Modern Art

Let’s talk about art

Throughout my high school and college years, I was constantly baffled by the prominence of an interdisciplinary artistic movement known as Modernism. As far as I could tell, the only thing about Modern Art that was consistent was that it was confusing and aesthetically unappealing. Think I’m being harsh? Listen to some of John Cage’s prepared piano and tell me I’m wrong. Anyways, this post will be aimed at trying to talk through my understanding of Modernism, how it’s justified, and why I think it’s still kind of dumb. Disclaimer that my summaries of historical and artistic movements are based 20% off real coursework and 80% off of Wikipedia.

Some background

Modernism as a movement in art is really tied to a deeper philosophy that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which advocated for a departure from the artistic and societal norms which had dominated Western Culture until that point. Following the Dark Ages, art and culture flourished during the Renaissance, and as Renaissance humanism sparked the European Enlightenment people truly began to believe that human ingenuity was powerful enough to effectively perfect ourselves in the domains of science, philosophy, and art.

The profits of the Industrial Revolution fueled the confidence of artists and scientists alike. The idea of the artistic “genius” who could create art from the depths of his own imagination and emotions was essential to the artistic movement of Romanticism, and on the other side of the spectrum artistic Realists did everything they could to reproduce our world as precisely and as truthfully as possible. While these approaches were aesthetically quite different, they both emphasized tremendous technical expertise. The Enlightenment corresponded to a period of tremendous musical progress as well, which also saw the rise of veritable “genius” composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Likewise, the speed of scientific progress had reached such a fever pitch that overconfidence was pervasive in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in some cases patently absurd. In 1878 a physicist named Philipp von Jolly (awesome name, by the way) tried to dissuade a young student at the University of Munich by the name of Max Planck from entering the field, claiming that in physics “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Luckily Planck did not heed his professor’s advice, as his work pioneered quantum theory and earned him the Nobel Prize as he joined Einstein, Schrödinger, and others in completely revolutionizing how we understand matter and the universe.

Motivating Modernism

Understandably, this belief that humans have “figured it out” rubbed some people the wrong way. What if we’re getting it wrong? What if we’re missing something like jazz or, oh I don’t know, relativity theory? As someone who likes math and has a strong interest in machine learning, all this certainty and confidence in humans as “optimizers” of some cultural and scientific cost function still seems crazy. It’s like using a batch gradient descent algorithm with a really small step size - using everyone’s input and weighting each one very little. This makes culture susceptible to groupthink - whatever is popular and appeals to the masses will continue to be chosen as “optimal”. Modernists try to introduce the possibility for change, and to seek new and fruitful artistic modes, by radically deviating from the norm. This is closer to stochastic gradient descent with a large step size - we add some randomness to the mix, give more voice to those advocating change, and take bigger leaps.

Perhaps a more direct analogy is the well-known Random Surfer Model in graph theory / computer science. This model describes the probability that a random user visits a web page. Now, most of the time users navigate in a manner that is fairly linear - they follow links from one page to the next. For simplicity, we can assume they follow all links with equal probability. The problem, though, is that sometimes you get stuck in a loop and get bored. Most links on Facebook lead elsewhere on Facebook, but you’re not going to spend your entire day / browsing session on various Facebook pages (well, hopefully not). Odds are, you’ll get sick of the platform and jump somewhere else - maybe YouTube, to watch videos of Red Pandas frolicking. So a better model adds in some probability that you will jump to another web page (or graph node) entirely, and thereby avoids getting bogged down poking around the same sites forever.

This is almost exactly how Modernism - in art, literature, and music - functions. Artists are inclined to make small deviations from their earlier work or that of their predecessors. A painter might use a bit more blue, a novelist might make slightly better use of vernacular speech, a violinist might kick the tempo up a few notches. These changes, though, are likely not drastic enough to create lasting change without some sort of coordinated effort to adopt them. More importantly though, the small changes might not be substantial enough to even make a noticeable difference in the product. Maybe increasing the tempo of a song by 20% sounds terrible, but doubling it would be a revelation. In math parlance, artists can get stuck in a local minumum - their style seems great compared to all similar options, but could potentially be inferior to a radically different option (an absolute minumum). They need to introduce some stochasticity - to deviate from what is normal in unexpected and potentially random or arbitrary ways, in order to find new and exciting art forms.

So what?

The results are tremendous - without this kind of experimentation we would never have been blessed with the work of The Bird or untraditional novelists like Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle might be my favorite book, period) or digital / mathematically inspired art.

I have a problem though, when artists perist with techniques and art forms that are simply not appealing to anyone, with the ideological hope of shattering our learned aesthetic preferences. I’d recommend reading Modernist composer John Cage’s insightful essay “The Future of Music: Credo” - the man is brilliant, but clearly has an axe to grind with the established musical precedents. He writes, “If this word “music” is reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.” He advocates using noise and electronic sound generators - these ideas ultimately led to the sampling tehcniques prominent in rap and the many types of electronic music that are popular today. He also advocates for atonal music, and famously composed a piece that is just four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. I have to say these latter ideas are lost on me. Music is fundamentally mathematical - something Cage was acutely aware of - and the harmonics and tonal systems we tend to like are not coincidental. This sounds better than this, end of story.

But hey, that’s just my opinion. Thanks for reading my ramblings, and please reach out with any related ideas or modern art pieces you think will change my mind!