The Future of Art

I enjoy looking at art. In fact, one of the reasons my wife and I moved to New York City was to look at the art here.

As a child, I was interested in painting. There was a time when my parents arranged for me to visit an elderly painter from our church. Visits began with her offering a strawberry soda, after which she would teach me to paint landscapes. I continued painting during high school but rarely have since.

Outside of my found memories painting as a child, and many visits to art museums, most of what I know about art is from The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich. The book opens with the following quote:

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.

I imagine Gombrich as an old British professor, after years of being asked “What is Art?” and after years of arguments and debates and consternation, giving up.

The definition of “art” is subjective, and an art lover may have a broader view than the typical person. I believe it is insightful to understand what is generally meant when people use the word “art.” Further, I believe that the future of art lies in the broadening of this definition.

I enjoy looking at sunsets, but is a sunset art? Is a pattern of ant tunnels art? One could call the ants artists—or are only humans allowed to be artists? While washing dishes, I may cause startling and beautiful patterns to form in the soap bubbles. I pause to look at them, and I find them beautiful. Most people do not consider sunsets, ant tunnels, or accidentally created soap bubbles patterns to be art. Thus I suggest that for something to be art a concious being must have created it.

I enjoy the taste of cheap New York pizza. While the pizza is consciously and intentionally created, most people do not consider the pizza-maker an artist and the pizza art. Why not? Is it the transience of the pizza? Or how it is experienced—by an individual, in an irreproducible manner? Is it because too little effort was put into its creation? Or perhaps it is because the senses of taste, smell, and feeling—the crunch and swirl of masticated pizza in your mouth—is inferior to the senses of vision and hearing? We will consider each of these objections in turn, beginning with the last.

I see no reason why the lower senses—taste, smell, and feeling—can not join hearing and sight as senses capable of appreciating art.

The ears and eyes produce sensory information at a higher rate than our tongue, nose, or the sensory organs of feeling. One could say they have higher bandwidth. For this reason, the lower senses are less interesting to the artist. The space of possible “touch sensations” and “taste sensations” is smaller than the space of “visual sensations” or “audible sensations,” so there is less room for artistic expression and exploration.

The lower senses can make more room for creativity by extending the length of time over which their art is enjoyed. During an hour-long yoga session our organs of feeling may produce as much information content as our eyes while looking at a painting for a minute. Of course music already does this, as do movies. The space of “all possible 30-minute movies” must be larger than the space of “all possible yoga classes.”

Most early movies only used a small portion of their space. They involved humans, in normal human places, talking and doing normal human things. Modern movies have begun to move outside this narrow band and have begun to explore the huge space beyond it.

The yogi and the dancer are constrained by the range of motion allowed by our physical bodies. Ballerinas rarely develop new, vastly different movements that have not been done before. The choreography (and the music) together allow for creativity, but not as much in the movements.

Combinations of the senses allow for even higher bandwidths. Silent films vs audio films. Stereo audio. There was a brief fad when movie theaters incorporated smells into the story by coordinating the release of chemicals into the air while the video unfolded—a modest increase in bandwidth. Three-dimensional movies increase the bandwidth of movies. This increases the space of sensory experiences the artist can explore.

Books rely on our imagination to bring all our senses into the artistic experience—”the old man smelled of cigars.”

Until now, we have been focused on our senses, but what about our motor control? A being can be viewed as a having senses (to learn about their environment), a control system (to remember and decide and react) and motor controls (to affect the environment).

Paintings and sculptures only incorporate the senses into the experience. Even the ballet, while relying on the motor control of the dancers, does not allow the viewer to interact with it. I would be jailed if I tried to etch my name into a famous statue at the Louvre, and I would be thrown out if I stood up and began shouting during a symphony. Interactions with the art by the viewer are prohibited.

Growing up I read “choose your own adventure” books. These books allowed the reader to interact with the art through the use of motor control (by turning to particular pages). Some modern artists have interactive art exhibits, wherein the viewer can manipulate the art in some limited way, or even take it with them.

Video games are the ultimate form of art because they have the potential to allow users to interact with it. Today, video games use the sense of sight and sound, but even this is not enough. The trend has continued to be towards total immersion, where all of our senses, and the full range of our motor control, can be utilized in the artistic experience. Also, the word video game implies that it is a game, with a concrete purpose and goal like a game (but defining what a game is could be as tricky as defining art). Some types of video games don’t have concrete purposes beyond viewing the world created in them. In this sense, video games do not need to allow for interactivity. One could be a ghost, allowed to move (as a viewer moves around a sculpture), but unable to interact. In this sense, virtual reality can be seen as a generalization of video games beyond the “video” and beyond the “game.”

