What Does Art Have To Do With Skill?

Just like everybody else in the world, I’ve watched OK Go’s latest video (the latest in a long line of excellent videos, actually) about 500 times. But eventually I found this link to an article about how it was made, and it got me asking two questions: First, what should I have majored in so that I could make videos like this for a living? and second, why does the fact that this was done in one take make me feel like it more artistically valuable?

I mean, lets acknowledge two important distinctions up front: For one thing, there are obviously some “bad” shortcuts they could have taken what would have legitimately damaged the artistry, like trying to use CGI dogs. The result wouldn’t have looked as realistic and therefore would probably have been less aesthetically pleasing. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, suppose they had taken some shortcut, like using some simple CGI to blend separate cuts, which had made their task easier but left the result visually identical. Would it have affected it’s value as a work of art?

The other distinction is between being “artistically valuable” and “impressive.” Obviously, I think it’s “cooler” that they did this in one take. I think it’s more amazing. But does it make it a better work of art? I’m not sure.

As a matter of fact, this is a question that’s been bouncing about in my brain for a long time. I remember encountering it first when I was in 8th grade, while reading an online forum about guitar playing. Someone had started a threat criticizing the use of different tuning schemes to simplify the playing of various songs (“Drop D” is the most common example of this). The result is that you can produce the same sound, but do it without having to work so hard to play it. Does that somehow cheapen the performance? Instinctively I thought that the answer is “no.” But then I kept reading, and saw someone who had posted in defense of the shortcuts by saying “Who cares? If my guitar had an ‘instant awesome solo’ button, I’d press it.”

And that just doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, if you were at a concert and when it came time for the solo you saw that they guy was just tapping a button instead of chewing up the frets with his furious fingers, wouldn’t you feel like you weren’t really witnessing a great artistic achievement anymore?

Now you might say “No computerized solo could sound as emotional or nuanced as what a person could do.” True, but remember I was trying to make the distinction between a bad shortcut and a bad artistic output. If the button isn’t a good button, of course it cheapens things. But what if it’s so good, you’re at the concert, you close your eyes for a minute because the pyrotechnics are blinding you, and the solo starts, and you completely believe it’s being played live. But then you open them and the guy is just holding down some dumb button. Wouldn’t that still cheapen things?

Well, perhaps the issue is just that you go to a concert expecting the experience to consist of a mixture of the artistic joy of hearing the music as well as the fun of watching them play. That’s probably true. But alright, suppose that is the case. Then let’s pretend you find out some day that the solo in “Stairway to Heaven” just came from a button. Are you telling me you could still get the same pleasure out of listening to that song on your iTunes?

Really, I’m cheating by narrowing the focus of this question to just the technical skill required to produce a work of art. This is actually, I think, a subset of the question, “How much of the background and context of this piece of art should I consider when assessing it’s artistic merit?” I think the answer is manifestly either “all of it” or “none,” since I can’t imagine a prescription by which I could draw a clear line anywhere else. But as for which of those is the answer, I couldn’t say.

I was, for example, extremely mad at J.K Rowling when she proclaimed that Dumbledore was gay, even though there was no clear evidence to say so in her books. And instinctively, I still think that was an unfair statement. You can’t add bits to your books once they’re published. You can write another book, if you like. But the value of the book seems like it should be standalone. If the readers can’t tell from reading the book, it’s not in the book, and it’s not part of that universe. And let’s be honest, surely almost no one saw that one coming.

But on the other hand, it occurred to me later that there are plenty of books for which I am willing to admit all sorts of outside context to color my perceptions of them . I was, after all, also pretty mad at James Frey for passing off “A Million Little Pieces” as a true autobiography. And imagine if someone discovered that  someone discovered one day that the Diary of Anne Frank was a fake? Wouldn’t that lessen it’s value, somehow? How about if you read “Huckleberry Finn” to a child who had never had a history lesson about racism. Wouldn’t he just be confused about what was going on, and miss half of the power of the book?

I just don’t know. It seems cleanest, and most reasonable to me that in theory, a work of art should stand on its own. Everything else about it, it’s history, it’s context, etc, can give it value of a different kind (like historical significance or cultural importance) but it can’t chance it’s artistic merit.

