Monday, 26 March 2012

Obscurantism and Accessibility

It is well known that many people have no time for contemporary art because they perceive it as elitist nonsense. Many also dismiss philosophy for the same reason. There seems to be a general expectation, in the UK at least, that all forms of culture should be accessible to everyone and that any work that demands anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of skill or investment of thought is, by definition, a form of obscurantism: a deliberate attempt to conceal knowledge or prevent understanding.

It is widely accepted that quantum physics, higher mathematics, brain surgery and rocket science all involve levels of expert knowledge that are not readily accessible or easily explained but when it comes to art, - especially visual art – it is not uncommon for the works of artists, sometimes of the most prosaic kind, to be met with hostility and consternation.

During a tutorial a year ago, a student said to me:

“I want to make work that folk can understand.”

Fair enough I thought, but I asked him to elaborate a little, to which he said:

“I’d like to make work my mum or gran can understand. I went to the Art Gallery with them the other day I had to keep explaining all the artworks. I don’t want my art to be like that.”

I fumbled my way towards some kind of reply but in retrospect I wish I’d simply asked:

“Do your mum and gran like the music you listen to?”

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to wish to be understood, to strive to communicate clearly and to avoid willful obscurity. Nonetheless we need to take care that the impetus towards clarity, for its own sake, does not compromise the possible outcomes of high-level enquiry and expression, or the routes we might take to achieve these. If we limit our communications in the hope of making them accessible to all possible audiences then we will very quickly find ourselves speaking in the tongues of infants. We have no alternative than to assume a general level of conversance but this need not prevent us from at the same time modulating our communications in relation to the audience we are addressing. This latter point is surely a major factor in what distinguishes good communicators from poor ones.

There are many esoteric fields of enquiry in the world of expertise, requiring many elaborate and sophisticated theories and elements of jargon in order to engage with them at the highest levels. In spite this, it is frequently possible to make significant portions of complex thought and research accessible to a wider public. This fact is attested to by the plethora of popular science books and magazines available on the shelves of almost any bookshop. But the flipside of the esoteric is not the clear, the obvious or the common, as is so often mistakenly thought, but rather the dumbed-down and we shouldn't therefore be too hasty in requiring everything to be brought down to our level. If we wish to increase our understanding then we surely need to rise to the challenges of the new and the unfamiliar. Genuine learning of complex subject matter is rarely easy, in fact it is frequently arduous.

But what of mystification and obscurantism? And how might we distinguish the abstruse (ie: the difficult to understand) from the utterly impenetrable? These are not easy questions to answer – especially so because many falsehoods are not recognized as such even by their perpetrators, let alone the uninitiated. Indeed it is one of the defining features of mysticism in particular that it does not welcome analysis of its foundations, expecting its initiates to accept these as unquestionable articles of faith. I think it’s fair to say therefore that any field that willingly makes itself available for closer scrutiny cannot legitimately be labeled as either obscurantism or mysticism, no matter how esoteric its details. It might even be said that to the degree to which any form of knowledge is capable (and willing) of being reduced – through explanation - to first principles (perhaps even at the risk of dumbing down) it gains a right to our serious consideration. Ladders are ascended rung by rung and I see no risks in providing additional rungs at the lower levels of explanation in order to permit an opportunity of access for everyone willing to invest energy in making an ascent.

In the arts this process of providing a means of access to more complex ideas has traditionally been served by technical virtuosity and beauty. These help to reassure the uninitiated that the artist is in earnest and has trained to a high level and might therefore have something more substantial to offer than technical mastery alone. However, many contemporary artists reject this assumption as a flawed premise. Instead they argue for conceptual rigour and the critical integrity of artworks. They view traditional ideas of beauty and virtuosity as suspicious since these are commonly used to distract from or shore-up works of conceptual or poetic superficiality or incoherence.

However, viewers new to contemporary art and unfamiliar with such strategies are likely to find many
contemporary artworks difficult to approach, and it is not surprising that this occasionally leads to accusations of elitism and obscurantism. In recent decades many public galleries and museums have attempted to bridge this gap through policies of interpretation, education and social inclusion that seek to explain contemporary art not by dumbing it down but by providing means and tools to understanding and appreciation (rungs on a ladder). Whilst these policies are frequently criticized by artists for compromising the integrity of contemporary art (indeed for dumbing it down) it seems likely, in conclusion, that this tension is more a reflection of an ongoing and perhaps irresolvable conflict between those who uncompromisingly seek work of the highest order and those who demand a right not to be excluded.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Intolerance of Ambiguity

