Art and complexity

Posted: December 3, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

A friend of mine (an extremely brilliant guy) who has a software tool that “measures complexity”, claims he can quantify the pleasure brought by a work of art (*), by assigning a number to every piece.

However, the “amount of pleasure resulting from the contemplation of a work of art” is not an intrinsic property of the work itself: it depends on the observer, and is a strong function of the observer’s cultural level (call it contextual training if you wish). 

If you take 100 randomly selected people to a picture gallery, most will walk past the more sophisticated paintings and will only stop in front of those that they think they can understand: the simpler ones (which can of course be very good).

They will occasionally appreciate a XVI Century portrait or a prostitute disguised as a Madonna, like in Caravaggio, but they will think that Léger or Pollock are incomprehensible and overvalued naïfs.

Not only that. Even in the case of Caravaggio (which is easier for us to appreciate because he often dwells upon apparently popular subjects) they will only figure out perhaps 25% of the “content”, because they lack the cultural background needed to understand the intent and the message of the paintings. Surely, they will appreciate very little in Antonello da Messina crooked Madonnas or Picasso’s Meninas…

To appreciate art, we need to know its language and its context. Lacking such knowledge, we’re left with very little judgment, and we risk overlooking a whole world of great creations.

That’s why Lady Gaga’s popularity dwarfs Bach’s or Miles Davis’: the percentage of audience trained in baroque music or jazz is minuscule compared to the amount of people who can appreciate a simple pop refrain.

Finally, my friend’s tool would assign a dismal little number to most asbtract paintings (fewer patterns, not many strokes…), and a disproportionately high score to elaborated pieces: would that mean anything?

– – – – – –

(*) This was attempted many times, including in the distant past. See. e.g., “Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception”, Univ. of Illinois Press 1969, A wealth of interdisciplinary research has been produced in the field of art perception, using quantitative cognitive-science and information theory techniques, in addition to aestethics and psychology. Approaches have included the analysis of information content, symmetry, complexity, and a whole lot more. Magnetic Resonance Imagery is being used to investigate the intimate mechanisms of perception.In these recent papers,,, and , some useful modern bibliography can be found

  1. What a curious friend you have 😉 … but the key-point is absolutely the observer’s cultural level …

  2. P.S.: That friend of mine is a genius. Small wonder that at times he may have funny ideas…

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