Month: October 2016

Responses versus Answers

To a question, there are two types of responses: An answer and a response. An answer is the correct answer to the question. A response is not the correct answer, but a response or reaction to the question.

While perhaps relevant to the question and offering useful information, a response does not answer the question. It could be said that to a question there is either an answer or anything else (a response).

Question: “What does 1 + 1 equal?”

Answer : “2”

Response : “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I was never good at math. Give me a geography question.”

The “2” is the answer. It gives the correct answer to the question. The “I’m sorry, I don’t know ….” is a response. It does not give the correct answer or attempt to give the correct answer. It’s not so much that the response is wrong, but that it gives an answer to a different, unasked question.

Saying “Are you trying to insult my intelligence?” is a response to the question, rather than an answer. Saying “I don’t have to answer your stupid questions” is a response rather than an answer.

Question: “Johnny, did you take a cookie from the cookie jar?” (Johnny took a cookie from the cookie jar.)

Answer: “Yes, I did.”

Response: “I don’t know. I did a lot of things today. I don’t recall taking a cookie, but it’s possible I might have taken it and forgotten about it. What kind was it?”

Response: “What if I did?”

As shown above, while a response doesn’t give an answer, it can offer information and even unintended insight into the psychology of the responder. The response “What if I did?” neither answers nor attempts to answer the question, but reveals defiance in the responder.

* * * *

Many questions cannot be answered by humans. They usually are unanswerable because the answer is beyond human knowledge and sometimes comprehension.

The following are unanswerable questions.

“Exactly what number of grains of sand make up the Sahara Desert at this moment?”

“In square miles, what is the exact volume of the universe?”

Unanswerable questions can only receive responses. Even if you correctly guess the exact number of square miles in the universe, neither you nor anyone else will know that your guess is correct, and likely neither you nor anyone else will assume the guess incorrect. An unknowably correct guess is classified as a response. Obviously it can’t be identified as an answer, as the answer is unknown.

* * * *

Many questions are unanswerable because the questions are skewed, sometimes misworded.

Question: “What is the best color?”

Response: “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite.”

Response: “I don’t know, but blue is probably the most popular.”

Response: “Red.”

There is no absolute, objective answer to the question. Any answer to the question is a response. Any pick of color a subjective response. The first two responses offer perhaps useful information, but don’t attempt to answer the question. The response “Red” is also a response cloaked as an answer.

As with earlier unanswerable questions, the responses can give related information and reflect upon the responded. The first two offers information about the popularity of colors. The ‘matter of fact’ answer of “Red” reflects on the personality of the responder.

* * * *

The following are common unanswerable human questions:

“What is the meaning of the universe?”

“Why am I here?”

“What is my purpose on this earth?”

There can only be responses to these questions. Religions and many political and social systems are responses to these and other unanswerable questions. They may present their responses as answers, but they are responses. Calling a response an answer is part of the response.

Much of science is a response to unanswerable questions, often the same questions that religion, philosophy and art respond to. Categorizing living things is a response.

* * * *

Responses to unanswerable questions shouldn’t be judged as answers, but as responses. Considering it is impossible to know the answer, is this response to the question legitimate and reasonable? Is this response a fair way to respond to the unanswerable?

I would classify the earlier response “I can’t say what is the best color, but green is my favorite” as fair. It is not an answer, but a fair enough response to an unanswerable question. As suggested before, I don’t think much of the “Red” as it’s posing as the answer when there is none. The green guy is happy to give you his opinion, but readily acknowledges he doesn’t have the answer. That seems to be a fair response.

I’m an art historian, and in art and collectible authentication, perhaps the number one rule is the expert should never make up an answer when he doesn’t have one. He shouldn’t say he’s 100% sure, when he’s only 75% sure. If you don’t know, you don’t know and, considering no one knows everything, there’s nothing deficient about an expert saying he doesn’t know. Find a self-proclaimed expert who has all the answers and you’ve found someone whose opinion you should be wary of. This should help explain why I didn’t much of the “The best color is Red” answer. If she said “I have no clue” she would have gotten high marks. If she said “I don’t answer dumb questions,” she might have gotten even higher.

