Saturday, April 24, 2010


First, let me apologize for being a lousy blogger.

Second, let me apologize for a post only tangentially related to art. But this seems important to me. Trust me, there's a point to this.

A little background: fans of the movie Alien tend to be fans of the movie Predator as well. Alien involves insectoid parasitic aliens which, on the whole, display the level of intelligence of a ferocious animal:

your basic alien

Predator involves vaguely rasta-looking crustacean-like aliens with a level of technology somewhat more advanced than that of humans. Unlike humans, the predators (or at least the ones we meet) all have an obsession with big-game hunting that makes Teddy Roosevelt look like Francis of Assisi. The big game in question is, naturally, humans:

My interests include Bob Marley, reasoning, and ripping the spines out of humans.

Now, fans of the aliens and the predators spent several decades hoping to finally see a movie where the predators fight the aliens. And this movie was released, to much hoopla in the relevant community, in 2004. In an unexpected twist, it was called Alien Versus Predator, or, for the reading-challenged, AVP:

Let me jump tracks a little bit. Last year, the Star Trek movies were "rebooted" with a movie called, oddly, Star Trek, but which might as well have been called Star Trek Begins. It was another origin story, following the familiar characters as young hotties in space-hero school and on their first mission. Anton Yelchin played Ensign Pavel Chekov:

the new guy is on the left

Yelchin is directed to really play up Chekov's Russian accent for laughs, which gives us words like Wictor, Wulcan, and inwisible throughout the movie.

All of this is set-up for a joke.

The other evening, I was hanging out with my friend Ehren Gresehover, who is by all accounts a pretty funny guy. We were talking about some educational organization called AWP. I asked him what AWP stands for. He scrunched up his face for a second, and then broke into a broad trouble-making grin and said, in his best Chekov accent, "Alien Wersus Predator."

I burst out laughing.

This joke was funny, but more apropos of my interest here, it was witty. I've been thinking a little bit about what I mean by that, by thinking of a comment as witty. As usual, I have done next to no reading on the topic (if there's one thing I can't stand reading, it's essays of the very genres I tend to write essays in myself - what could be more boring than people thinking things over?). My conclusion was this: wit depends on the following sequence of events:

1. A provoking stimulus is offered.
2. A wide-ranging, nearly instantaneous survey is made of connections of the stimulus to other applicable data.
3. A synthesis is performed involving at least two broadly disparate data points. The synthesis is offered in the form of the witty comment.

The synthesis has the quality not only of bringing two or more apparently-unrelated or obscurely-related data points into play, but of being a formulation which highlights the absurdity or incongruity of the synthesis itself. If possible, the synthesis also sheds unexpected light on the stimulus topic, so that at the same time as absurdity is deployed, so too does an insight emerge.

In about 0.78 seconds Ehren made the leap from AWP to the iconic letters AVP, and from there justified the substitution of the V with a W by means of reference to a second shared bit of geek movie history in the same pop-scifi genre; and spit out a formulation that mocked the excessive use of acronyms by bureaucratic organizations.

Wit is hard as hell. And perhaps the hardest thing about it is step 2. Wit is extremely time-dependent. You can't come up with a witty comment slowly. Part of what makes it witty is that it's fast. Oscar Wilde was said to be fast. Salman Rushdie is said to be fast. Ehren Gresehover is fast.

While a joke might make us laugh, wit tends to inspire awe, envy, and admiration. Why? Because the qualities it evinces are qualities which we already accept as strongly applicable to good thinking in general: an enormous storehouse of remembered information on many topics, the ability to access it, and the ability to make unexpected connections within it that synthesize a new and distinct information-entity that has an insight-value which did not exist in the raw background information. So wit, in a sense, is an index of mental virtue.

Wit is relevant to art because an examination of wit points up the structure of this underlying virtue. In art we are sometimes unconstrained by time. Oscar Wilde, after all, can compose The Importance of Being Earnest as slowly as he pleases. But the benefit of this lack of time-restriction is likely less important than you would think. Most of his best jokes in that play probably emerged as rapidly as he would have spoken them. Time allowed him to polish and to revise, but to create in the first place, he had to be in the witty zone - and you cannot get in that zone without being witty in the first place.

Nonetheless, time helps, especially if you're not particularly witty. Let me give you a full disclaimer: I'm not a very witty guy myself. But I am always chasing after the underlying mental virtues which wit brings to the fore. And this applies to my art as much as to anything else. I have made, and continue to make, a broad study of other paintings and drawings. I also watch people closely and try to remember the interesting or distinctive things they do. And a million other bits of data gathering...

The ardent painter will not study the techniques of painting alone. He or she will study the history of art, the history of literature, and life in general, and will train him or herself in memory and memory-access. He or she will practice synthesis. Without this multi-step skill, a painting can have deep emotion, it can have originality - but it cannot have a willfully dense idea-matrix.

Sometimes the idea-matrix opposes deep emotion. But wit is graceful, it looks effortless. This opposition, of idea to emotion, is a function of lack of skill. Ideally, one reaches to a state of integrating these elements without thinking about it because that is what a mastered skill is: you can stop thinking about it. When you essay an effort in the field, you just apply the mastered skill autonomically.

So I hope you can understand the applicability of wit to the problem of making art. Wit is a sign-post; it is a handy reference point. It reminds us of an important principle in becoming a kind of all-encompassing artist. We aren't functioning under the short deadline of wit. In fact, we have years if need be. But the skills that produce wit are the same skills that produce conceptually-dense painting. They are worth pursuing, I think.


  1. Wit. Like most acts requiring skill, it has to appear easy, but a lot of work and time does go into it. I know that Oscar Wilde did not always come up with his witticisms on the spot. He reportedly knew what witty things he would say at parties ahead of time and would surreptitiously steer conversations in directions that would allow him to show off his wit. So did Dorothy Parker come up with her horticulture quip on the spot or did she already have it in her little arsenal of witticisms? I'd like to know, but don't know if we'll ever know.

    Another observation about wit that I am surprised you forgot is its brevity. cf Bill Shakespeare I believe. You cannot ramble on and be witty.

    Finally, you say that wit engenders awe, envy and admiration. You forget another thing: fear. If someone is truly witty they have power. They have the power to embarrass, which can be devastating. There is a reason why wit is often placed on a sharpness scale to determine its quality. So when people meet folks who are wittier than they are, they are often nice to them. And this niceness is often born out of fear. You see, they're afraid to be embarrassed.

    You say that wit is an index of human virture. I agree that it can be. But like anything else, it can be used very effectively in non-virtuous ways.

  2. Chris -

    Thanks for raising these additional points regarding wit, all of which I would agree with except the last. The problem with the last point is that we are using virtue in different ways. You appear to be associating it with what we might call goodness, and thus conceiving the definition from a Christian perspective. I myself am coming at it from a Greek perspective, and simply mean more or less the same as "excellence," without any necessary ethical content. This is a simplification of the link between excellence and morality, but it's enough, unless we're actively looking to get into a tedious discussion of the nature of both.