Virtual reality allows the highest bandwidth artistic experience—a perfect virtual reality would be indistinguishable from our current reality. The universe creator would be the ultimate artist. The laws of physics of the universe would be artwork. The size and shape and colors and sounds and smells of the universe would be artwork.

A conservative may find these interactive forms of art gimmicky. Perhaps artificially bright and neon paints were considered gimmicky when they came out as well. Our sense of what is art is anchored in what we are used to defining as such, but it may not be a reasonable definition.

Interactivity does complicate any definition of art. A painting may not be seen the same way by all viewers. I have several favorite paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I revisit frequently; they have almost become friends in a sense, and my experience viewing them has changed over time as my worldview and situation changes. I am sure this is also the case for different viewers of a painting, each coming to it with their own biases, knowledge, and memories.

Still, virtual reality offers deeper and more varied levels of interaction. Two viewers of a virtual reality may have completely different experiences. For example, a virtual reality can allow viewers to build things within it. In this case, the viewer becomes an artist within the art. This complexity doesn’t exist with non-interactive forms of art.

We have been considering the different amounts of information content allowed in different forms of art–bandwidth times time. However, just because a movie has more information content in it than a painting, doesn’t mean that information content is more artistic. A painter may exert themselves for many years on a canvas, but I can capture a video of the dog walkers on my street that has a good deal more information content than the painting. Similarly, it would be insulting to compare a great symphony with a cheaply thrown together soap opera.

All this is to say that the potential for video games and virtual reality is there. Video games are increasingly popular, but, they (like movies in their early days) have only explored a tiny thread of the full space of possibilities. Most video games follow consistent patterns of interaction. A player with a persistently present weapon walks, runs, and climbs through a three-dimensional universe filled with attacking enemies. A player controls military units on a two-dimensional board. These exceedingly limited forms of video games are only touching the surface of what is possible.

Discussions of bandwidth and information content only highlight the potential of the medium. The highest form of virtual reality art must surpass that of painting because paintings can be wholly contained in a virtual reality. An inhumanly voluminous virtual reality builder could create a virtual museum, filled with virtual paintings, which collectively are more astounding and impressive than the Louvre. It is possible (although unlikely because no one could accomplish a feat in a lifetime).

So far, we have been discussing art in terms of the senses that consume this art. This sort of discussion lumps painting with drawing with etching. The method by which the visual art is created is not considered. It seems short-sighted to define art in terms of how it was created, but this goes back to intentionally. A photo of a sunset may be deemed art, while a sunset itself is not, unless the sunset was created by god, or you are in a virtual reality with a sunset created by another being.

The method does seem to have some importance, however, because I can take a photo on my phone of a famous photo in a museum. If I am careful enough, the two may not even be distinguishable. Most would not call my photo of the photo art, while the original photo is. Also, we care a good deal about who painted a painting. The original Starry Night is considered art, while a perfectly executed copy of the art is not. Why is this? To the average viewer, the replica and the original are indistinguishable.

It is as if the amount of effort, in addition to potentiality, matters. My photo of the photo was easy. The copy of a Van Gogh was easier than the original. The soap opera TV show was easier than the Sistine Chapel. My recording of the dog walkers was easier than the symphony.

What about modern art—large, uniform blue canvases. One could argue that, although the effort of the production is minimal, the effort of breaking out of past prejudices was not. This is why my blue canvas is less worthwhile than XXX’s.

Note that the ants worked hard on their tunnels, so intentionality and effort be essential to our definition.

Must the intention be to be beautiful, however? Architecture is often considered a traditional form of art, but buildings almost always have a purpose beyond being beautiful. What is the difference between design (of a car, furniture, or software user interfaces) and art?

A motif of Gombrich’s book is that understanding the purpose of art helps one appreciate it. As the book travels through the history of art, he propounds why the artists of that period made the art. For most of history, art was made with a purpose besides being beautiful. Primitive people made art for magical purposes. Egyptians painted to account for the buried person’s possessions. Medieval painters sculpted and painted to educate about the Bible and the saints. Often paintings were ways of capturing the likeness of a person or an event.

A painter may not have a purpose besides self-expression, but that doesn’t seem to make the graphics designer, with the purpose of selling things, less of an artist. If it did, the innumerable paintings of the Virgin Mary at the Louvre could not be considered art. It seems that it is the intentions and efforts of the artist, working in any medium under any constraints, to make something, to express themselves, that makes something art.

