Monday, April 14, 2008


The thought that now begins to occupy me concerns the question of how art advertises life here and now. Because our culture has met up with nihilism again in an old form—the form of religious renunciation of life and its happiness—there is a need to revisit the meaning of religion.

Religious narratives of history and being seem to follow the Romantic notion of a lost Eden of Joy, which reappears after death. This literal interpretation is a mistaken hope. What seems more likely is that human perception begins in a form of bliss, matures into a drama of conflicts and ends in an armistice of hope. All of these can be seen as worthwhile stages of life, and it is the celebration of this life to which they add their intimations of immortality. Eden and Heaven are here and now. One can live in them or Hell, as the Buddhist reminds us. And it is in the conscious choice to live fulfilled lives of civilization, cultivation and enjoyment that make immortality present. The ancient Greeks would even consider such people to have become like gods, implying by that the notion of true living.

It is in this sense of art as an advertisement for life that we can make sense of all the partial efforts of consumer advertising, of pop art and op art and expressionism, of abstraction, surrealism and realism, of impressionism or the Baroque or the Renaissance. What the consumer is always being promised—taste, beauty, style, wit—are tools for the ages-old consolations and celebrations of life. Except as they promise to substitute buying for living, they contribute to the herd instinct which is looking for something called happiness. Be it found at the remove of a vacation purchased via Southwest Air or at a restaurant table for two at an expensive venue, it finally comes to the thing for which art has always been creating access—from cuisine to couture to truth and beauty. Art is a means to bring us close to life, but life is in the living of it. Henry Miller essentially said the same. Living and happiness are what the fuss is all about, even to the point that a person can find happiness in truth or the beauty of difficult things.

Experience in art is also less material, by the very nature of art’s simulacrum, by its reduction or abstraction of the world into a two-dimensional vision prepared for the cave of the retina and the deeper cave of consciousness, itself. This has some effect in making art nearer to spiritual ideals, and less the material world it reflects or uses. Because it operates on our sensation so directly, it is tantamount to thoughts and dreams. These are the fields of immortal reflections, the constancy of principles, the repeatable experiment. We hold truth to be self-evident, so also art. It is there or not. We may hold the higher consciousness of ourselves and the world in our hands and not perceive it in a contemporary artwork. It may be there or we may mistake it to be there. Later in life we may understand it all as what our time needed to see. It is a message from the light of day—a Platonic ideal of the Mediterranean climate. The shared vision, the shared meal, the climate whose temperature and pleasure makes people feel intimate with themselves, each other, the day itself, the sun. All of this keeps calling us to live as best we can in the interval allowed us on earth.

Elementary Particles

“Honey, I shrunk the universe,” I could have said to my wife after writing a previous blog entry here (The Fallibility of Perception). I treat my physics speculations as light humor, because my experience in science was brief and long ago. I once studied astronomy with a real hope of a life in that science, but somehow was lured into art.

By coincidence, some aspects of art and science – perhaps the most interesting to us as people – are similar. Both arise out of an interest to describe the universe to ourselves and each other. While a description may satisfy me alone, it cannot be acceptable to others if it seems inconsistent with reality or is disprovable by previously ascertained knowledge.

In painting, if the artist neglects the volume of space in which the still life resides, there is a flatness to the painting which lacks the compelling authority of, say, a Paul Chardin, or a Cezanne still life. We are thus familiar in art with the inference of reality. After all, we can see by inspection that the canvas is a flat surface. But stepping back we experience depth in the best paintings. How have we inferred this illusion? It is by the artist’s knowledge of how the eye reads reality. To test this, you can view a good painting with one eye only, and still experience depth. Do this in looking at the world and the world will go flat.

In science, there are many cases in which our unaided senses cannot make the correct inference about the universe. Without a prism, we cannot know light is made of colors, although long ago people attempted to deduce this knowledge from the appearance of rainbows.

Back to the artist. If the artist combines all the colors in paint, he does not get white light. How come? And so much for artists having anything to say about science, you may add.

But it is in the nature of inference that science and art are kindred spirits. Science proposes a model, with an experiment as demonstration, and invites the public to its carnival tent for the entertainment of understanding the magician that is nature.

Similarly, the artist shows a concept of the world – admittedly one immediately accessible to the eyes – and says, come in and be dazzled by nature. The audience, always on a quest for entertainment and knowledge, is happy to be awoken by science or art to a sense of its world.

