Saturday, December 06, 2008

cat photographers and the design in things

"If my cat can take photos prettier than what we've taken, what is art? It asks a lot about the intention behind art and how it's interpreted," Michael Cross said.

I leave it to you to actually read the whole article. It's a classic puff piece work of journalism and I mean puff piece in a good way, honest. But this quote is emblematic of what I consider to be a huge risk in contemporary philosophy about art. Yes, strapping a camera programmed to take photos automatically every two minutes does ask us to consider questions about the intention behind art and how it is interpreted but the answers to these questions may not be to ask questions about what a cat is actually thinking about when he roams a neighborhood. The cat's intentionality isn't important in terms of the art. The intention of strapping a camera to a cat who is allowed to wander around the neighorhood all day is where the artist's intention is. What is the intent of an artist who seeks to literally see things the way a cat might see them?

What is it about humanity that we seek to understand or perceive thinsg from a perspective that is not human? Is it to consider possible kinship or shared experience with other animals since we all live in the same world? That seems obvious enough? But we can't be sure that the way a cat thinks is the way we think. What if the camera had been programmed differently so that the cat only "took" a picture if he looked at something intently by focusing on that thing for two to five seconds or longer? Then we would only get photos when the cat didn't make any sudden movements with his head. And we know that would lead to quite a few less pictures! Cats are layabouts who nevertheless move almost constantly.

If a cat takes photos that are prettier than his master, though, any honest photographer will admit that that can be as much about sheer dumb luck as skill. That's why photographers take more than one shot of the same subject. You don't know what image will take and what image won't.

Now I like cats so I find the idea of programming a camera to document a cat's journey through a neighborhood theoretically fascinating but I am pragmatic enough to recognize that this could also produce a lot of boring photos just like people can produce boring photos. The old axiom that 90% of anything is crap in the arts would surely apply when the art is being programmed to be taken by a cat throughout the day. THAT is the intentionality and interpretation behind art.

It is not new for artists since the 20th century to include elements of the random in the inspiration for art. In fact it is not new for ANY artist to include elements of the random in their work. Prior to about Beethoven cadenzas in piano concerti were often improvised by performers and room was given for individual interpretation. In other words, if you give people the opportunity to incorporate the random or unplanned into a planned form we're talking stuff as old as Baroque music (figured bass prescribed a lot but left a lot open) or jazz.

Where teleology and philosophy about existence go this gets me thinking about a time when my brother was discussing with an atheist whether the cosmos reflected design or not. The atheist argued that the universe was not designed but the result of stochastic processes. A cheap evasion, really. The real debate is not about whether or not the cosmos reflects design but whether we can infer from its existence that the design is intentional or not. If hydrogen has X properties rather than Y properties, which themselves are characteristic of oxygen, then the very nature of things indicates a limit on how random the cosmos can be.

This may or may not reflect an inherent, intentional design in terms of what we can prove but essentially no one can argue that there is no design to the cosmos. I grant that there is plenty of room for debate and strong disagreement about whether or not the cosmos reflects intelligentible or intelligent design. Note that by saying that I am not in any way endorsing Intelligent Design as a junk category of pseudo-scientific thought. Even as a Christian I don't think there's a legitimate basis for ignoring existing materials by way of saying "The butler did it as opposed to Mr. Jones." The argument that if intelligent design is going to be a viable alternative to Darwinian explanations there has to be a provable hypothesis with replicable results can't be evaded.

In other words, the alternative to saying the photographs taken by the cat are not without intent is NOT to say the cat took the photos on purpose. Intelligent design at best can postulate a world in which the camera can be programmed by the artist to take photographs but that does nothing to explain the cat or the photograph. On the other hand, it's no more accurate to say that there is no intent behind the photographs taken by the cat because they appear at two-minute intervals and while the cat brings no intent to the proceedings the person who programmed the camera is present, as it were, in the programmed camera and wishes to see whatever the cat sees.

