On this site, and in my book, Visionary Creativity, I say that creatives swim in the culture of their day and manifest in their work the spirit of the age. The things they create—in art, design, science, technology, business—embody that spirit, and at the same time are a little off center for us, somehow not what we expected, presenting a discontinuity that stretches us, restructures our consciousness, pulling us into the future.
What do I mean by discontinuity? Let’s start by flipping through the pages of an art history book. The most obvious thing we notice about art is that it changes. For example in modern painting we see the change from the realism of Courbet, to the everyday subjects of Manet, to the Impressionism of Monet, to the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne, to the Cubism of Picasso. What is the reason for these changes?
We might be tempted to try to explain the changes by developments in the materials and techniques used by the artist, or changes in society, but so frequently, so regularly? Since these changes are unrelated to function, we call the phenomena non-functional stylistic dynamism, a term coined by Morse Peckham in his book, Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts, on which the material here is based. And since we find this non-functional stylistic dynamism in all of the arts of all cultures, let us for the moment assume it to be an essential quality of art, and see what role it plays in our experience of art.
Perception as Active
Now let’s go back up a bit and look at the workings of perception. We usually think of perception as passive, with stimuli coming in through the senses, etc., but it is in fact highly active, playing a major role in forming what we perceive. The stimuli that come in through the senses are often vague and indistinct. We do a lot of work, referred to in psychology as cognition, to make sense of them. People in different cultures, people native in different languages, people with different worldviews, do this work differently. They perceive the world the way they do because they grow up in cultures that mold their cognitive processes in particular ways. From the relations of heaven and Earth, to the relations of male and female, to what will be on our breakfast table, we live in cultures, which means worlds of expectations. And by the time we reach adulthood, most of the situations we encounter are in fact what we expect them to be. When they are not, our cognitive processes work hard to cover over discrepancies, as we see in optical illusions when we put something right in front of our eyes we and do not see it. This is related to what is sometimes called the social construction of reality. As Einstein put it, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The neurophysiology of this process is presented in detail by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee in their book, On Intelligence.
However, sometimes situations we encounter diverge so far from what we expect that we cannot fudge them. Things or situations for which we are not prepared, territories for which we have no cognitive maps. Imagine a person seeing an automobile for the first time, or a television, or a home computer. We might imagine that they would think, oh, a horseless carriage, or a radio with a miniature movie screen, or the home version of HAL. But that assumes that they are familiar with carriages, radios, movies, and computers. If they are not, they will have no prior concepts on which to hang what they encounter. There are reports that the Native Americans who saw Spanish ships in the Caribbean for the first time perceived them as clouds. We might have expected them to perceive huge canoes, but apparently the difference was too great. We call such an encounter a discontinuity, the difference between what is anticipated and what is encountered, and we don’t like it. However, there is one circumstance in which we are open to discontinuities, the art experience.
Discontinuities are fundamental to art and occur in several forms: Internal discontinuities, in which the work of art sets up expectations that it then violates, as in Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, with its burst of kettle drums after lulling us with a quiet passage, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in which we enter under a low ceiling before the space explodes up into the rotunda. Stylistic discontinuity, in which we might anticipate a Post-Impressionist painting, but encounter instead a Cubist painting. Formal discontinuity, as when we go to a concert expecting to hear musicians play, and instead encounter the indeterminist modern musician, John Cage, fiddling with a dozen radios. And finally, contextual discontinuity, in which we encounter a work of art outside of the environment in which we would expect it, as in the graphically sophisticated late nineteenth and early twentieth century quilts by American women that were put in bedrooms rather than in art galleries, and then in 1971, exhibited in the Whitney Museum.
Imagine going to the “Independents” exhibition of modern art in New York in 1917. The Fountain, a men’s room urinal submitted by Marcel Duchamp, was hidden from view by a curtain, but if you had looked behind the curtain, you might have remarked, “You’d think the plumber would have gotten that out of here before the opening.”
An openness to discontinuity is difficult; it requires stripping ourselves of the protective armor of our preconceptions and leaving ourselves exposed to the unknown, which is why so many people are uneasy with art—they do not want to challenge themselves. And those who are interested often experience art in quiet settings where they are protected from outside disturbances—museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls—that allow them to let down their preconceptions. The art experience is one in which we do not deny discontinuities, but rather are open to them.
