As we round the millennial corner of a new era of aesthetics, journalists,
and reviewers scramble to find a way to apply the new physics
to contemporary visual arts. Unfortunately, most writers merely reiterate
Postmodern notions about the uncertainty of our knowledge
and the fictitious nature of all interpretations. What
the new sciences have actually given us is a revised, more positive
understanding of indeterminacy as a source of order and complexity.
Whats more, we can now think of science and art as aspects of
the same kind of activity. As physicist-philosopher and Nobel Laureate
Ilya Prigogine writes, the classic laws of physics, as formulated
in the traditional way, describe an idealized, stable world that is
quite different from the unstable, evolving world in which we live.
Intuitively, we have always understood this, and so its no wonder
that reductive science tended to make people uncomfortable. The new
complexity science is more compatible with our fluid artistic
sense of things. In a word, complexity integrates quantum mechanics
with the principle of adaptive evolution, illustrating how transcendent
order, though materially undetermined, is not a mere fiction but an
effectual natural product of chance.
All laws of nature are really more like rules of thumb.
Causality comes into being over time, so that, while the individual
event is indeterminate, the average of individual events is often
constrained to such a degree that one may say it is determined. The
principle of indeterminacy (entropy or uncertainty) has generally
been viewed in a negative light because it was not understood how
it can actually lead to order and complexity. Countless art projects
in the past 50 years have tried to express the concept
of indeterminacy in one way or another, but most have tried to show
disorder only. Until recently, science had not yet given us the mathematical
tools needed to explore the subject, and a gross misunderstanding
led to gross expressions. For example, chance operational art represents
only the most general disordered conditions and is, arguably, uninteresting
by definition. Humans recognize patterns and are interested in them;
they tend to ignore noise. There are advantages to this and disadvantages.
70s, 80s and early 90s aesthetics tended to dwell
exclusively upon the disadvantages, and encouraged the production
of noise, which seems intellectually unsound, to me. If one pays attention
to noise, however, one might get the chance to recognize a radically
new pattern and create a new order out of it.
Complexity science is an analytical tool that can help us understand
many different things, from atomic processes to everyday events. A
simple narrative can describe the behavior of any complex adaptive
system, for example, the big red perpetual hurricane on Jupiter,
the first life forms that arose from the primordial soup, social collectives
that arise out of anarchy, or art that comes from life. In any random
environment, small islands of order will spontaneously develop: although
there are more ways for an assemblage to be in a state of disorder,
ordered states are possible too, and there is nothing to prevent it
from randomly falling into order. Fortunately for us, order has a
tendency to be self-reinforcing. An individual is affected by its
neighbor, and it, in turn, affects its neighborhood. A stable predictable
environment develops, and stable law-like behavior emerges. The indeterminacy
continues, but odd events dont have much effect on the average
(just enough to keep things interesting). Due to the relative sameness
of the interacting parts, what has happened onceor something
like ithas a greater possibility of happening again, than something
very unlike what has gone before. Stable systems continue to acquire
stability and greater diversity through natural selection.
The dominant aesthetic of indeterminacy of the past several decades
has represented reality as radically unstable system, perpetually
heading toward more and more disorder. This simply isnt the
case, however many artists and curators of chaos are invested in the
idea that it is. To take a good example, in the fall of 98,
the Guggenheim SoHo exhibited their attachment to old erroneous ideas
when they featured Thomas Hirschhorns Very Deviated Products.
The storefront windows along Broadway were replaced by temporary Plexiglas
constructions, as if the museum had gone bankrupt and been closed
for demolition. The windows were then filled with heaps of trash.
If the point of the exhibition was to illustrate the effects of entropy,
it was very misleading.
If the universe were such an unstable system as Hirschhorn represents,
life would be as precarious as walking a tightrope, and the smallest
error would have severe consequences. Most experiments would end in
failure, and one would have little chance of evolving. We know from
the fact that we exist that this is not the case. Our system is relatively
stable, more like a walk through a valley, wherein the inevitable
false step is not so noticeable, but where an advantageous step is.
How can complexity science help us construct philosophies and appreciate
art? For one, it shows us that there is no a priori order,
other than the order that is inherent in the sorting actions of chance.
Therefore, one cannot assume that what happens in the world happens
according to any kind of logic or according to any notions of what
is best or just or beautiful. Efficiency is the most powerful directive,
but the most efficient way is not always the best way, and what is
considered best depends on ones goals.