We have to consider, as listeners and artists that in a setting where we are listening to music there is a great deal of trust that sound is being manipulated in a way that reflects intent. People who listen to sound that is considered unorganized by most but hear within that sound music are bringing their desire to hear music into things like listening to the sounds of public transit or distant trains. Does this make the sound of public transit or distant trains music? These people who bring that kind of intent to listening would say it most certainly does. But ask the other seventy people on a route 5 bus in Seattle if the sounds they hear on the bus are music and they will likely say 'no' or have to take their earbuds for their iPods off to even hear you ask them the question.

At some point if the tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it happened but you can't call it music. The perceiving mind alone is not enough to make music by itself. All arts, despite many protests by individualists that the individual artist or consumer of art is the arbiter of taste has a communal element. There must be both a message and a recipient. The reason no one takes seriously the idea that the creakings, squeakings and groanings of public transit constitute music is because no one assents that there is intent or design. If you go to a new-music festival or a Seattle Composer's Salon and hear music that sounds like a collection of random stuff thrown together you know that despite the appearance of chaos that is a stochastic process. The lack of organization is part of the organization. That is where we are at the point where we can recognize artistic intent, because we're told it was on purpose by virtue of someone bothering to bring the thing for people to hear. But on public transit those sounds are not yet art because no one says to another, "I perceive music in this."

This gets into how I think music and the arts become religious experiences for people these days in lieu of more traditional understandings of religion. Atheists can obsess about the Beatles as though the members of the band were gods, and many do. Others find other objects of worship but that worship happens is a given. We can elevate ourselves by choosing to perceive in random sound music. We become the music-makers even though we have no instruments and do not produce any sounds of ourselves. Now in a modernist thought-form this would indicate that the cosmos is random or stochastic and that we impose the perception of music on the world around us. In a pre-modern mind this may well have transformed into "The heavens are telling the glory of God." We may perceive music operating at every level if that is what our religion is or we may perceive music as an outworking of the harmony of the things God has made or some other divinity or may perceive that we ourselves hear the music. Obviously I'm not going to digress into all those variations of perception and attribution of purpose here in a blog entry. I like to enjoy my weekends doing things once in a while.

So when you read about how someone programs a camera to take photos every two minutes and straps that camera two a cat and sends him on his merry way then, yes, that experiment invites us to ask questions about the arts and about interpretation. We can ask questions about what art is and what the intent behind art is but I think that asking those questions over and over is a waste of time. Transposing our intents on to animals is not the same as asking whether chimps may produce art or whether birds actually sing for the fun of it.

As a Christian I see the entire cosmos suffused with art the Lord has given each of us, human or animal, an opportunity to be part of. I already acknowledge that my intent may not be what is needed to produce art but I also don't wish to ignore that there must be a sender and a recipient for art to happen. Too much of alleged musing on the arts focuses only on one or the other and not on the relationship the two, ideally, should have.

In pop culture this kind of relationship is explored obsessively in gossip magazines or in Rolling Stone interviews with Bob Dylan. When once a link is recognized between a performer or creator of some kind and his/her audience a cottage industry erupts to extol the greatness of the perceived link even though it is invariably virtual. People feel connected to the words of someone who doesn't know them and doesn't care about them but they PERCEIVE a connection because they believe divinity speaks through them.

This isn't just true about rock stars, film directors, composers, authors, or painters. In the Christian blogosphere it may be writing about Mark Driscoll or John Piper or Ben Witherington II or Tom Wright says stuff that speaks to us. The Christian doesn't have to be alive. Patron saints are everywhere whether we're talking about Francis of Assissi or Aquinas or Augustine or C. S. Lewis, Theresa of Avilla or Mother Theresa. Those we venerate we venerate in different ways and we venerate them, in a sense, because they are artists. A saint whose wisdom and life inspires you to seek Christ is someone you admire. They are not Christ, obviously, but if you email them asking them to help you with a question you have there is a sense in which what you are doing isn't so different from a Catholic petitioning a saint to help them. In some ways it is no more useful, really, since you can study the Bible and church history to obtain things.