I think Gombrich would partially agree with me.

For most of the paintings and statues which are now lined up along the wall of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.

Those ideas, on the other hand, that we outsiders usually work about, ideas about beauty and expression, are rarely mentioned by artists. It was not always like that, but it was for many centuries in the past, and it is so again now. The reason

What an artist worries about as he plans his pictures, makes his sketches, or wonders whether he has completed a canvas, is something much more difficult to put into words. Perhaps he would say he worries about whether

… finish copying pages 32-33.

The idea of an artist “getting it right” is, essentially, dodging the most difficult part of defining art.

Gombrich says that we may feel that fussing over flowers, dresses, or food may not warrant so much attention. I think they could warrant as much attention. A great chef may feel their food is art. The arranger of flowers may feel their presentation is art. It seems to me that it is only the relatively limited space of possibilities that distinguishes cooking or flower arrangement from painting.

Although a famous chef may consider their food art, nobody would consider a simple meal art. Again, it is the degree of effort and intent behind this. Thus many medieval paintings of Madonna are not art. Many buildings are not art. Many video games and TV shows are not art. But all of these can be art.

Some modern sculptors don’t fabricate their works–they have teams of people fabricate their designs. Does this make their works less art? I don’t think so. Similarly, a television show, although involving many people, does not mean all of them are artists. Some or all of them may be. The means of fabrication does not seem to matter.

Do financial incentives matter? Is the poor artist purer than the marketer? I don’t think so. They have different constraints to consider. The church paid the great 16th century painters in Rome were sought after and paid handsomely for their work. Money certainly matters for art. It is easy to imagine that medieval painters tired of painting religious figures and figures from Greek mythology, but that is where the money was.

Today the money is in movies, television, and video games. For this reason, and because of the larger space provided for creativity, I believe that video games and video are where the most interesting and profound new forms of art will appear.

This isn’t to say I think painting is dead. A painting can be viewed as a single image contained in a movie or a video game. The ideas that have been explored in painting over the centuries will surely be applied to the higher dimensionality forms of art, such as video games. The exchange will likely be bi-directional as well.

Paintings and other lower dimensional forms of art have an advantage over video games and movies—we have limited time and our minds are finite, so although the possibilities are larger for a video game, artists (especially working alone) and viewers may not be able to take advantage of the space, and the pure dimensional advantages may be limited.

Teams of people working together certainly can. I believe that a great movie, while certainly different, can compete favorably with a great painting. To the painting lover this may sound like sacrilege, but consider that a great movie provides potentially hours of entertainment. Despite my love for paintings, I have never stared at one for hours. Also, a great documentary about a subject can stir me more strongly than a painting can. A great movie can more consistently stir my emotions than paintings can. Movies can contain stories, and they can educate.

One way in which I like paintings better than movies is that they are apart from time. They give me time to reflect, and to think about myself. I can investigate the colors and forms and textures in the painting in detail.

Forms of art that exist in time don’t allow this. I can’t experience a sound statically outside of time—it only exists in time. Similarly for a movie, while I can pause and examine a frame, the evolution of the frames is most interesting. Paintings are calmer and more patient. Video games can have both. Carefully crafted experiences and locations in a virtual reality can cause the viewer to reflect, while at other times control can be taken from the viewer, and they can be forced to view a particular scene.

Because videos and video games usually require the cooperation of many people, they are expensive to build. The high cost of development adds pressure on video game developers and producers to stay close to the beaten path, to only explore the well-beaten corner of the space of all possible movies.

Painters have similar dilemmas, but the scope and magnitude of a single person is less. A great painter, on commissions, may risk upsetting their benefactor to try some new creative expression.

Over time, as consumers demand more variety, and our society becomes wealthier, and our tools for developing video and video games becomes cheaper, I think artists will explore the space further.

TODO: discuss the consumption experience (must art be viewed in a museum?)

TODO: discuss replicability (fake copies of paintings; duplication of digital content)

So what is art? I don’t think we have a full definition, but I think it has to do with the intentions and effort of the artist. I don’t think the medium matters, except with regards to the space of possibility afforded by that medium. I think that virtual reality affords the largest space of possibility to the artist, and thus, I believe there is more room for creative expression in video games than in traditional art forms like painting or sculpture.

Old European paintings and sculptures are safely regarded as art, but video games may not be. What separates the two?