You’re walking along in the city, looking for something to do for fun. You pass a place with the following sign:
“Anyone wearing a blue shirt can come into the club.”
Does that mean if you bring your dog wearing a blue shirt, your dog should be let inside? After all, the sign does say any ONE, not any PERSON or any HUMAN.
Kind of an excessively specific argument to make, especially disguised in the form of a question, but, sometimes you have got to break out the technicalities to pose an actual question and get some real thought going on the matter.
What is art? Or rather, what makes art, art? That is the question –and a loaded one to boot.
I was not necessarily looking to get into this behemoth of an enquiry but it was a response to one tweetI made last weekend that prompted me to take the dive. My tweet was in response to a link/article posting, also posed as a question, by author, musician and esteemed historian, Ted Gioia.
Kira: “.@tedgioia @Lizstins Given we consider computer made tunes to be music, seems like not doing the same for paintings would be double standard.”
Gioia: “@shadowmelody1 @Lizstins I don’t consider combinations of notes created by algorithm as music. I wrote [about] this long ago: http://bit.ly/164JsGz”
Upon reading over the excerpt Gioia provided in his tweet, it was virtually impossible not to challenge. Granted, I am not specifically looking to question Gioia’s own research and observations but rather place them against an additional variable that challenges the conclusion he drew about “What makes art, art,” within the parameters and qualifiers he set, based on his own scholarly opinion concerning the matter.
The salient (and fun) point at hand has to do with Gioia’s emphasis on, and argument for, the weighing of “the human element” within the question of what leads us to actual art, as opposed to “something else entirely,” which is what Gioia labels the output of a computer in one hypothetical scenario, (today not so hypothetical) wherein a computer can “compose musical works in any style.”
A second hypothetical example provided, dealt not with machine versus human composition but with the work of humans against that of non-humans –more specifically chimpanzees. The idea that in a situation where chimpanzees will be inevitably drawn to interact with tools that can produce words, and in this hypothetical situation, possibly writing a full fledged play, Gioia discounts this outcome from being labeled and viewed as art because the human factor is absent.
Is Ted Gioia’s argument of needing humanity in the equation, the salient point because
Humans are the most important species to consider where art is concerned
Is it about humans having the crucial type of intelligence for producing art?
If it is the latter, that does not seem fair, given that (to be crude) there are some humans, who do not have the kind of intellectual capacity necessary to function well and safely on their own, to say nothing of creating “art.” Despite the changing professional terminology and associated values given to intelligence over the course of the last few decades, and despite the different theories and used to designate intelligence, (e.g. see this “Frequently Asked Questions” section from the website for Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences,”) the fact is, that whether it is called intellectual disabilityor the now-deemed-politically-incorrect term of “mentally retarded,” a lesser presence of generally accepted qualifiers that demonstrate adequate intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, mean some humans are just not as capable with some, or possibly all, tasks of social or practical living. Additionally, as explained by the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, the current federal definition of intellectual disability (with regard to children) is outlined within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as follows:
“…significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” [34 CFR §300.8(c)(6)]”
Now, while cognitive function within the IDEA and or other studies of psychology run on a scale, and while not everyone is at the lower tail end of that, there are those who do fall in such an extreme place. If such persons were to be placed in a room and left to either paint on a canvas or tinker with various instruments, and they happened to create something akin to a basic melody or decipherable image, then based on Gioia’s human element qualifier above, would the resulting music and pictures not have to be considered art? And conversely, if it’s about the type of intelligence humans have in contrast to other animals, in such cases, animals like chimpanzees, (to borrow from Gioia’s example) could at least occasionally be considered more self-sufficiently intelligent and adaptively functional than those who fall within the IDEA’s scale for intellectual disability –regardless of whether this is due to brain disease/damage or external psycho-social influence. After all, there are some animals whose interpretive and learning skills allow them to understand and manage complex tasks, (e.g. assistive dogs) puzzles and even language systems. So, anything they might do that could be deemed similarly creatively accomplished…wouldn’t that have to be art?
Returning momentarily to Gioia’s example of chimpanzees, the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada even explainsthat chimpanzees have “learned how to use American Sign Language…[and are capable of] learning 300 or more signs. They can also master many complex skills on computers.” So again, if this is about a matter of quantity/capability of human intelligence, then Ms. Goodall’s findings further support that in the face of certain comparative circumstances, non-human work could be conceived as art under this particular set of parameters. Failure to account for that in this case, or even if Gioia’s qualifier (based on the two stipulations I originally posed above) is not about how intelligenta human is but that art just needs to come from a human, then I ask you this:
Are we possibly, dancing on the surface of speciesism –not in regards to moral rights but in regards to comparing cognitive values?
Of course, beyond all these loaded questions, let it be known that you all should read and follow along with Ted Gioia’s musings and interesting shares on Twitter if you’re interested in jazz, music history or just plain insightful thought on music and pop culture’s development. I have great respect for what he has to say.