 

 

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COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: THE HUMAN MIND IS PRIMARILY ABOUT PRACTICAL FUNCTION NOT IDENTIFYING TRUTHS

While identifying facts and making accurate perceptions are important parts of the human function and survival, the human mind is not entirely about this or perhaps even mostly about this.

To survive and function, the human must do other things such as act and guess in ambiguous and mysterious situations. Many of these functions are not about identifying facts and assessing truth, but making speedy and practical decisions. In fact, humans are in part hard wired to make speedy intuitive decisions in the face of lack of knowledge.

As an example I use way too often, avoiding instant danger is often about how to react to the unknown and unknowable. If a mysterious large shape is moving quickly at you, taking the time to accurately identify the shape (‘gathering the facts’) is the opposite of what you need to do. Get out of the way right now, then worry about identification later. If it turns out to be nothing harmful, say just a shadow, no big deal other than you might look a bit foolish. If it turns out to be a boulder or falling board, you’ve saved yourself from harm or worse. And this is the natural and automatic subconscious self-preservation instinct of humans.

This is just one example of how truth finding is not always the priority of the mind and in fact can get inhibit function. Survival is commonly said to be about erring on the side of safety– as it takes only one time being hit by a speeding car or falling off a cliff to be dead. The key word there being ‘erring.’ In this case, the mind is designed to err.

The human mind has limited capacity and capabilities, and human function can be inhibited by too much information including facts and truths (see How Humans Use False Information and Made Up Beliefs to Produce Personal Achievement). If your task is to move across a room, trying to identify and learn the history and “truth” of everything and everyone in the would lead to you dying of old age before you reached the other side. Humans must actually block out and distort information in order to function. In order to read a complicated passage or do math, people cover their ears to block out noise or tell others around them to quit talking.

And don’t forget that humans are social animals and functioning, thriving and surviving involves interaction with people and other animals that are full of cognitive biases, delusions, limited information and viewpoints, emotions, selfish motives, social politics and order, subjective tastes and irrational drives. Humans survived and thrived as a species because they work as social groups.

Early economists made the fatal mistake of basing their models on the assumption that humans act entirely rationally when making economic decisions. Later economists realized the models had to be thrown out, because they learned that humans do not act entirely rationally when purchasing, selling, investing, valuating and saving.

In short, the commonly voiced sentiment that the human is by nature a truth seeker, and that is its key function, is highly debatable.

Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI

composition-vi

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists to make completely abstract paintings.  His 1913 oil painting on canvas Composition VI is an example of his non-representational works.  

Kandinsky is another step in the progression from the previous artists Constable, Renoir and Boccioni.  Constable, Renoir and Boccioni used recognizable figures and scenes, but used new and often abstract techniques to express perception, feelings and ideas.  Kandinsky took it to the next level, dropping recognizable things and trying to express his ideas and feelings entirely through pure colors, shapes, lines, marks and composition. Not only did he want to express his ideas in non-representational art, he felt that was the only way to do it.  

Kandinsky was a devout Orthodox Russian and felt colors and other qualities not only affected the emotions and aesthetic experience but resonated with the soul.  He aspired to have a communion between art, artist and audience, and the act of painting was an emotional and spiritual experience for him.

Europe was in a time of turmoil, of industrial, artistic and philosophical change, and the upcoming World War I.  This affected many artists, including Boccioni, who saw the world as changing and saw the world in a new light.  They tried to express and address the changes in new aesthetic languages.  The old languages were outmoded, artifacts of a world that no longer existed.  A new world needed new languages.  Many artists were as much philosophers and theorists as artists.  As a deeply religious person who saw things differently that the average person, Kandinsky felt he was a prophet bringing people to a new art, language and era. He felt that today’s avant garde understood by few was tomorrow’s common knowledge, and he was a leader bringing a new knowledge and rebirth out of the day’s turmoil.