The audience has seen apples before, of course, but Cezanne’s apples wake them to the notion of admiration, even love, of apples. The audience has seen the moon before, but after Newton they think of gravity and the tides and the nature of orbital motion. They can envision a human being in orbit around the earth and they can infer the nature of the earth’s travel during a year.

In this sense art is specific and science leads to generalization. The audience of a month is enjoying a rather abstract reality. But what is not abstract about a painting? Only because we wish to enjoy illusion and because we wish to enjoy understanding, do we succumb to art and science.

Now it is the question of perception that I raised before on this blog, which is the bedrock of both science and art, and which also gives rise to the nature of inference and illusion. In science, perception is aided by experimental instruments (the prism, the Geiger counter), whereas in art it is still the eye itself, once our primary instrument of science. It is the eye that still attempts to imagine concepts like the particle-wave of physics, and the nuclear structure of atoms. It infers these matters by its power of illusion only, because we are assured these elementary particles are not objectively visible – even though vision itself operates on account of the autonomous properties of light.

Where science would like to boil things down to a simple explanation, art accepts many explanations, and the notion of local conditions and nuances of perception. (Think of Monet’s haystacks paintings in their many different lights, or the many views of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cezanne.) And yet science gets more complicated the longer it studies the world. The very concept of an elementary particle, which began long ago in Greek philosophy, has devolved by experiments into a plethora of elementary particles. And it is due to this multitude of elementary particles that the very philosophy of an elementary particle stands to be undone.

Not only is the elementary particle a quaint notion by now, the single universe is much in doubt, as well. Once, not so long ago, we had the single sun, the single galaxy, the only solar system, the only earth. Science, by its dogged scrutiny, approaches the perception art has long enjoyed – that the universe is not simplified, it can only be elaborated.

The turn in science was not entirely necessary. The photon is considered one of the early elementary particles. After centuries of thought and analysis, science conceded to a sort of binary description of the photon – that particle which conveys a quantum of light, and which is also a wave. Try constructing or imagining an irreducible element (a point) as a wave. Or, try imagining a wave as a single particle. It does not work in our normal way of thinking, but we infer it as a reality, the way we infer love in a Watteau painting – because we see the players in a love story.

It is in accepting the description of the photon that physics was on the right path, and in ascribing more and more elements to individual characteristics that it lost its powers of description. It is as though physics has gone ahead and decoupled the photon. Ie., in this experiment we show the wave decay and give off a particle, in the next, the particle decays and gives off a frequency of light energy.

Besides the likelihood that there is no ultimate particle, there is the likelihood that there is an elementary particle – already known – that can change identities under differing conditions.

Take as a metaphor people. If a human being speaks Russian, and another speaks Chinese, does an extraterrestrial scientist classify them as two distinct species? Then if the Russian immigrated to China, and after some years spoke Chinese, would he have had added to him the C-particle of Chinese and lost the R-particle of Russian? We here know that he was a person in both cases, and that that was his elementary identity, not to be confused with his language behavior, important though that is.

What I am trying to describe is a Universe that, even in its most basic sense, demonstrates behavior that is individualistic. True, it can be predicted by polls and quantum dynamics, but so can the likelihood that a Russian will try to learn Chinese while living in China. Being and context may be maintaining freedom and limits across the entire spectrum of existence, not only in the field of human action, or human thought.

I am free to think this blog. It is limited to what survives the test of reality. But where reality remains in a fluid state of description we may need to think fresh thoughts. The artist tries the world on through his particular lense. We grow to consider that particular sensibility as one we can share. The way of seeing is also a way of feeling and a way of conceiving the relationship between the human being and the world. That it is subjective makes it no less true.

It is possible the electron, the photon, the proton, each has a subjective relationship – subject to the contingencies of its existence – the way a bee moves to the next flower suggested by the breeze, or in opposition to it. We should not expect we are made of rocks, nor that matter is inanimate. Even rock has a fluid past, and nothing about the Universe seems inanimate to an artist. To an artist the moon and earth and sun are dancers, family members, even gods – but certainly not inanimate matter.

Spirit is in the very fiber of being. Freedom is the elementary particle. Art exists to celebrate this, and science to discover it.