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.
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.