In previous painting essays I have discussed how neurobiologists believe humans naturally and neurologically react to basic sensory qualities, including colors, symmetry (or lack thereof), shapes, angles, etc., and this is a major part of our aesthetic and artistic experience, along with how we perceive the natural world.  These are the things that Kandinsky worked in.  He was trying to communicate entirely this way, using what he felt were natural inborn reactions to basic qualities,  He wanted to make an art that communicated beyond culture and historical perspectives.  

While Kandinsky was concerned with resonating on an emotional, aesthetic level, he was a theorist and academic and his works involved much academic study, research and planning.  He was a law professor before turning to art, taught art design courses and was a theorist who wrote extensively on how colors, shapes etc created meaning.  He experimented with and tested how colors and other basic qualities resonated with him and, he hoped, resonated with others (Though this shows how his theories and color rules were in part subjective to him.  Whether or not they apply to everyone’s mind and eyes is debatable.).  Composition VI involved six months planning.  It also was finished with him repeating a mantra (‘flood’) to get over a mental block and free his subconscious.  This illustrates how his work was both academic and intuitive.

He compared visual art to music and wanted his art to be like music.  He said music is abstract yet evokes specific ideas and emotions.  And this is true.  Combinations of notes and instruments can communicate ideas such as speed, physical landscape, danger, drama, evil, happiness, joy.  Music can be sad and it can be funny.  And much of this reaction to sounds in inborn in humans. Our reactions to thunder and songbirds, loud low notes and soft high ones are natural.  This is what Kandinsky was trying to achieve through colors, shapes and visual composition.

Kandinsky had synesthesia, where people see or strongly associate colors with musical notes, tastes, other.  He saw colors when he heard notes and heard notes when he painted color.  In fact he associated specific colors with specific notes.  This clearly was an influence on his art and theories, and other artists have had synesthesia including Duke Elliott, Vladimir Nabokov and Frank List.   

Beyond just emotions, he was trying to express complex ideas and stories. Composition VI is about the apocalypse, a giant flood and rebirth– depicted all at once! As with Boccioni, he was trying to show many, often conflicting and juxtaposing ideas and qualities in one work.  The apocalypse and rebirth are conflicting– one is about turmoil, violence and terror, while the other is about peace and happiness.  His work is like trying to depict the “calm before the storm,” but with the calm and storm happening at the same time.  In writing about Composition VI, Kandinsky said how there were many different feelings, conflicting and juxtaposing emotions from the different colors and shapes.  It is telling a complex story with many parts and details.

This painting was a challenge for me– in part because it is so complex, busy and non-representational.  However, when I looked at his other paintings, I did get different reactions and feelings from them, and saw how colors and shapes evoke aesthetic feelings and aesthetic responses.  And Composition VI is supposed to be complex.  It is is supposed to take thought and examination.  Kandinsky even said the painting had three centers.  He also said the meaning and feelings one gets from it change as you look at the different parts and move closer to the painting.  This is comparable to Boccioni’s sculpture where its form changed as you walk around it.  

One way the work is harder to understand than Boccioni’s is there is no clearly recognizable representational anchor.  It is, after all, non representational.   Boccioni’s sculpture was complex and abstract, but it clearly was a running figure. Your reading and interpretations started from this anchor and easy to understand theme. Though once I read about Composition Vi being about the apocalypse, flood and rebirth, that was something from which I could start.  And in fact, once this theme is known, many visitors to a museum may enjoy discussing how it shows this and if it shows it well.  Boccioni is also better understood and appreciated when you know his philosophy and what he was trying to thematically express in his art

The painting certainly perplexed me at first.  But looking at his other paintings and watching a youtube video where his paintings were shown with Schoenberg music gave me a better handle.  I like some abstract art, especially music.  This includes Schoenberg, Gyorgi Ligeti and noise music (try listening to the drone metal band Sunn 0))).  It can greatly resonate with me.  The Kandinsky didn’t, but that’s all subjective and I do understand and appreciate what he was trying to do.  I also have bad color vision, which won’t help.