As we become accustomed to a given style of art, it no longer produces a discontinuity; what we encounter becomes what we anticipated. So, by continually changing, art keeps ahead of our anticipations. For example, once the ancient Greeks of the sixth century became too accustomed to the style of vase painting that placed black figures on red backgrounds, the artists shifted to red figures on black backgrounds. There were no functional or cultural reasons for the shift. Just the desire on the part of the artists to shake up the audience a bit.
Artists walk a fine line in the introduction of discontinuities. If they take them too far, their audiences will not be able to bridge the gap and the work will be rejected, perhaps to be rediscovered later and heralded as having been ahead of its time. We see this for example in the well documented premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which incited a riot. Music is very powerful at setting up expectations. If these expectations are not met, we can feel extreme discomfort. In Stravinsky’s case, it took audiences only one season to catch up. On the other hand, if the discontinuity is too slight, the artist will be criticized for being timid or no longer developing.
In an interview about his movie, Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola stated: “It was supposed to be sort of a war movie in their [the distributors] minds, and what they got was strange; it was surreal, it was long…. When it did come out… it was controversial; people didn’t totally know what to make of it. Anyway, years later, I was sitting in a little hotel room with a little 17-inch television in London, and it came on, and I always liked the beginning of the picture, so I started watching it, and I wasn’t planning to see the whole thing. But I watched the whole thing, and my reaction was, “Gee, this is nowhere near as far out or as unusual as we thought at the time.” And you know, as often happens, art or work that everyone finds controversial, 15 years later… You know, I always like to say the abstract art of one period becomes the wallpaper a few years later.”
Note that this implies that different audiences and different individuals will have different art experiences. So, when someone says, “That’s not art to me,” they may not be having an art experience—they may lack the contextual references. Or they may have already become jaded to that form and find the work derivative. Or they may be experiencing a discontinuity, finding it uncomfortable, and wanting to deny it.
Art Changes How we Know
What is the purpose of this discontinuity in the arts? I said earlier that our perception works through preconceptions, we see the world that we anticipate. People in different cultures perceive the world differently because their cognition, formed by their upbringing, functions differently. Living in a world of expectations is very convenient. An example often given is that when stepping off a curb and hearing a hum or seeing a flash of light we do not want to engage in an analysis of what they might mean, we want to immediately step back. But it goes far beyond that, it is at the core of how we perceive the world and how we function in it. When we encounter anything—a door, a chair, another person—we do not scan it and engage in pattern recognition, we impose a meaning on to it. We have a concept of a chair, what it means—we can sit on it—and we impose that meaning onto it, making it a chair for us. In traditional Japanese décor there are no chairs. One sits on the floor. It is the failure to understand this that is the cause of the great lack of progress in the field of artificial intelligence, which seeks, for example, to teach a computer what a chair is, when a computer does not sit.
But what happens when the world changes, for example when cars become electric and make a different noise? Or when identity is no longer attached to land, or wealth to natural resources, or education to Greek and Latin, or sex to roles, or information to print?
The media guru, Marshall McLuhan, referred to the artist as an early warning system. Artists are constantly asking themselves, “What am I experiencing and how?” Unlike the rest of us, they are not content to just have experiences, they must attempt to penetrate into the origins of their experiences. In so doing, they are in touch with changes in themselves and the world—to use our earlier terminology, changes in the spirit of the age—before the rest of us, and these changes become central to their art. Cézanne said of his art that he was trying to portray the solid world of the paintings in the museums. But if that was what he was trying to do, why did he not just copy the techniques of the masters? In a sense he did. The masters looked at their world with an intensity that revealed how their cognition structured it. Cézanne looked at his world with a similar intensity. His world appeared different because his cognitive processes were different from those of the masters, and Cézanne showed us his world rather than an imitation of theirs.
We are most aware of the workings of discontinuities in the arts, but it also takes place in other fields, including science and business. When Einstein developed relativity and Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed Google, they were doing two things. First, they were advancing a scientific understanding of the workings of nature, or organizing all of the world’s information and making it available to us. Second they were restructuring our consciousness and making it more able to function in our emerging world that they were also reshaping. Artists are often aware that they are doing this because writing about art has been addressing this since the beginning of modernism. But we have been told that scientists are supposed to investigate nature and business people are supposed to make money. That is why we have such poor understandings of science and business. We do not understand that scientists, business people, and not just artists can be motivated to restructure our consciousness and move us forward into an unfolding future. The motivation of the creative architect, designer, musician, scientist, mathematician, business person, etc., is to pursue their discipline, but also to convey to us his discoveries about changes in the spirit of the age.