While this is technically "ALGORITHM - Journal: Month 08", I've titled it "The Algorithm of Art" because I think it applies to more than simply my creation of a single work of art.
Also, in case you haven’t noticed, this post is significantly longer than most. I’m not going to break it up like many sites do because I don’t have ads embedded in my site. But, that’s another discussion for another time.
Last month’s entry came a few days late so I consider it ironically appropriate that this one should come a few days earl. I also feel strangely emotionally open at this moment, due, I’m sure, in large part to the fact that my current movie of study is NETWORK. But, I’ll get to that in a moment.
I’ve started a group of artists. When I had the idea, I didn’t have a name and I felt like the group didn’t really need one. But, one of the other, previous, members thought it did. I walked up to a random person and asked them for a name. I didn’t say whether it should be a male or female name. For all I cared, it could have been called Cairo (which, now that I think about it, was one of Microsoft’s internal names for it’s operating systems).
The name the guy came up with was Heather. So, that’s what we call the group. I looked up the name and the dictionary said it was related to “heath.” I looked up “heath” and found that it’s “an evergreen plant that grows in a wasteland.” I thought, “Awesome and perfect!”
I’m a fairly philosophical person. Every major I’ve had, and I’ve had a few, related in some way to a pursuit of truth, or Truth (that should give you a vague idea of what I sought).
When Heather first met, we talked about art, about defining it. The conclusion we came to is: Talent + Craft = Art. That definition worked well enough for us, but when I sent it out to Twitter, I got some negative response. Many of us view art as we view truth, as a largely subjective thing that’s value is not inherent but determined by the one experiencing it.
I’ve since modified the equation to be Talent + Craft + Dialogue with Culture = Art. Let me break down the equation.
1) Talent is something that can’t be taught. Some people are simply better at certain things than others. When I was 16, I formed a guitar group. There was one musician, Nathan James, who was clearly better than the rest of us. By the time Nathan was 17, he was playing in bars. Now, 20 years later, he’s getting ready to do another European tour.
I went and saw him last night in concert and I was once again reassured that, no matter how much I practiced, I would never be as good at guitar, or harmonica, or kazoo, or whatever he calls that thing he does with his feet, as Nathan James. I don’t try to be better than him. Instead, I revel in the beauty he creates… and I move on to the things I’m good at.
2) Craft is what can be taught. For Nathan James, it is music, scales, music theory, understanding beats and how they related to melody, and how that can be cultivated into a form that moves the human spirit.
In my case, it’s movies. For the sake of this post, I’ll define movies rather conventionally. They are, primarily, story, which first manifests itself as a script. Therefore, the first thing I needed to learn is how to write.
In learning a craft, it helps to study the masters. I started reading late in life, but when I began, I quickly made up for lost time. Eventually I moved from novels to screenplays. Almost all of the best scripts are available online. I find most of the ones I read at Drew’s Script-O-Rama.
I wrote my first feature-length screenplay that almost got bought and made into a $100+ million movie. But, that fell apart. I eventually decided to write and make my own movie. As you might imagine, it wasn’t very good. I knew how to write, but I didn’t know the first thing about directing: working with actors, camera movement, visual styles and color palettes, lighting, etc.
Over the intervening years, I’ve since learned those skills. Again, I do that by studying the masters (in no particular order): APOCALYPSE NOW, THE GODFATHER, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BLADE RUNNER, NETWORK, YOJIMBO, GHOST IN THE SHELL, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002), AS GOOD AS IT GETS, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, etc. Most of those come with writer's or director’s commentaries, which are invaluable!
In these days where creation and distribution has been democratized, made easy and accessible, it’s easy for us to forget what quality looks like and assume that simply the act of creation is art. There is a statement that sounds condescending at first, but I believe warrants thought, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Without craft, all we’re doing is just adding to the noise. This is a hard truth for untrained, aspiring artists to hear. But, it must be said.
To make art, to contribute to beauty, there must be craft, which requires discipline and study. Any fool can use the iPhone to record some event. But, to elevate from that and make art… It’s not easy. It takes work. That work is called craft.
3) Dialogue with culture is vital. If I make a movie that never gets seen, of what use was all that work, other than a teaching tool for me? I want to give you a quote from one of my Twitter interactions with a friend of mine. These are his words (though abbreviated for clarity): “If your expression evokes worthy sentiment and contemplation, then you have created art. It is worthy if it encourages, satisfies, and even challenges the spirit and mind.”
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It only has meaning when it’s experienced. That experience is largely dictated by the cultures in which we live.
I believe it is the place of every artist to be the court jester. I don’t say this as a light-hearted comedian, though that has its place too. The place of a court jester is near the ear of the king. He was probably the only person in the court who could speak freely, to tell the king, and the rest of the court, what was really going on, what the people thought… you get the idea. The court jester was incredibly powerful, and other than the king, he was probably the freest person in the kingdom.
Now that most of us no longer live under dictatorial monarchies, that model can be reapplied with everyone as king. It is my job as an artist to talk about the world, to break into the way we live our lives and breathe interaction, dialogue, truth and Truth of the mundane into the mundane.
It is your job to listen, to consider, to respond, to let me know what you think and how you feel, both about your life and about my creations, so I can do a better job next time. It is in that dialogue that art finds its meaning.
There are innumerable conversations that this post glosses over, and that I’m currently wrestling with: inherent truths, human universals, the place, if any, of self-censorship, morality, form, structure, etc. But, as I wrote above, that’s another discussion for another time.
Please, let me know what you think. The best way to reach me is on Twitter: @brandxjon.