The painting is valued as an artwork and a new artistic movement.  Further Kandinsky studied and showed how we communicate and perceive things, including emotionally and aesthetically,  through basic qualities.  This helps teach us how all art works, including centuries old representational works.  Even representational works use qualities of color, angle, shape to express ideas and emotions.  And art involves reactions that are beyond the literal and conscious.  Kandinsky’s works and theories help us look at past art, but also how we look at the world and how artist can do things in their own works even when representational.

Though I didn’t entirely get into Kandinsky, some of his works remind me much of Hieronymous Bosch’s works, which I do like a lot.  Bosch’s great paintings on similar religious themes used identifiable if fantastical creatures, but were complex and busy stories like Composition VI and produce visceral, sublime reactions from the audience.  Bosch speaks to the subconscious. He had a way with composition and details that to me is Kandinsky-esque.  And, as mentioned, really all art communicates to us using these devices.  All art connects to the subconscious and communicates feelings and ideas that are beyond the conscious.  That is what is the art.

Umberto Boccioni’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’

.  boccioni_unique_forms_of_continuity_in_space_1913

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a famous large bronze sculpture by Italian futurist artist Umberto Boccioni.  Boccioni made the plaster sculpture in 1913, with the bronze examples seen in museums being cast from the plaster sculpture or from other bronze castings.  

The work is a part of the short lived but influential futurist movement. Originating in early twentieth century Italy, futurism was an artistic, philosophical and social movement that emphasised modernity, constant change and movement into the future, technology and inventions, speed, youth and violence.  It said it wished to destroy Italy’s old artistic and social past (Though I would contend it merly built on it).  It lauded such modern technology as cars, airplanes and the industrial city.  One futurist said the car was more beautiful than an ancient Greek statue.  The futurists glorified war and welcomed World War I as a way to cleanse society of its old ways.  It was nationalistic, aspiring to make Italy modern and victorious, bring it to a glorious future. It is telling that Boccioni and the movement died with World War I.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space

Along with issuing numerous manifestos, including by Boccioni, futurism wished to express its ideas in new, original artistic ways.  It encourage originality, rebellion against traditional styles and even good taste, and dismissed traditional art criticism.  It used many mediums, including painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, film and fashion. This not only showed that they wanted to dominate all aspects of society and life, but that their ideas couldn’t be captured by just one medium.  Boccioni’s works were in painting, literature (futurism manifestos) and sculpture, and he was the first to freely use different materials in his sculptures.

In Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Boccioni wanted to express this philosophy, including of constant change, movement, speed and moving in the future.  

To the casual viewer, there may be mystery to and head-scratching about the abstract parts of the sculpture, as there is to much abstract art, but the theme of movement and speed are clear. The body and legs positions and the flames, wind or wing symbols on the back of the legs visually and symbolically represent speed and movement.  As a test, I showed the picture of the sculpture to my 81 year old dad with dementia and he said it looked like a running figure. Color and texture express ideas and evoke aesthetic responses, and the shiny bronze evokes to the average person modernity, invention and futuristic technology.   Some call it a superman.

This shows that Boccioni was not completely breaking from the past and past art as he supposedly aspired to, but was building on it.  He incorporated traditional representational forms, recognizable symbols and medium (bronze).   I would call his sculpture a response, or furthering, of traditional art, rather than a break.  Art, even rebellious art, requires shared language the audience can understand.  The sculpture bends and expands the language, but does not get rid of it.

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Rodin’s The Walking Man

It has been said that the sculpture alludes to Rodin’s The Walking Man, which shows a more recognizable and traditional depiction of a man walking, though without head and arms.  Rodin focused on part of the person, breaking away from the academic tradition of showing a full figure.  He also produced an unidentified person, where traditional sculptures usually depicted specific and famous people.  Boccioni can be seen as an extension of Rodin’s work.  Michelangelo’s sculptures showed stationary known people in perfect detail, Rodin showed a walking anonymous and more impressionistic man and Boccioni showed a running, even more abstract figure.  The progression is clear.

