Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Gene of Art

Imagine an island, inhabited by aborigines untouched by civilization, innocent of art. Imagine a plane crash on this island, and the cargo, the treasures of western art, miraculously survives the crash. Imagine the aborigines, coming to the site of the crash, find that for their grab are Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a canvas spoiled by Jackson Pollack, and, for their complete introduction to modern western art, Duchamp's signed urinal. Which piece of art will the aborigines vie for?

Such a hypothetical question has never been asked in reality. Surprising, considering the long debate throughout history about the meaning of art, and more specifically, whether we are innately conditioned to recognize certain objects as art. Simple experiments may help to answer this question. Art, like all things under the sun, can be dissected by methods of science. A recent paper, published in no less a journal than the most prestigious Nature, attempted to rationalize the structural harmony of a Japanese garden. A more famous example is the mathematical analysis of Pollack's paintings, which revealed that the fractal dimension in a true Pollack is consistently higher than the imitators. Such studies, few there may be, are more for scientists' self-amusement than for artists' enlightenment. They are usually scattered in scientific journals, and, as few artists read scientific journals, they are seldom heeded in the world of art, except sometimes as subjects of ridicule. The real artists prefer to debate the meaning of art based on subjective and metaphysical opinions, not on objective facts. Art, to the artists, is divine; to reduce art to its atomistic elements is preposterous and contemptible. In the world of art, science has no dominion.

Art, like Christianity, like science, is an institutionalized religion. The artists, art scholars and critics are its clergymen and evangelists. Like the evangelists of Christianity, the artists want to spread their influence. Art, they like to say, should be enjoyed by all men. Like the clergymen of Christianity, the artists try to keep some privileges to themselves. Art, they also say, can only be truly enjoyed by the initiated few. A layman can read the bible and follow the teachings of Jesus, but only the Church has the authority to interpret the Holy Script; anyone can go to the museum and contemplate the exhibition of art, but only the insiders of art can decide what to include in the collection. The doctrines of art are negotiated by the artists' Council of Nicene; there is no genuinely disinterested definition of art. The promoters of art, the critics, the scholars, and the dealers, do not share the same interests with the creators of art, the painters and the sculptors. The outcome of any debate of what makes art is a compromise among different interest groups, and it evolves with time.

By and large, art must be sold, to the elites of the society who can afford it. In the middle ages, art was sold to the nobilities, the Church, and the Venetian merchants. In modern days, it is sold to the industrialists, the financiers, and the Saudi princes. Among other reasons, the elites patronize art as a means of distinguishing themselves from the mass. The more the art can distinguish, the better. Yet the distinction must be subtle. The bourgeois should appreciate a decade later what the nobilities are enjoying now. The critics' job is to direct the Avant-Garde of art, so that the buyers of art are always a few years ahead of the commoners. When everyone is accustomed to Monet and Cezanne, they introduce Matisse. When Matisse becomes well received, they bring out Picasso. And so on, until a piece of warped metal appears in Christie's art auction.

Are we genetically predisposed to perceive certain combination of light and shadow, color and shape as art? Probably not. If art is beauty, and beauty is what attracts us biologically, we should see as the most beautiful a woman's vagina, or a man's penis, which of the two depending on, of course, the gender of the beholder. No, art is an acquired taste, and it needs a formal introduction. So much as a man unlearned in mathetmatics cannot see the beauty in e^(ipi)+1==0, a man cannot appreciate the wonderful play of space and color in Matisse's The Piano Lesson without first being familiar with the paintings of the classical masters. Art, in this sense, is what the artists tell us should be.

Back to the lucky aborigines who have the chance to choose between Da Vinci, Picasso, Pollack and Duchamp. Will they recognize the perfect symmetry and harmony in Mona Lisa, the grotesque beauty in Les Demoiselles, or the universal fabric hidden in Pollack's splashes of paint? Or will they marvel at the smooth, glossed surface of the urinal, its clean curves and solid construction, and see it as the acme of artistic creation? In all likelihood, the aborigines may scour through the wreckage and find a half-charred suitcase the most aesthetically appealing. But most probably each individual will have a different favorite and everyone will be happy with his share of the windfall. After all, in a world unspoiled by institutionalized art, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Amazing Ronaldinho

This Nike commercial is making rounds on the internet. Ronaldinho, yet another Brazilian soccer genius, casually puts on a new pair of white Nike cleats, foot-juggles a football along the penalty line, and kicks the ball at the goal. Four times in a row, the ball hits the crossbar and bounces back, and Ronaldinho catches the ball with his foot and continues to juggle the ball. Incredible.

Is it real or fake? As much debate has surfaced on the web as that about whether Ben Affleck and J Lo were dating for real. Opinions range from total credulity to complete disbelief. One person thinks that the first two hits are real, while the other two are processed; another amusingly proposed that only the first hit is real, but it is unintentional and has inspired the following digitally-processed sequence.

When I first saw the video, I was so utterly amazed that I did not even consider the possibility of its being fake. Having recovered from my initial amazement, I now think that the video has been retouched. In fact, now I am amazed that there is even a debate regarding the video's authenticity. It is certainly impossible, ruling out that the gods were guiding the ball between him and the crossbar, that anyone, anyone, can kick the ball from 35 yards away, hit the crossbar four times in a row, have it bounce back each time precisely to himself, and catch it in mid-air with his foot. But many people think that the gods are indeed watching over Ronaldinho's shoulders. Many people think that Ronaldinho is indeed THAT good. Nike did not choose ANY soccer player for this video; they chose Ronaldinho to lend it credibility.

We all have this superhuman complex: we tend to believe that superhuman abilities exist, and that they must be found, if not in our mediocre selves, in other exceptional individuals. Don't we all love to tell the story of an extraordinary feat of some genius's doing? The vicarious accomplishment is truly, deeply satisfying.