appreciated through a consideration of language. We rarely know the original source of much of the language we use and it is also extremely rare that anyone deliberately sets out to invent a new word, though the L’Academie francaise often try with dismal results. Unless we’re linguists, we’re not interested in language so much for what it IS but rather for what it conveys and this is why I’m not devastated by the implications of Brook’s theory that “there's no way to make art; only to find it” (art#1 that is). As I wrote to Brook:
’art#1 was only ever one aspect of what I look for in art#2. Edification, that can be gained through the consideration of all kinds of cultural and non cultural products, artifacts and experiences, and Meaning, that resides most commonly and deliberately within the products of communicative culture, are also deeply compelling.”

Thanks for your comments. Actually Brook’s paper is now available online here:
Your point about memes as a philogiston theory would seem to be a criticism leveled at them quite a lot (the above link from Anonymous makes the same argument – or is that a meme!?).
You say that you “do not think art can be explained in terms of practical science.” I know what you’re getting at but in fact art can be explained in terms of practical science or gardening or dry wall construction - only not very well. I wouldn’t expect an infant to be able to explain art either but does this exclude the possibility that they might reveal some insight we had not foreseen? Perhaps if we weren’t so easily affronted by the audacity of a neophyte discipline, principle or idea offering a way rearticulate or gain perspective on the condition of something we have such a vested interest in then perhaps we’d find that some, perhaps many, of the centuries old intractable enigmas suddenly evaporate. Brook’s theory serves as a way to analyze problems that have dogged art theory for centuries. Is it not possible that the basis, pedigree or language of a theory might be less important that the insights it permits?

Brian said...

Certainly. But if you are going to look at the idea of 'memes' seriously, then you could begin with Darwin; look at how his theory of the origin of species related to contemporary thought such as Hegel, and how it influenced people like Marx. Much more has been written about art taking all this into account, through the discipline of critical theory - and many insights gained. You are quite right that "vested interest" should not prejudice thought: critical theory is nothing if not rigorously ‘revolutionary’. But one has to be honest as to where those interests lie, and what regime one wishes to overthrow. My point about "enigma" is not simplistic, in that there is a question or questions that need to be answered. It is that there may be some questions that cannot be answered; by science, philosophy, or indeed by propositional thought in general, and that art addresses these as enigma. Here art is not a puzzle that has to be solved: it both addresses and results in enigma, or what one might call ‘aporia’. In my view it is to this aspect of art that we might with profit turn our attention, and where I feel that new horizons may open. There is nothing wrong - and everything right - in asking questions, so long as they are constructive, but should we really expect a definite answer? That is a question worth asking, and if the answer is in the negative then scientific method is of no use.

There can be no doubt that imitation plays a huge part in culture. This is something that has been explored in a most interesting and scientific way by Rene Girard (and memes in art and design became the subject of a PhD thesis at Gray’s: Heather Wade, 2006). I would simply repeat that looking to science to formulate or validate artistic theory is not just barking up the wrong tree - rather there is no tree that will absolutely do. In this respect I find the tree of philosophy / critical theory more catholic than that of any specific branch of science. There may be interesting parallels, of course, between two ontological ‘differends’ such as biology and art, particularly in relation to ‘style’ for example; but the very real danger here in the current climate of art research is in assuming - or continuing to assume - the language and methods of a discipline (the sciences, or more specifically here, biology) which is not only a different discipline (though a very worthy one, not a dogmatic panacea, and arguably not with a claim to universality) - but also proceeds by methodologies to which art in the metaphysical aspect of its nature is quite foreign, and are foreign to art. Biology is a science that looks for answers in the outer world. Psychology is a science that looks for answers in the inner world. Art is not a science, but a human response to both the inner and the outer, which is empirical, rational and intuitive all at the same time.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brian,
An analogy: I’m hanging some work today for a show that opens tomorrow and I have to put together some tools to allow me to complete the job. Usually I’d just take a whole toolbox but I’m not going to take my car today so I’ll have to limit myself. A hammer, screwdriver, nails, screws, spirit level, pencil, and measuring tape should do it but who knows? I'm going to take a few extra bits and pieces just in case (masking tape, an eraser, bradawl, My point is that the more varied the toolbox the more likely one is to be able to deal with unforseen circumstances. Sometimes that unlikely piece of chewing gum or stocking is the perfect solution to the problem.