But I think the way to think about them is as follows; God programs the camera and fixes it on the cat. The cat is just a dumb animal wandering around as he sees fit but God uses the beast to take photos of what the world is like, what is out there. The photographs reveal the truth, and can be used to reveal the beauty and kindness of God. We would, however, be fools to think the cat took the photographs or imputed intent and art to the cat himself. The cat just carries the camera, the camera is the Gospel. The cat is finally not important in terms of being an agent himself since without God's providence and the work of the Spirit the cat accomplishes nothing. So when we hear the Gospel preached through men, they are like the cats whose lives are valuable and whose lives are transformed by Christ through the mission they have been sent on and what they do and say matters, but they do not have control over the message of Christ. Moses can obey but God delivers His people and this paradoxically does not diminish the importance of Moses' calling.

Our cult of personality tendencies as Christians inspire us to think that the cat took the photos, like a misleading headline saying a cat took 200 to 400 photographs. We want the news to be about the cat when the cat is the vessel. In the same way that someone programmed a camera attached to a cat to take photographs to produce works of art God uses stupid people to do something stupid, preaching, to reveal His wisdom. The best preacher on earth is still a cat with a camera attached to his collar who is walking around doing the things that cats do. The resulting photographs that have any beauty are the moments where God in His kindness reveals Himself. As Bach is reputed to have said, he wrote down the notes but God made the music.

But we Christians with our penchant for idol worship want to see the cat and don't consider the one who programmed the camera. It's something I have to remind myself of. It can often seem as though the photos have no purpose and that most of them look dumb. There are all kinds of ways to live by sight rather than by faith and the most devious forms of living by sight look like living by faith.

Our capacity to comingle entertainment with worship is ancient. This may not even indicate that it is actually idolatrous. It is easy to claim that we should not transform worship into an entertainment culture. Yeah, we perhaps shouldn't have a world in which people think it's actually a great idea to program a camera, attach it to a cat, have the thing wander around for a day or two and then make a documentary about how you did that and broadcast the thing on Animal Planet. That IS really stupid and it would be equally stupid to do with a dog. This is in every respect the nadir of reality TV.

But is it? Isn't it easy to condemn how stupid other people are while not recognizing our own foolishness? The things that others buy that they don't need are stupid but the things that I buy that I don't need are art? Somewhere someone genuinely enjoys that awful painting Thomas Kinkade did of NASCAR but I listen to Messiaen's organ music about the Nativity, which is something most people would never reoognize as being anything other than the most atrocious noises. I'm not taking back any critical stuff I've ever said or written about Kinkade. Far from it.

But I am reflecting a moment on how easily I can look down on someone else's idea of art or purpose while being blind to my own foolishness. I watch Batman cartoons. I may think that people who watch 24 might as well watch superheroes who actually wear capes but the person who watches 24 would say I watch Batman cartoons. The truth is that we're both watching indestructible superheroes who can get grappling hooks to always work and whose cel phones never run out of power and whose internet connections actually work. If I have any advantage over the person watching 24 is that I KNOW Batman is fantasy.

So much of the human condition can be considered in attaching a camera to a cat. It speaks so simply about the nature of our race that I could spend the rest of the weekend writing about it. I could laugh about how silly it is and I've chuckled a bit or I could decide to be outraged at the waste of time and resources. I could get like Judas and claim that the money and time that went into that could have gone to helping the poor. Both reactions are facile. When I consider how as a Christian I have attended a church where I have seen video broadcast of someone I don't really even know talk for over an hour about his kids who I have never met and don't really care about, isn't that sort of like attaching a camera to a pastor and having him ramble for a while and notice that eventually he gets to a point? It's no more fair for me to dismiss that then the wandering cat with the programmed camera. God is big enough to use the foolishness of preaching to reveal Himself. God can use a cat with a camera to reveal His providential kindness just as He can use a preacher.