Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Minoan, and the missing Arazu

First a little good news - I sold a painting! I finished this on Thursday, and Chicago super-collector Howard Tullman bought it on Friday:

The Minoan

The name derives from its inspiration, a striking sculpture found at the Palace at Knossos on Crete:

I'm excited and honored to join Howard's collection, which is a lot of fun to page through if you follow the link above.

As long as I'm doing a little news-digest here, Claudia wrote an interesting post touching on this drawing of her at her wonderful blog:

Claudia models at Spring St., where I've had the pleasure of drawing her many times - this was from a recent 80-minute pose. Incidentally, she has the comparatively unusual Buffy eye shape we were discussing recently.

Enough of this real-world stuff though. Let's get back to some considerations of ideas. I was going to reply to Arazu's comment about the unquantifiability of soulfulness in painting, but when I went to find it, it was missing. My reply to it in the comment thread was still there, but the source comment itself disappeared. Weird.

Arazu; and let me be frank with you, I know Arazu in the corporeal world, where he is quite an excellent guy - this Arazu, was saying something along the lines that unquantifiability doesn't really exist, and if a painting has a quality of soulfulness, and this quality is not quantified, that only means we haven't found or applied the relevant metric yet. I think I'm fairly summarizing the gist of his argument. Arazu, you see, is an arch-materialist, and he delights in winging a spanner into the works whenever any idle talk of souls comes up.

Let me address the argument in two ways, from a materialist perspective and an epistemological perspective.

1. The Materialist Argument

This is the less compelling and ultimately less interesting argument. Let's say that we have some quality in a painting which we denominate "soul." It will be sufficient for the time being to treat one particular aspect of this quality: ambiguity.

People are ambiguous - it is nearly impossible to formulate a final statement about any among them. And in fully-realized paintings of people, this ambiguity persists. One particularly effective way to render this sense of ambiguity is to make the eyes difficult to read. Even within this sub-topic of a sub-topic, there is a huge range of modes, including the famous "each half of the face has a different expression" technique. But I'd like to talk about pictorial vagueness as a means of rendering difficult-to-read eyes. Consider Velazquez's painting of Mars:

You cannot see exactly what is going on with his eyes, because they're in shadow, and the shadow is treated softly. You know pretty much where they are, but not their exact shape or disposition. There is an air of menace to them, but perhaps there is an air of melancholy as well, or grief. Who can say? The ambiguity of the representation produces what the science-for-poets among us might call a Schrodinger-esque probability waveform. Clarity of perception of the eyes would collapse the waveform: they would be one place or another, they would mean one thing or another.

So in what sense is this unquantifiable? In the sense that a particular set of spatial eye-values (direction, size, shape, &c.) cannot be assigned. A range can be generated, however, which amounts to partial quantization. So long as the range is maintained as the most specific possible statement about the eyes, then the ambiguity finds room to persist. Keep in mind, the range can be very small, and still set up a vibrating field of possibilities. Consider a better-lit Velazquez portrait:

Now, her eyes are well-lit and specified in their spatial characteristics. Sure, they're looking in inconsistent directions, but with regard to the properties we were talking about, there's a lot of information. But if you were looking at this much closer up (and I'm sorry I couldn't find you a super-high-resolution image), you'd see that actually, there's still a lot of incompleteness. Before you can resolve all your questions about the eyes, you reach the point where the image dissolves into meaningless brushstrokes. The specificity slips through the cracks. The ambiguity remains.

There are many, many ways, in this microscopic instance, to produce and maintain an ambiguity range. You can use brushstroke size; you can use indistinct color separation; you can paint one layer incompletely over another layer, so that both layers inform perception but the represented object cannot be firmly assigned to either. All these qualities can be quantized, even if they are fiendishly complicated: but they can only be quantized within a range, not to an accurate specific value.

