Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I'll Stand With Chaos

Let’s pretend I didn’t just ignore you for a couple months. Of course, what we feared has come to pass - Huffington both drained the energy I pour into this blog, and changed the tenor of my writing. Perhaps this is alright; one might propose that when I started with you, I was in training, and my training yielded its results, and now most of my writing is of a different character, for a broader and more professional context. Perhaps. But I don’t like to think that what I am doing here is not an end in itself. I like to spend time with you here, and to ruminate in a leisurely way on my work and the work I am looking at. Everything just seems so much more busy these days. Let’s say, then, that life is more busy, and leave it at that. To the topic at hand.

I was on the subway the other day, looking at some ads which a little googling suggests are ubiquitous in the United States right now - the ads themselves are Google ads, for a service called Google Play, which I’m going to guess has something to do with streaming music. Here’s one I pulled off the web.

I found myself resenting these ads even more than I resent most Google ads. I was looking at them, thinking about their design; about how Google likes to throw resources at everything it does. I pictured focus groups and psychometricians generating viewer response scores on sets of icon juxtapositions, and a designated Clever Artist coming up with the quarter-turn white highlight on the speaker cones, leaving an implied sans-serif G in the negative space; and Swiss designers in lab coats carefully rotating elements by pre-specified scientific increments in Adobe Illustrator, displayed on enormous flatscreens at the ends of flexible chrome arms in surgically clean white rooms.

Google HQ

I pictured this entire antiseptic apparatus of advertising throwing the enormity of its muscle into generating these images and making them perfect.

But you know what? They still kind of suck. They suck a lot. They are terrible ads. They stand in relation to good ads as PC design stands in relation to Apple design. The only reason to register their presence at all is that you cannot avoid them.

This is an important lesson in what makes good art. Google has undoubtedly thrown a generous budget at their big ad campaign. But they threw it in the wrong direction. Good art is not a question of money, scientists, experts, and committees. Quantitative validation of your output does not make it functional. Art is a system so tremendously multivariate that it cannot yet be regularized by means of rational protocols. Like Asimov’s hypothesis about extremely advanced technologies, it is indistinguishable from magic.

The practical outcome of this non-reduceability property is that any miserable art student with a No. 2 pencil has in his or her hand a tool as powerful for the creation of good art as does Google with its well-paid army of image engineers; more powerful, perhaps, because Google makes the mistake of thinking that quality control controls quality, and the art student lacks the resources to indulge in this corporate delusion.

When Google gets it right, if it ever does, it will be because they got their hands on the right single person with a great idea, and then got out of the way. They will get it right the same way the humblest of artists does, not by throwing money at the problem but through inspiration.

There is no means of controlling the system through which good and bad art are generated. It takes the fiery form of democracy explained, not particularly surprisingly if you consider their overall body of work, in Pixar’s 2007 movie Ratatouille:

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, “Anyone can cook." But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

Pixar never dolls up the brutally exclusionary nature of art. Some artists can become great and others never will. But they consistently combine this elitist insight with its egalitarian complement - that who can become great and who cannot is a wild process answerable to no budget, aristocracy, inheritance, education, authority, or even justice. Art stalks where it likes and strikes whom it will. From a mortal perspective, it appears to be chaotic.

The presumption involved in Google’s lacking Pixar’s wisdom regarding the creation of personal artwork in a corporate environment - and further, Google’s abysmal bad taste in going wide with their dull, mediocre campaign -

- was what stirred my resentment. But ultimately, their money can only buy them ubiquity. In taking their stand, they defeat themselves. This is true of all art institutions reliant on something apart from the art itself for their claims to art status, by which I mean museums, galleries, graduate schools, the press, the academics, the collectors, and anyone else with authority who might want art to be orderly and predictable.

I myself am some of these institutions, and I interact with the rest. I would never dismiss the best among them. These best understand that they are subordinate to art, and that art is untamable. There is not yet a complete theory of art, and it is not demonstrated that it will become possible to form a complete theory of art in the future. There is only good art, bad art, learning to see and respect the difference and, for artists, chasing like demons after quality.

