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10/31/2010 / Francesca Lyn

Art in Context?

Do you like this painting? According to the artists, if you are an American, you should. Can we quantify taste? Viewpoints? Values?

Truth is a number.
Alex Melamid

Agreement doesn’t scale.
Michael Nielsen

I think it is impossible to create some sort of measuring system to “extract value”. The problem of trying to create some sort of measuring system reminded me of Komar & Melamid’s The Most Wanted Paintings project.  Sometimes when you set about creating some sort of standardization in “value”, you end up with the lowest common denominator. Who gets to decide what is valuable and what is not? Who’s values are we measuring?

In an age where opinion polls and market research invade almost every aspect of our “democratic/consumer” society (with the notable exception of art), Komar and Melamid’s project poses relevant questions that an art-interested public, and society in general often fail to ask: What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls?
Michael Govan, Director, Dia Center for the Arts

We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information. Call it, in this example: textual productivity. By creating fluid networks of words, by creating those digital-age commonplaces, we increase the textual productivity of the system.
Steven Berlin Johnson

What kind of information system is created if only the most productive remains? Remember, this is not a problem where a quantifiable answer is even possible.  A “network of words” is not the same as a math problem. Should “textual productivity” be the end goal of a system? Do we want the informational equivalent of the painting above?

Their America’s Most Wanted combined a liking for historical figures, children, and wild animals by placing George Washington on the banks of an attractive river or lake. Near him walk three clean-cut youngsters, looking like vacationers at Disneyland, while in the water behind a hippopotamus bellows. To consider the survey seriously and then turn to its painted results is to realize you’ve been conned. It’s as though Marcel Duchamp had managed to secure foundation funding for an extensive cross-cultural study of aesthetic preferences in plumbing before presenting the world with Fountain.
Denis Dutton



Leave a Comment
  1. sadiecone10 / Nov 2 2010 9:51 AM

    I completely agree with you that it is impossible to create a measuring system to “extract value.” Throughout reading your post, I was thinking of the phrase “To each his own.” Because humans are so very different, tastes, likes, dislikes, etc. will vary greatly, thus a “yardstick” to extract value from specific things is ridiculous. I think assigning value to certain things and saying that some thing is better than another thing is unfair and would severely limit personal choice.

  2. luckymaggie / Nov 2 2010 12:22 PM

    I totally agree with you that it’s not easy for all people to reach an agreement because “truth is a number” rather than a statement or a policy– these are man-made things so they’re more or less subjective but the number is objective so we can completely trust it. In Michael Nielsen’s article he mentioned Mathworks and proposed the Policyworks. Actually I was thinking about, whether we can just simply compare nature science and social science in such an easy way? Will the collaboration in humanity also work well as the collective efforts in science world? I really doubt it.
    By the way I like the way you present your argument! =)

  3. paulacunniffe / Nov 2 2010 2:11 PM

    Firstly, I thought this was a pretty picture. Until I read Denis Dutton’s quote and realized that it is really a mash up of different things. Shows how people’s ‘values’ can change. You’re right, value is immeasurable. How could you quantify it and who would decide how? The concept of catering for everyone’s tastes and ending up with the lowest common denominator is interesting. I wonder what art would be like if artists tried to please everyone? A serious mash up of genres I’d say!

    • francescalyn / Nov 4 2010 3:35 PM

      The mashup art idea is a good idea. Kind of an Exquisite Corpse idea?

  4. makeyourself270 / Nov 3 2010 1:04 AM

    The human element is hard to duplicate, especially if we are talking about art. Beauty is born out of feelings like love, anger, and despair. All of these emotions stem out of what some could argue to be a chemical malfunctioning of the brain. For an algorithm to effectively duplicate such a phenomenon, it would have to willingly not perform at peak efficiency. This is not the way of computers and artificial intelligences. They act based on rules, and follow those rules to the tee. The word “meaning” is contextually different in the realms of mathematics and art, and computers excel at the former while lagging drastically in the latter.

  5. joneelauriel / Nov 5 2010 10:08 AM

    I would definitely have to agree with you in this post, how can we develop a system to give “extract value”. It’s kind of like the saying beaut is in the eye of the beholder. Some people may value things according to their experiences, cultures and beliefs. Therefore, if we try to comprise a “yardstick for information systems” we will never be able to come up with a true value that everyone agrees with. Then that brings up the issue we discuss in democracy all the time, who is given the authority to determine what has value and how much?

  6. clocke22 / Nov 5 2010 11:37 AM

    I think your post lets us rethink the commons concept keeping in mind the other definition of a common — something ordinary, hackeneyed, trite or mediocre, according to the dictionary. Thus, a concensus in some areas, such as art, might not encourage the uniqueness and innovation that the Mathworks competition does. Maybe at one end is math, where formulas are universal (?) and the other is art, where each artist creates something unique that some will love and some will hate but is valuable nonetheless. In the middle lies policy, where you have to balance the common good with individual viewpoints and moral beliefs.

  7. Kayley Thomas / Nov 5 2010 2:15 PM

    This was the same problem I had. There is always a value that we place on objects and ideas to some degree, and this determines what dominates culture, but this is something that is inevitable – not necessarily desirable. To sit down and declare that we’re going to create a value system and deliberately impose it on something that isn’t quantifiable invites qualitative judgments that are not representative of everyone affected and potentially shut out voices and options in the case of policy-making. Your example of art is a really useful one – certainly there is art that certain people and institutions value over others under different criteria and circumstances, we seem to accept wholesale that art has variable meanings and diverse tastes is an important factor in creation and consumption of art. It’s the human element – and if we’re talking networks of knowledge online, I don’t think you can create a value system without removing the people element – or, rather, elevating the opinions of certain people at the expense of others, and so limiting the actual amount of knowledge available and shared.

  8. Mindy McAdams / Nov 11 2010 7:09 PM

    Very good argument and execution!

    Only one problem with the quotes, and that is that TWO of them come from the same Web page. Why take a shortcut? Sure, the instructions do not say three quotes from three different Web pages, but did I have to spell that out? The idea was to mix more sources — five sources, not four.

    • francescalyn / Nov 11 2010 8:30 PM

      I did not take a shortcut. I saw those quotes as being those that best supported my argument. To take a shortcut would have been to randomly pick a fifth source that only tangentially applied. I put a lot of thought and effort into the structure of my argument and the content of my post.


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