Nonetheless, this is the weak argument. Quantization-within-a-range is not categorically dissimilar from total quantization. If you're looking for soul in a "+/- 3%," you've already conceded the point. And I have no intention of conceding the point. I just wanted to clarify to Arazu the limits of this quantifiability that he is so on about.

2. The Epistemological Argument

Now I will turn to an argument I have been having with Arazu for years, in which he can never remember or account for my main point, because it makes no sense to him. My point is introduced quite well in a comment I first read in a book by Robert Anton Wilson that my old roommate Mike had, to the effect that the map is not the territory. A little Wikipedia surfing suggests that this observation originates with a fellow named Alfred Korzybski, so there you go.

Arazu thinks that total quantization of a material phenomenon is logically equivalent to elimination of an unquantifiable spiritual entity arising from that phenomenon, which for the sake of argument we are calling "soul."

I contend that Arazu is looking in the wrong place.

The material phenomenon is a map. The spiritual entity attached to it is the territory. Look - I dissected a bunch of human brains when I was working in gross anatomy. There's no soul in there. The brain is the map. The soul is the territory.

Phrasing this another way: at some point, there will be a complete neural and chemical description of the emotion of, for instance, anger. This description will not be anger itself. It will be the physical substrate in which the emotion resides. A complete understanding of this description will provide no clue at all of the experience of anger. Anger itself cannot be quantified.

Currently, one can find photographs, if one thinks of the correct Google Image keyword combination (which I have not) of an X-pattern of activated neurons in the brain of a monkey looking at an image of an X. That's pretty cool! But comprehending this pattern of neurons is not the same as comprehending something even as simple as the monkey's perception of the X.

The subjective experience of these various states - the X, the emotion of anger, the ambiguity of the eye - are categorically unquantifiable. All quantifiable properties - the pattern of neural activation, the neuro-chemical apparatus, the range of spatial properties of the painted eye - are simply irrelevant to the argument. These are all physical traces of spiritual phenomena.

How can we say that something with no direct physical embodiment, such as seeing an X, being angry, or evaluating an eye, exists? This is simple. Because we have experiences all of these states. We are not free to say they do not exist, because we have direct evidence of their existence using the only apparatus available to us - our own consciousness.

So when I say that a painting has a spiritual property, that it has soul, what I mean more specifically is that a painting has a set of properties which reliably trigger an awareness of soulfulness in the viewer when the painting is viewed.

Is the painting a map or a territory? I would argue that it is a map. Anything that can be quantized with regard to the properties that are being discussed, is a map. Anything that has the properties themselves, is a territory.

By what means is the map converted to the territory? By means of the process of viewing it. The calipers examine a painting and see a map; the mind examines a painting and sees a territory. The objectively existing map irresistably triggers an impression of territory.

The process of becoming a good painter is a process of learning and mastering the "irresistable trigger." There need be nothing mysterious about the triggering process. Some of it is mysterious to most of us, but ultimately, all of it is knowable (even if unpredictable). This blog spends a lot of time covering neurology, and a lot of time covering the mechanics of paint. Mastering the interaction of visual objects with neurological mechanisms, and mastering the painting medium itself, are among the tools available to the artist in seeking to trigger perception of territory when presenting a map.

But just because the territory we are pursuing - the garden of the soul - is linked in so many and such complex ways with maps, does not mean that we should expect the properties of maps to apply to the soul itself. The soul is not a map; the soul cannot be quantized. The soul resides in paintings to the extent that the paintings trigger an awakening of the soul that resides in us. That the soul resides in us - call it what you will - is beyond dispute, because we are making use of it right now to think all this over.

QED, Arazu, my materialist friend.

P.S. I apologize for immoderate use of the term "quantize" when "quantify" would likely do. I am a rather ardent fan of the letter Z, and use words that contain it whenever possible.


  1. 1. Congrats on the sale!

    2. This is for you:

  2. 1. Thanks!

    2. Awesome - thanks for sending the link!