Friday, February 8, 2013

Art Is Not A Vector It Is A Field

Last time, we were discussing a particular piece, The Only Way Out is Up, by abstract sculptor Jesse Soodalter, and I had quite a lot to say about what I saw in the piece. This post will really only make sense if you head back and read it - it's the part of this post below the final graphic.

Soodalter, when she read it, liked it fairly well, but she had a couple of points of disagreement. Let's look at the piece again:

Jesse Soodalter, The Only Way Out is Up
found object (asphalt), gold-colored aluminum wire, paper, October 2012

Here's Soodalter's first disagreement:

...the two interventions that you describe, while I agree that conceptually they're independent or at least distinct, in actual act are one gesture. The object is literally sewn to the paper with wire, not wrapped and then affixed. As I say, it doesn't invalidate the distinctness of those two axes, but it is quite important to (my own vision of) the nature of the piece that the object is bound to the paper, and embellished in the binding, not decorated and then mounted. Does that make sense?

Yes, of course it makes sense. Thinking it over, I realized that my list of interventions was incomplete: I talked about 1. the wrapping of the object in wire, and 2. the fixing of the object to the paper. But there was a prior intervention, intervention 0: surveying a field of garbage, of rubble, Soodalter saw this object. This object spoke to her, and she spoke back to it. She pulled it from the trash, and said, "There is something important to this one." In one sense, this is really the only important intervention; everything else just pretties up that initial recognition.

Now here is Soodalter's second disagreement:

The wire is as much there to constrain as to exalt, there's a sharpness and a punitive edge that is very much intrinsic to the piece – and to all the wire work, really; the diametric polysemy of wire is a huge part of my obsession with it.

Polysemy, by the way, is linguistic-theory talk for something like the concept I'm pursuing with this blog post overall. It's a term for a sign that has multiple related meanings; Soodalter, as I understand her, and I could be wrong, uses the phrase "diametric polysemy" to suggest that wire means some things, and other related things which are actually opposites of the first things - in this instance, the pinioning cruelty she describes is opposed to the benedictive gentleness I described.

What it amounts to is that you could say I got my entire interpretation wrong - I misunderstood how Soodalter made the work, I misunderstood the significance of how the work was made, and also I took the meaning of the work for the opposite of what Soodalter thought it was about.

You could say I got my interpretation wrong; but this is not the best way to put it. Soodalter, after all, liked my version. She liked her version too, and her version contradicts my version, but she herself didn't reject my version. What does this mean? Does it mean that The Only Way Out is Up doesn't mean anything at all? Of course not. But what we are talking about by meaning in art is not, I think, the same as our normal impression of the idea of meaning. That's what I've been considering and why I'm writing to you today.

As you know, I will never propose a simple idea when a complicated one will do, or use two words instead of ten. Plus also I like math. So let's consider the difference between a vector and a vector field.

A vector is a mathematical construct which includes magnitude and direction:

a vector

They're very handy for representing things like forces. A force applied to a cart, for instance, gives it a push, a push with both magnitude and direction. A vector is well adapted for representing this situation.

Let's say instead of little Bobby pushing his Radio Flyer, though, we're talking about an electromagnet.

Like Bobby, an electromagnet produces force. Unlike Bobby, its force isn't a single vector tied to a single location in space (the handlebar of the cart). The electromagnet's force influences everything around it. For every point in space surrounding the electromagnet, a vector exists, waiting to act on amenable matter. This phenomenon is called a field. In this case, it is a vector field.

a simplified diagram of a vector field 
(simplified in the sense that not every point in the area has its vector illustrated)

The claim I am seeking to advance here is that the experience of art is more like a field than it is like a vector. Art itself is more like the electromagnet than it is like little Bobby. An adequate art object will mean the same thing to all viewers. A really impressive art object will mean many things to many viewers. Its purpose is not to create a single meaning, but to create a kind of aesthetic matrix which supports the discovery of meaning. Not just any meaning - but meaning of a sufficiently dense and profound variety to prove rewarding to the effort a viewer puts into looking at it.