On the other hand, there are just too many beautiful, wonderful things in the world whose beauty seems inextricably linked to outside details. The movie “Scream,” for example, is widely regarded as a truly genius artistic achievement, as it combines a genuinely excellent slasher flick with a masterfully clever satire of slasher flicks. How do you mock your own genre even as you are epitomizing it? I don’t know. But I do know that, if you watched “Scream” before ever having seen another scary movie, you wouldn’t ever appreciate it’s artistic merit the way the rest of us can. So what gives?

As usual when I don’t have the answer to an open question, I think it’s probably best to finish things by simply including a video clip of some random British comedy.

Ah but wait! If you found out that all those sounds effects had been dubbed in later so that they could be perfectly synchronized, would it make the routine less funny??


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

3 Responses to What Does Art Have To Do With Skill?

  1. Moominmamma says:

    So many posts to comment on, so little time. I’ll bite on this one, even though I’m still trying to decide whether I should send Pastor Rich a few thoughts about last week’s sermon (okay, I’ll be honest with myself. It’ll never get done), and there are several other of your posts here I’ve been meaning to get to. Anyway, here goes:

    My Webster’s Dictionary defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination esp. in the production of aesthetic objects”. I think the skill level is important to the appreciation of the art (greater skill=more artistic) because part of what we appreciate in an artistic object is the level of human perfection of skill that is displayed. In the first clip above, most of the marvel comes in realizing they could pull that off in just one take. What extraordinary concentration and timing it took, for both man (on and off stage) and animal! The creativity of the choreography paled by comparison, and quite frankly, the song is a big ho-hum, but my appreciation for this clip comes from the fact that multiple humans could work in concert with animals to pull this off in just one take (though I gather from another blog that this wasn’t a first take).

    Your example of the guitar solo above is a bit tricky, because I think in isolation, one would have to give the artist his or her due if playing on an easier tuning scheme. But if there were two ways to play the song (as there are), the player who could use the more difficult tuning and produce a beautiful piece of music would have to be considered the greater artist, because the magnitude of his or her achievement was greater than the first player. The higher the level of human performance, the greater the artistry. As for the commenter who wanted an instant awesome button, well, just “meh”. Bring out the computer guys who programmed the instant awesome button, I say, because their achievement is greater than the guy standing there pushing a button and pretending to have achieved something. As for the Rowan Atkinson clip (which was very creative and quite funny), no , I don’t think the routine would be less funny if I knew the sounds were dubbed, but I do think it would be more of an artistic achievement if they weren’t.

    Now, achievement doesn’t have to be physical prowess; it could be greater creativity, or imagination. For me, this is how context figures into the equation. I do think something can be considered more artistic or less artistic because of its historical context or cultural importance (that is, it can “chance [ahem] its artistic merit”). When a work of art (literary, musical, or visual) breaks new ground or speaks so clearly to our culture that it carries special significance, I think that speaks to the creativity or imagination of the artist. The more creative, the more artistic, in that sense. This is why artists who seem to create transitions to new forms are so revered, compared to those who just did well in the genre of the day. Think Beethoven or Shakespeare or the French Impressionists or Picasso or Michelangelo, etc. etc. etc. As for the example of Scream, I think its artistry should be appreciated in context because it is at that level that it achieves its greatest effect. The artists had to do more “juggling” of ideas, and keep more things successfully flowing, than the hacks who put together the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

    Your question does make me wonder, though: if you are unable to appreciate a piece of art on the level where it achieves its highest point (say, too young to understand the sarcasm in a show, or ignorant enough so that you’re not able to understand the social commentary present in a work of literature), does that make the work less artistic? Who gets to be the judge of what is more artistic? Have we got societal norms for that? I would say we do. Were they developed by elitists? Probably. Does that make them invalid? For some people, no doubt. Does art become less artistic as generations pass and the works become “obvious” or performance workhorses? How about as tastes change? I guess there’s a lot to consider, and it’s probably best just to take whatever pleasure you can from any given work of art.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Paul West says:

    Regarding tuning schemes to simplify guitar playing, does this change the sound of the song as it does on other string instruments like the violin? It makes me think of pieces like Saint Saens’ “Danse Macabre” in which the violins are directed to tune differently than standard tuning so that playing open string chords can produce a chilling (minor?) effect. Presumably the retuning does not mean transcribing to a different key, since I imagine composers would certainly consider such to be an alteration of their art.

  3. Pingback: A Movie Recommendation « WLOG blog

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