A few thoughts on methodology and art

Stephen Sondheim describes a core tenet of his art to be that ‘God is in the detail’. Beautiful art is difficult because beauty comes from the illusion of simplicity in the mind of the viewer; this is much different from simplicity in the domain of the artist. Using Google’s search engine is unambiguously simple: the code that makes the search engine run is unambiguously not. The user never should have to wonder what was going inside the head of the programmer; it is the job of the programmer to know what is likely to take place in the head of the user, and to get out of the way of the search experience.

An example. Humans are excellent at looking at and recognising faces. We’re great (at the moment, probably better than any computer algorithm) at identifying individuals by their faces. This isn’t because faces are simple: faces are complex. The brain’s visual processing system, too, is complex. The complexities balance and our minds are able to engage with reality fairly consistently in a (conceptually, not fundamentally) simple way.

Drawing faces (a thing done with conscious imperative) is much more difficult than recognising them (a thing done with evolved imperative). We don’t immediately appreciate the complexity in putting pencil to paper to mark out the illustration of a realistic face… most people’s attempts at drawing faces are obvious enough in their representation but are little like reality. It is not the conscious part of the brain, the part that says ‘I want to draw X’, that handles the minutiae of the actual process. Part of becoming great at any art is surely becoming able to automate the complex (non-evolutionarily-pre-programmed) functions required: pencil strokes mapped to the drawing of lines, keeping perspective, paying minute attention to the placement of features, etc.

This idea can be ported to other arts. Another example, piano playing, one I’m more intimately familiar with than drawing. Being technically proficient at piano, which is largely what learning to play is about, isn’t an artistic end in itself; it’s a means to better expressing the music. You learn to play well so you can get out of the way of the music. Just as you learn to rhyme words properly so that you get out of the way of the poem. This appears to suggest that all art is either an autobiography or the worship of another. Composition is a type of autobiography; playing another’s music is that form of worship.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ve actually said here, it was all just stray thoughts I felt like catching and pinning down into words.

Addendum 28th Jan:

As applied to singing. People generally think a song is less complex than it is. When singing it in recollection, they might approximate the song out of five unique notes, where the original actually has seven, for instance. God is in the detail.

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