Objective art: does it exist?

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Iannis Xenakis

Let me define “objective art” as the art that exists, or is produced, without human intervention, i.e. without a human agent, conscious or otherwise. In other words, objective art is art without an artist.

For the sake of simplicity I will focus on the visual arts and music, ignoring for the time being literature (NB. the latter assumes the existence of language, i.e. of people; although my arguments to follow, if true, include literature as well and narratives in general).

A very similar question could be also addressed to a mathematician: could there be maths without a mathematician? I will explain later why I make this juxtaposition. Suffice to say here that maths and music strongly correlate; as well as maths (e.g. fractals, cellular automata, etc.) and the visual arts.

Behind the question of “objective art” lies a more fundamental one: is “art” or “mathematics” invented or discovered? This question I would like now to explore.

Although most people would probably say that “maths” is probably invented, there must be almost none who doubts that art is an exclusive human endeavor. And yet, nature is full of art; i.e. aesthetically stimulating patterns. You can see this everywhere, listen to it in the wind, smell it in the blossoming of flowers or the scent of the sea, taste it in the fruit, touch it in every natural shape and form. Shouldn’t we therefore say that “nature” is also an “artist” of sorts? Or is “beauty only in the eye of the beholder”? – i.e. that natural evolution has shaped our brains in such a way that we “see beauty” in nature?

But even that latter, “biological” explanation is not totally satisfying because it leaves out the central issue of my question; could there be some “other art” beyond human construction, that we are not aware of? If there is, then art is indeed “discovered”, in a similar way that maths appears to be “discovered” whenever mathematicians stumble upon as-yet-unimagined maths that happen to accurately describe natural phenomena. In this case it should only be a matter of time before an artist “stumbles upon” a new aesthetic. Who knows?

Perhaps my question is, ultimately, unanswerable. Maybe it is beyond our cognitive ability to distinguish what is “out there”, as oppose to what is “inside us”. Our consciousness may appear to be separate from the world that surrounds us but, as it is scientifically verified, our consciousness is in fact part of a vast continuum: natural phenomena, such as sound or light vibrations, modulate our organs of perception that drive our minds.  The objective seems to be always interlinked with the subjective.

However, if we accept the above to be true, it follows that art is both objective and subjective, which is a paradox.

To resolve the paradox let us assume that objective art can exist. We can imagine such art as yet undiscovered. It lies not only beyond our field of artistic exploration but beyond the capability of our minds as well. It is an “unthinkable” art.

But, wait a minute. This working assumption bears a suspiciously close resemblance to the goal of mathematics about a century ago, when mathematicians searched for general rules from which all mathematical theorems could be proved. Such “general formalisms” were shown by Kurt Gödel in his incompleteness theorem not to exist. There would always be mathematical truths beyond logical proof. Maths is imperfect. Art must be too.

If we aimed to find formal rules for, say music, we ought to follow the trodden paths of mathematicians of the early 20th century. Iannis Xenakis tried it. His vision was of formal mathematical rules (e.g. by means of stochastic processes) guiding a computer-aided music machine). Such a non-human musician would, for all intents and purposes, be an “objective artist”. The music produced would be an “objective music”; not invented but discovered. (NB “invention” suggests the agency of mind; our mechanical composer need not be intelligent, a simple number cruncher would do).

Xenakis’ experiment was one that, to the best of my knowledge, has been left unfinished. Of course, given that maths and music are in fact one and the same, one can feel the non-incompleteness theorem of Gödel breathing heavily down on such experiments.  And yet, even if there are ultimate limits to formal rules for art, one needs to explore the limits or the boundaries. Listening to Xenakis’ music I often have the feeling that I am listening echoes from the edge of a space-time singularity encompassing our consciousness. It is as if we have sent a space probe to the end of the universe and we listen its last communication, of something unexpected. Perhaps nothing lies beyond the edge. Or, maybe, beyond the edge lies the realm of the gods.