Secondly, the fact that our world is at bottom indeterminate should
not lead one to despair that life has no meaning or that
there is no reason for anything. Indeterminacy is not
nihilistic, as some suppose. Indeterminacy is actually what enables
complexity to develop. If the world were entirely determined, there
would be no living organisms, no philosophies, and no art. Difference
and inequality inherent in indeterminacy lead to greater change and
complexity. Before the Big Bang we can suppose there was indeterminate
timelessness as described by nineteenth century physicist and geometer,
CS Peirce. He was
one of the first to sketch out a theory of quantum cosmology that
would later inform complexity science. In A Guess at the Riddle,
The existence of things exists in their regular behavior. If
an atom had no regular attractions and repulsions, if its mass was
at one instant nothing, at another a ton, at another a negative quantity,
if its motion instead of being continuous, consisted in a series of
leaps from one place to another without passing through any intervening
places, and if there were no definite relations between its different
positions, velocities and directions of displacement, if it were at
one time in one place and at another time in a dozen, such a disjointed
plurality of phenomena would not make up any existing thing. Not only
substances, but events, too, are constituted by regularities. The
flow of time, for example, in itself is a regularity. The original
chaos, therefore, where there was no regularity, was in effect a state
of mere indeterminacy, in which nothing existed or really happened.
As noted above, in any totally random environment, a regularity might
suddenly occur, as they do sometimes by chance, such as when someone
wins the lottery with numbers that correspond to, say, ones
height and weight. In an evolving environment, where each move of
the game changes the rules and affects subsequent moves, regularities
have a slightly better chance of persisting than not. What this means
is chance can be considered the first cause for the beginning
of regularity and time.
We can now do without conceptions like God, or Spirit or Essence,
without succumbing to meaninglessness.
Indeterminacy is good news. Those who interpret it otherwise reveal
their limited knowledge of indeterminacy or their irrational preference
for determinism. Indeterminacy is better than sliced bread. Its
quite like manna from heaven. Its a free lunch,
as the cosmologists say. In terms of constructing an aesthetic based
on knowledge gained from the new sciences, art must incorporate
new material while maintaining a fairly stable arrangement if it is
to survive. Old tools must be put to new uses. New tools must be tried
for old problems. The wholesale dismissal of conventions and traditionseven
prejudices and mistakeswill result in chaotic interaction, making
it almost impossible to form or maintain an identity distinct from
the environment. Both adaptability and identity-conservation distinguish
life from non-life. I would argue that art is distinguished from non-art
in the same way. This aesthetic is vague enough to include a rich
variety of art forms. In fact, it calls for diversity. Different degrees
of skill and luck are required in order to travel both along tightropes
and in valleys. For the visual art of the next millennium, I imagine
a hybrid of conservative and experimental art, which would also include
familiar signs and symbols that have come to affect the body as if
they were sensual objects. Though we can imagine some of what might
inform future art, no one can predict what the outcome will be. I
have seen harbingers here and therehard to describe in our present
vocabulary. The art I look forward to is suggestive, above all; it
is not a disorganized jumble, but it is fluid and complex; its
not concrete, but it does hold itself together by its own surface
tension. In this aesthetic, exactly what the optimal degree of fluidity
might be is left entirely to the artists and their audiences.
Of course, all this begs the question Why has art of disorder been
so successful despite its antagonism to our intuitive understanding
of the world? My guess is that many have wanted art thats cheap
and easy to manufacture for the purposes of entertainment and profit.
Contemporary philosophers have also had a role in promoting cheap
and easy art, but one cannot but admire their work, literally performing
miracles of interpretationcreating meaning ex nihilorelying
on neither the artist nor the work, but on imagination alone.
However, the time has come for art critics to exercise their intelligence
on something other than dull models of disorder. But more importantly,
artists should be expected to show some imagination and
intelligence. This doesnt mean that I expect artists to know
physics; I do expect them to make sense of chaos in a way thats
never been done before.
I hope that those who have mutely accepted disorder packaged as artbecause
they didnt understand indeterminacywill be less inclined
to do so once they understand its positive, potentially creative tendencies.
Atoms may not be capable of behaving according to logic or what they
feel is best, just, or beautiful, but people can and probably should.
If we do not exercise preferences, which we have evolved over time
and which are the valuable complex gifts of our experience, things
will tend of themselves toward the cheapest and easiest. The cheapest
and easiest art is literally garbage.
I believe we can close that supposed rift between art and science.
Art is a science. Art is not scientific by virtue of what it models,
but by virtue of its method of experimentation and application. Abstract
painting, in contrast, is not concerned with method but with the pursuit
of essential stable reality; it has the same goal as classical science.
The clearest example is Piet Mondrian, the theorist-artist who strove
to present objective truth. Jackson Pollock is a good example of a
reactionary Idealist who abandoned the pursuit of a stable reality
in favor of a subjective interpretation of it.
Both these aesthetics throw aside the science of image and concern
themselves with a specific intention. They both try to show the real
nature of reality. But one is too static, the other too fluid, neither
of them are based on information gained by the senses; both are based
on theories, and artistic pursuits are unscientific to
the extent that they are predetermined by intentions. Complexity science,
in reinterpreting the issue of indeterminacy that separated the realists
from the idealists, makes prescriptions unnecessary and offers us
a new reliable vocabulary for describing our world and our art.
Victoria N. Alexander
New York, New York