In a fascinating and lengthy facebook discussion a few of days ago I was accused of “misunderstanding” a video interview with the French Post-Structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida on the subject of atheism. It just so happened that I’d read a scathing 1983 review (by John Searle) of Jonathan Culler’s “On Deconstruction” (ostensibly about Derrida’s work) a few days earlier, so the accusation didn’t leave me running for cover out of fear of my own ignorance, as might otherwise have been the case. In the late 80’s, as a student, I struggled a good deal with Post-Modern theory and even enrolled myself on weekly night classes in Post-Structuralist theory at Glasgow University in the hope of connecting some of the dots. Though I made a couple of formative friendships through this experience, and sat on the edge of some incredibly interesting discussions (usually in the bar afterwards) I never really felt that I’d gained a satisfactory handle on Derrida’s work in particular. Even reading Jonathan Culler’s “On Deconstruction” didn’t help a great deal to clear the mists, though I do remember making a mental note of a section on page 176 for future reference:

“We can thus say, in a formulation more valid than its converse, that understanding is a special case of misunderstanding. (my emphasis)

John Searle’s critique of Culler’s book also mentions precisely this extract:

“According to Culler, ‘The effect of deconstructive analyses, as numerous readers can attest, is knowledge and feelings of mastery’. The trouble with this claim is that it requires us to have some way of distinguishing genuine knowledge from its counterfeits, and justified feelings of mastery from mere enthusiasms generated by a lot of pretentious verbosity. And the examples that Culler and Derrida provide are, to say the least, not very convincing. In Culler's book, we get the following examples of knowledge and mastery: speech is a form of writing, presence is a certain type of absence, the marginal is in fact central, the literal is metaphorical, truth is a kind of fiction, reading is a form of misreading, understanding is a form of misunderstanding, sanity is a kind of neurosis, and man is a form of woman. Some readers may feel that such a list generates not so much feelings of mastery as of monotony. There is in deconstructive writing a constant straining of the prose to attain something that sounds profound by giving it the air of a paradox” (my emphasis again)

How I wish I’d encountered this back in the 1988 instead of just several days ago – it could have saved me a lot of pointless head scratching.

In response to the accusation, on facebook, that I had misunderstood Derrida, I decided to reply with a metaphorical preamble about the need to occasionally “weigh anchor” when attempting to make sense of the world as opposed to simply casting oneself adrift or wallowing in the doldrums. I continued on this theme:

You’re absolutely right XXXXX, I have “misunderstood” Derrida (can you honestly claim any different for yourself though and remain consistent? I would wager not.). His is a port that I will no longer weigh anchor in, for I believe the waters are as murky as squid ink and the sands shift with the tides such that no anchor ever finds a clear purchase and no sooner have you set your boat to ground than you find yourself once again at sea. Misunderstanding is the cargo carried by so many ships that visit that port and the inhabitants speak in many strange tongues and live by customs that no man will ever fathom. I have lodged there many a night in earnest but fruitless labour in the hope of finding something more steadfast than an spiralling array of glimmers in the darkness. For some, so I hear, these distant glimmerings are a source of meaning and a guide to navigation but for me they are nothing more than an ungraspable constellation of apparitions.

The ambiguity of art is quite enough for me and I revel in the interpretations. But I look to philosophy for clarity not for more confusion.

Let me try to clarify.

It is sometimes said that one of the defining features of creativity is its tolerance of ambiguity. But this begs the question: “Ambiguity about what exactly?” Ambiguity must have its limits otherwise its sheer extent would surely overwhelm us (no matter how tolerant we believed ourselves to be). It is by recognising non-ambiguous regularities in the world that we are able to make accurate predictions about our actions and therefore operate in useful and meaningful ways. For this very reason I would argue that artists and creative people in general are kidding themselves if they think they are tolerant of All ambiguity. Sure, artists are tolerant of ambiguity within their own domains of interest and expertise but as soon as they begin to shift outside these zones of familiarity then ambiguity becomes increasingly uncomfortable, unless, of course, some of these also are areas of familiarity.

Since Derrida’s philosophy often thrives on ambiguity, in the same way that much art does, you might think that many artists would be drawn to his work. This is indeed the case. But if you look to philosophy not as a route to further ambiguity (as edifying as that may be) but rather as a means to clarify and gain some purchase over the ambiguities of experience, then I would suggest that it is unwise to take Monsieur Derrida as your navigator.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Anatomy of Creativity

If you look up books with the word “Creativity” in the title on Amazon you’re likely to discover as many as 9000 results. These books advise us to wear different ‘thinking caps’ or shift our furniture around or brush our teeth with the other hand. They suggest that we cultivate the state called ‘flow’, find our ‘element’ or engage in all manner of novel or ridiculous activities and states of mind. You name it, there is probably some argument to persuade you that it could make all the difference to your creative life.

