March 6, 2011

Some random thoughts on the arts

- Evolutionary models of artistic creation mirror Darwin's idea of natural selection: there is some source of variation, some of the variants are fitter than the others, and whatever gives them that edge can be passed on to their "offspring."

Is there a source of variation like the copying errors in genetic evolution, where a target sequence of letters, say PLUSH, is mostly copied faithfully except for one slip-up, like BLUSH? We all know about these errors in copying a cultural thing whenever we try to reproduce a target like a story or an image, where the "game of telephone" effect spits out a very different output from the input, all by a series of many small changes.

Colin Martindale in The Clockwork Muse says he doubts there is much role for this source of cultural variation because artists are never trying to exactly copy some target work of art that already exists. They are trying to create their own new thing.

However, even if they're not trying to copy an existing work of art, what about the initial flash during the inspiration stage of creation? During the elaboration stage, they're trying to faithfully reproduce what it was that sprung to mind. Perhaps the same embryonic core of an artistic idea springs to many minds, but in setting it down each artist makes their own slight copying errors.

Assuming the idea was a good one in the first place, the variants that stick very close to it will do well with the audience. Most of the mental fumbles in working out the idea will result in a degraded product. But some will, without the artist having intended it or foreseen it, lead to a superior rendition of the widespread inspirational idea.

So, copying errors akin to random genetic mutations are important after all. Martindale says that we rightly distinguish between the mere typesetter and the poet. Yet every poet is the typesetter for his muse.

- How long until video games become the next big thing in storytelling? Right now no one with narrative-crafting talent will go anywhere near them, preferring to stick with books, magazines, TV, and especially movies. Successful modes of storytelling never hit their peak right away, so it could still happen.

And it also seems like the time from birth to maturity of new narrative media is getting shorter: on the order of 1000 years to get from Gilgamesh to the Iliad and the Odyssey, from ancient Greek plays to Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, and from ancient Egyptian religious texts to the Old and New Testament; then on the order of 100 years to get from the first novels to the Romantic and Gothic novels in Britain or Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia; and currently on the order of 10 years to get from the earliest TV shows and movies to Twin Peaks and Back to the Future. The best video game stories, then, may show up in less than 100 years.

Still, that's assuming they ever do make for great storytelling. They would be a fundamentally new medium, given how interactive they are compared to the closely related TV and movie media. But no one likes audience participation in storytelling, least of all the audience. They want to be taken on a journey by the storyteller, not engage the logical and rational part of their brain in order to navigate menus, instruct the characters to do this or that, or frequently pause and resume the story (to check the player's status, change the settings, or save or load a game). That's why improv isn't funny but stand-up is, why the "choose your own adventure" novels always fail next to standard novels, and why key outcomes in a movie aren't put up to a popular vote in the theater, as though whichever outcome got the loudest applause would be played out.

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