I emerged gladdened from the subway, having been reminded of the radical democracy of art, which is functionally identical with chaos. I’ll stand with chaos.


That last line sounds very dramatic, but in fact it is not a brave act in any way, and I wouldn't want to imply that it was.


  1. have to tell you Daniel, although i 'found' you on HuffPo, when they finally forced the issue of commentors having to open FacePlant accounts, that's when I quit Huffpo...glad you are available here..and BTW, the ads on HuffPo are enough to turn the rest of readers away..ever since AOL bought the site, it has gone straight downhill..especially embarrassing is the Canada portion, but that is another discussion..glad to still read your stuff, though..

    1. Well hello! I'm glad you found me over here too! The ads on HP managed to crash my previous computer fairly frequently. I'm on a spiffy new computer though, so I can resume blogging there safely. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the somewhat different content I have here - and if you want some of my fiction, do check out http://railroadtozanzibar.com/blog/ (and buy the kindle book - sorry, I feel obliged to plug the writing I get paid for...). Where are you in Canada? I'm from Toronto originally.

      All the best,


    2. I have the great good luck to live on Vancouver Island..
      I don't mind the plug, I blog too, (tow of them!) but I still read books the old-fashioned way...

    3. I have never been to Vancouver island! I have found the kindle app on my telephone and it's amazing, although I am mostly still reading books on paper. I'll take a look at your blogs - have a great evening -


    4. Whoops - your profile isn't public, you'll have to send links...

  2. Glad to see you back here in the old cozy neighborhood joint.

    I don't think advertising should be judged by the criteria of art. I'm going to show my age here, but if Mr. Whipple can get customers to think "Charmin" when they think "asswipe", it doesn't matter that it ain't exactly Shakespeare. It's a bottom line thing. Advertising can involve creativity and craft, but it's all about the bucks. Unfortunately a lot of "contemporary art" is made the same way as advertising - calculated high concept, executed by hired professional crafters, designed for a marketplace. I think we have a right to consider fine art something greater than propaganda, and to demand that it possess intangible qualities like "heart" or "magic".

    1. Thanks for the welcome back, Fred! And I take your point, but I still think that the great advertisements, or even the good ones, can't help but partake of an element of inspiration which puts them in the relevant territory for this discussion. Case in point, and a story I might have told before - I know a guy who was in the room when Apple came up with the silhouette campaign for the ipod - all those dancing hipsters with colorful backgrounds. They had actually shot models, and the image editor was using the magic wand or the polygon tool, I forget which, to select a figure, and Photoshop generated that weird alpha-channel view that's a solid pink silhouette. The creative director happened to be looking over his shoulder and he said, "Scrap everything, this is the campaign." And that procedure, which made room for inspiration, made that campaign at least very specific and catchy. That's a phenomenon the same as a genuine art phenomenon, regardless of the goal. The core creation is the same; I imagine that's why ad execs are often so miserable.

  3. Thankfully in Britain we don't seem to have those ads - or I've just walked straight past them . . . I am not convinced they are aiming at art, though. Recently I read Stephen King's book on writing (it's pretty good, if you haven't read, most of it either just generally well written and interesting or useful to folks who make stuff.) - in one section, he writes that he thinks that artists come in four groups - the very bad, the competent, the good (where he thinks he is) and the really great - and says that the very bad and the great are destined, but the competent can become good if they work at it. Which makes an awful lot of sense to me and ain't far from what you are saying.

    Best Wishes


    1. Jane - you must have your own atrocious ads over there! I haven't read King's book, although my wife likes it, as does everyone else who seems to have read it. His system as you're describing it makes a lot of sense to me, although I'm not entirely clear how I was proposing something similar. But I certainly don't mind being credited with a parallel insight anyway. :) I hope you get settled in to an even better studio soon, Jane.

      Yours as ever,