Six months ago I wrote a post about an insight I’d had into the nature of creativity. My claim was that innovations are a by-product of variations in human engagement with the world. Broadly speaking, all creativity can thus be understood as a process of variation, in the Darwinian sense, where the fittest innovations survive whilst the weakest are discarded, lost, forgotten or superseded. I still think this idea has a lot of explanatory potential but I have nonetheless become somewhat dissatisfied with its inability to explain why people can be so creative in some areas but not in others.

We tend to think of creativity, like intelligence, as a broad but singular entity that applies to a vast range of fields. But perhaps rather than seeing it as this grand all-encompassing embrace it might make far more sense to think of it as a multitude of different (and not necessarily related) processes of mind that are required in different proportions and combinations depending on the particular creative fields in which people work and even at different points throughout any given creative process.

Why bother thinking this way about creativity?

Well, first of all, because if creativity is indeed all-encompassing then no matter what aspect of creativity you focus your attention on you will find that the improvement is applicable to each and every creative task you encounter. This is patently not the case. What creative processes I employ in order to best solve a coding problem have questionable applicability for solving a problem in teaching or in creating a media installation or writing a blog post even.

I think it’s safe to say that when we engage in any creative activity we utilise a range of different thought processes which, no doubt, correspond to entirely different parts of the brain in just the same way that we use a variety of muscles to perform what we often perceive to be the simplest of actions like, for instance, picking up a pencil. But, just as we use different groups of muscles (but not every muscle) to perform different physical tasks, it seems just as likely that we employ different combinations of brain processes to perform different creative tasks.

If creativity were applicable equally to all tasks across all fields (art, science, engineering, maths etc.) then it would make no difference what activity we perform in order to improve our overall level of creativity. But if different tasks require specific combinations of brain processes, then being able to focus our attention upon these combinations would allow us to maximize the processes necessary for any given creative skill or sub-skill. Furthermore, if we wish to consolidate or deepen specific specialist skills it makes little sense to train a generality of brain processes all loosely associated with creativity across a broad range of unrelated fields.

If we abandon the idea that creativity is a generalised skill applicable equally across all fields and instead think of it as a multitude of different skills which are demanded and applied in different ways to different tasks (some of which are completely unnecessary to certain fields), then we can begin to see why there is such a disparity in the ways that creativity is understood and evaluated in different fields and even within the same field. More importantly, this might also suggest new ways to focus on those very specific skills or skill combinations that are most effective at particular stages in particular tasks and within particular creative fields. And lastly it might help explain why those 9000 books offering to make us more creative are so incredibly muddled, inconsistent and ultimately unhelpful.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Doubtful Pedantry

Do we perform better in life when we are confident in our assumptions? Are we more likely to believe people who express certainty and is there a correlation between certainty and expertise?

It might be thought that certainty is a prerequisite of expert knowledge. Experts know their stuff and it is upon this foundation that the authority of their opinions is grounded. How otherwise can an expert ever claim to be – or be thought to be – an expert?

But it may not be quite so simple.

In a study undertaken last year by researchers at the Harvard Business School it was found that people are more likely to be persuaded by the opinions of experts who express a degree of uncertainty about their subject. The findings are explained by what the researchers have dubbed “expectancy violations” where people become alerted to unexpected evaluations in both expert and amateur testimonies. In the case of amateur testimony the phenomenon works in reverse: we are more likely to believe the opinions of amateurs when expressed with certainty (since we do not ‘expect’ amateurs to be confident in their knowledge).

There’s no guarantee that this phenomenon applies across the board but it certainly raises some interesting questions - and doubts even - about the assumption that expertise should always be presented authoritatively*.

“The authority of those who teach is very often an impediment to those who desire to learn.” –Cicero

This challenge to common sense assumptions about the value of authority and self-confidence has also been investigated by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Southern Mississippi who studied the effects of self-talk (I will fix it!). They asked half the participants in their study to write out “I will” 2o times whilst they asked the other half to write “will I” 20 times. They then asked all the participants to work on a series of anagrams. Surprisingly the participants who had been asked to write “will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as those who had written “I will”.

Most self-help gurus would tell us that affirmative statements like “I can do it!” are always better than questioning statements like “can I do it?” but it turns out that this little nugget of received wisdom may be completely wrong. Or as Bertrand Russell put it:

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

*Presumably there must come a point though where too frequent an expression of doubt by an expert would begin to erode their professional credibility, so it certainly wouldn’t seem advisable to take this as a licence to express every opinion with uncertainty. The whole point is that such expressions should be unexpected.