It’s all theory after all, it’s not the thing itself, it’s an abstraction and therefore the more tools (scientific method, rationality, intuition, analogy, wild speculation etc) we have at our disposal the more likely we are to be able to address the unexpected. If Brooks theory tells us anything, it’s the impossibility of being able to predict innovations in ANY domain. Perhaps the best we can do is to be as aware and sensitive as possible and to carry the biggest toolbox we can manage.

Brian said...

Jim, I take your point and agree that we should make use of any tools that are available. But to continue your analogy, if you are going to hang an exhibition, I doubt very much if taking a chemistry set would help. Better to pack into a limited space what you think most likely to be of use, within reason, plus a few more.

Seriously, though, I’m not saying there is nothing to be learned from science - far from it! Indeed, I am trying to take the wider, longer view (and thank you for the link to Kuhn, which I found very interesting). My real concern, as I said before, is that scientific method can be quite particular, and we should not assume it to be a universal. But I guess, if you want to use science to find out about art, the scientific thing to do would be to try it, and see if it works: Then present the evidence for scrutiny by your peers in science. Of course, as people involved in the arts, we have the luxury of using a kind of bricolage of ideas. But I am fairly certain that this method itself would cut no ice in the world of scientific methodology; and therefore it is doing justice to neither art nor science to pretend that we are ‘scientific’ in that sense. The tragedy is that research in the arts becomes mired in this kind of false ‘scientific’ paradigm. But the bricolage idea is a good one, so long as we are honest about what it is.

Of course you might argue that philosophy or critical theory are no better than science, in this respect - and you would have a point. But to my mind they offer much more scope, and continental philosophy in particular seems well suited to tackling questions related to art. In addition, this type of thinking brings science within its scope - as does art. With that in mind I can’t resist this little point about Donald Brook’s apparent standpoint in terms of a certain ‘deconstruction’ (continued below).

Brian said...

(continued from above). I mentioned earlier that “one has to be honest as to where one’s interests lie, and what regime one wishes to overthrow” in regard to radical thinking. Donald Brook appears to be radically against the idea of institutional art, deplores the enlightenment notion of aesthetics, believes that art cannot be taught and that it is, moreover, in a sense practiced all the time by everyone. I know what he means. But he holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Art at Flinders University, which implies the teaching of art to a specialized group of people; art education as itself an institution entirely dependent upon the idea of art as an identifiable, specialist subject; a subject which owes its discrete existence as such to the enlightenment notion of aesthetics; and the relevance of art criticism which springs from the same institutional paradigm. Perhaps we must allow Professor Brook - as an artist, art critic, and art educator - the luxury of this license of irony, of which he is, I’m sure, fully aware. But there is irony here, and paradox. Now this is not to say that Donald is wrong, but that a ‘position’ such as described above is untenable in the light of this ‘deconstruction’. At this point of impasse, something approaching ‘truth’ may be uncovered.

I would, however, agree with him - and you - that art often occurs more as an unforeseen event than as a fixed certainty, and not always where or when it is claimed or expected to do so. This ‘event’ is difficult to quantify or even to qualify (ref our previous discussions with Ken). But it is the difference between what is good and not so good in art, and the search for which keeps the whole thing going. He also hints that art is something radical, anarchic, and autonomous - to which I would agree. But the question is how can it be identified as such within a system of discourse which - like it or not - is constantly seeking order, in the shape of theory, truth, insight: the ‘one’ of an answer?