Boccioni was familiar with and influenced by the impressionists.  His early paintings have an impressionistic look and even his later abstract paintings use bright impressionism colors.  The wings on the legs and the ‘blurry’ abstraction on Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is a very impressionistic way to depict movement and change.  Interestingly, he dismissed impressionism, saying: “While the impressionists paint a picture to give one particular moment and subordinate the life of the picture to its resemblance to this moment, we synthesize every moment (time, place, form, color-tone) and thus paint the picture.”  I bet the impressionists would say they were evoking movement and thus time.  No doubt Boccioni’s rhetorical rejection of impressionism was in part because of their quaint, quiet, mundane life topics– something he definitely was rebelling against.

culpture is often a reaction to or commentary on previous works, so to understand a work you must know the history of sculpture.  So comparing Boccioni’s works to previous works, including impressionistic paintings, is important to understanding them.  Understanding the futurism philosophy is also essential.  Even a reaction or rebellion can only be understood by known what it was reacting to and rebellion against.  And rebellions often retain many of the qualities and methods of what they are rebelling against.  As I mentioned, Boccioni was both rebelling against impressionism and using impressionistic visual techniques.  

Beyond depicting movement, the sculpture intended to express other less tangible and more theoretical  futurism ideas, including the futurism idea of ‘’universal dynamism.’  Universal dynamism says that objects are not separate from each other and that an object is not separate from its surroundings.  A futurism manifesto said “The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places … The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.”   Boccioni wrote about his art “Let us fling open the figure and let it incorporate within itself whatever may surround it.”  This explains much of the abstraction of the sculpture.  It is not about a constant, single figure, but a changing figure and it’s surroundings, all in one and one in all.  If the traditional viewer wants a single, unchanged, easily identifiable image, they miss the entire point and are exactly what the futurists were rebelling against.  It is not supposed to be one figure, have one identity. After all, it is titled ‘Forms’ not ‘Form.’  

People have commented that the sculpture changes significantly as you walk around it.  This represents the theme of constant change, in particular in relationship to movement and time.  As the viewer moves, both physically and in time, the work changes.

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Boccioni and the futurists adopted techniques of the cubists, and Boccioni’s later paintings are clearly influenced by cubism. Cubism expressed things in new, radical ways.  It addressed the age old problem of depicting three dimensions in two dimensional space by showing objects from multiple angles at once.  It also used abstract techniques to show such things as movement and the passage of time.  For example, to depict movement and the passage of time a cubist painting might show a series of still images of a figure in different places.  Boccioni’s paintings and sculpture are similarly abstract and ‘different’ to casual eyes because they tried to show many things all at once.  It attempts to show different perspectives, including from physical and time changes, in one solid piece.

There are many different ways of depicting things such as movement and time in a still work of art, usually using symbols and mimicking natural cues recognized by the audience.  Literature describes it in letter symbols, demonstrating how humans use symbols to perceive things in their minds.  A human can ‘see’ a sunrise and ‘hear’ sounds in black letters on a white sheet of paper.  The Bayeux tapestry showed a series of figures and events along a long time line, which is similar to how cubists sometimes expressed movement and time.  A still painting or photo expresses movement by body and object position, cropping and effects such as blurriness and color changes.  Cartoons often use lines to express movement.  None of these show actual movement, but evoke it in the viewers’ minds.  Art perception is about imagination, and, in part, the audience looking at painting, sketch or snapshot just assume it is a snapshot in time.  There are countless other ways to depict and express movement, including by incorporating real movement: a mobile, play, the changing series of still images of motion picture film.

 

References:
Wikipedia articles on Boccioni, futurism, the sculpture

Metmuseum.org

Khan academy website

Tate museum website

Theartstory.org article on futurism