My interpretation of Soodalter's sculpture was like one vector, and Soodalter's interpretation of her sculpture was like a second vector. They didn't match up at all because we were standing in different places relative to the work. The work was powerful enough to generate a vector field around itself, waiting for a viewer to wander into it. This vector field was of a quality sufficient to inspire thoughts which were important to me, and different thoughts which were important to Soodalter. It won't inspire thoughts in all people, just as not all matter can receive a push from the magnetic forces generated around an electromagnet. That's fine. We've talked before about different people having different tastes, and this is one way of phrasing that. It's using ten words to say "abstract art talks to some people and not to others." This distinction doesn't make anyone better, or worse, only different.


  1. What interests me more is Multiplicity - I feel like the distinction about wire being restrictive or affixing is perhaps more surface or emotive - such as the reaction to the etymology of the word 'Religion' (coming from 'religio' - to bind - they say.) It is either malignant - punishing and restrictive binding, or healing / affixing of sacred objects or sacredness itself. (Being myself reminded of the binding of Issac as a story predating all of this in its play on the ambiguity of the concept.)

    In any case, I feel the work would have been made superior, if I may say so in my philistine dialect, if the wire had been evenly arranged as to ambiguously suggest the form of barbed wire or that of the solenoid or wire coil used to create a magnetic field. Thus the artist would have had a real hand, in my mind, in creating this 'diametric polysemy' - by favoring interpretations that suggest not a crude binding but the restrictiveness of barbed wire on one hand but the empowerment of the magnetic coil on the other; but juxtaposed against the object which does not belong per se - for both of those coils are typically empty except for a magnet or air. This would have created a verifiable belief (in my mind) that the artist had a meaningful reason to attach the object to the paper with wire, as such craft was put into the way the wire was arranged. Then you would have to work out the contradiction of the regular binding itself against the other haphazard elements to the work.

    As such, I think you are correct on her interpretation of her work, and she is incorrect, but that if it were crafted slightly differently, it would have opened the work to more 'diametric polysemy' - or ambivalent ambiguity to use another phrase.

    My thoughts are, of course, not often worth the electricity they are sent on, inflation what it is, and I must apologize for them in both senses of that phrase.

  2. I believe that “Art” arose as a way to communicate between people. The Neanderthals created fantastic works of “Art” as a way of communicating stories to each other and we the H. sapiens managed to rediscover their communication tools.
    We as humans all the way back to the Neanderthals have created ways and tools to communicate with each other. I do believe that “Art” is one of the earliest forms of communication along with pointing and grunting. What real difference is there between using a stick to scratch a map/figure/animal form in the dirt to using a paint brush or Wacom tablet stylus and color?
    It’s all just an attempt to communicate with each other. “Art” as a communication tool sometimes does not work as good as the written word. So we tend to clutter up our first viewing of “Art” with all types of personal experiences that the creator of the “Art” may or may not have had. This is not a bad thing since it causes certain “Art” to speak to us in ways that we never expected. Beethoven's 9th, Sergeants’ Madame X and other works struck cords in my soul that still reverberate 40 years later. Can I tell you why these works of “Art” and others had such a profound effect on me? Not really. Sometimes I know that the work just works on our soul and grabs us by the throat , we can write and talk ourselves to death over it (as I did in college) but there will just never be an true understanding of the power of the “Art” on our physic.
    This is why I create “Art”, to exorcise myself of my most powerful feelings (anger, want, nightmares, lust, etc.) and get them out there for others to see and interact with. The basic human need to connect and communicate with others is something that we are all born with and some of us are truly gifted with the talent of making music, words, painting, and drawing to exorcise our self’s of personal truths/feelings and use it to communicate with others.
    Your discussion about the attempts to communicate with Jesse Soodalter with both visual and written words was most fascinating. The real understanding that you both reached was that sometimes our “Art” of communication has more than one truth. The creator and the viewer each have their own personal experiences that they are both trying to use to understand the “Art” object and resolve into a personal truth that has importance to both of them.
    “Art” is just a cry in the darkness for a truly meaningful communication with both the self and the audience.

    1. Doug,

      Isn't it also true that art is sometimes used as a way to obscure communication, or to not-communicate? If language is used this way - to obscure as well as to reveal - it would follow that art, also, would. So art cannot be reduced to communication...