So, in short, I agree with you entirely. But let’s watch out for the pitfalls art research adopting a ‘scientific’ paradigm, which might end up by proving that - as ‘artists’ - we don’t exist at all. This might indeed be true in another, stricter, sense; but perhaps we can discover it - as you suggest - through art and the bricolage of creative thought.

J. Hamlyn said...

I think we agree a good deal more than the extensiveness of our discussion might suggest but in a sense there are three opinions at play here. For this reason I’d like to pick up on one point you raise: you say that Brook:
“hints that art is something radical, anarchic, and autonomous… But the question is how can it be identified as such within a system of discourse which - like it or not - is constantly seeking … the ‘one’ of an answer?”
I think it’s very likely that he would argue that you are conflating the two senses of “art” here. What I believe he is saying is that it is only art#1 that is radical, anarchic and autonomous. This aspect of art, that the artworld and aesthetics especially have attempted to hive off for their very own, exists beyond (or perhaps better ‘alongside’) both the philosophy of science and/or art theory and philosophy proper. If I were to attempt to reconcile the different perspectives here I’d suggest that it is an interest in this revelatory and enigmatic aspect that actually unites you – but, no doubt, you’d both disagree.
I agree with you absolutely that we should be very skeptical of scientism. Is Brook any different though when he writes:
“It should be plain from this analysis that the makers of works of art do not engage with science and technology under any logical constraint.”
Our discussion with Ken covered some of the same ground I seem to remember via Dewey’s provocative assertion that “scientific method is the only authentic method of getting at the significance of our everyday experiences.”
Wittgenstein got it much better, didn’t he, when he wrote: "We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." ?

Brian said...

Jim. Yes, Wittgenstein was onto something. Going back to Donald Brook, it seems to me that it is he who conflates the two kinds of ‘art’ that he describes. He has taken the term ‘art’ and then separated it into what you might call ‘craft’ or ‘skill’ on the one hand, and what we understand as the cultural entity of ‘art’, or works of art, on the other. Then he has assumed that these two have been conflated, and the homonym ‘art’ explained by what he derides as a mystical (and non-existent) aesthetics. Actually, neither of these is ‘art’ to my mind. What I understand as ‘art’ is beyond both ‘art 1’ and ‘art 2’, and seems to be what he describes as “aesthetics”. Art happens somewhere between the two. It is neither skill (which is common to many disciplines) nor is it necessarily what is defined institutionally (where the circularity of ‘art’ holds sway).

I’m afraid I can’t work out whether this is his view or not, because he neither accepts that it may have something to do with aesthetics, nor gives a clear notion of what it might be instead. He then goes on to talk about “experimental” art. Here he inadvertently touches upon Kuhn’s differentiation of everyday science and the occasional paradigm-shifting breakthrough. But, following his parallel, I would say that both these aspects - of received culture and innovation - are necessary, both in science and in art. I don’t think this is his view. However, it isn’t clear what he values as “art”.

Which brings us to what he means when he says that “Art is whatever it always was, long before there was an artworld with its socially underwritten power of endorsement”. This is pure Rousseau-ism. Does he mean by “art” that which he identifies in “skill and art go hand in hand”, or does he mean something that existed as an entity in a kind of Rousseau-esque ‘noble’ past? This would imply a remote origin of a mythical ‘art’ (fully formed) which would contradict the very notion of evolution, and is actually more like creationism. So much for memes. It also fails to take into account any kind of dialectic, which philosophy - after Hegel - saw as the evolutionary drive of culture. This dialectic might indeed be considered when speaking about the relationship between arts 1 and 2, which if considered dynamic instead of conflated, begins to look more like what we know today as art history.

If art is a skill, then it can to some extent be taught. If it resides in a perceptive aptitude, then one needs to learn how to apply it. So I don’t understand why he states that “art cannot be taught”. Again, it’s not clear what he means by “art”.

I’m afraid I find his thinking (like the great Rousseau himself) a little muddled. Or maybe I am. Perhaps we should leave the Professor alone for a while. It would be great to have a talk with you sometime.

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