This essay came out of a conversation I had with my friend Ian last weekend. We were sitting on the beach in Pacifica, and as often happens, the topic of technology came up. (Just to provide context, he’s generally a proponent and advocate of IT, and I’m generally against it.) This time we got onto the subject of computer-created art, as Ian had recently been making a lot of really cool images with the Dreamscope app. The conversation quickly shifted into semi-debate mode as predictably, given our personalities and tastes, we lined up on opposite sides of the issue of whether these pictures were actually art or not and if it’s not, why not. He thinks they are. I’m not convinced.
Some Dreamscope images, one an original drawing of mine and one a pic Ian took of himself:
What was striking was that even though I was pretty sure in my conviction that although they are impressive images, they ain’t art, I couldn’t exactly say why.
His point was that the meaning that any work of art (or literature) is dependent on the audience anyway, so the fact that a computer produced it instead of a person is kind of irrelevant. The viewer always determines whatever meaning is there if any. And he said that as technology is just the most recent step in evolution that nature has taken (everything is part of nature), there isn’t really an important distinction between art produced by people and art produced by machines. And maybe there isn’t an important distinction between people and machines anymore anyway (I wondered). He also likes the idea that no human ego is involved in the creation of images, music, etc.
These ideas struck me as being almost completely at odds with everything I feel and understand about life and the arts, but it cracks me up anyway because in spite of having completely polarized opinions about almost everything, he and I have been best friends for over two decades.
But I also wondered if my position was just an emotional one, just some weird Luddite fixation without any solid intellectual or aesthetic basis, especially in the current post-human, IT revolution era.
It might be.
Part of my argument has to do with craft — something that takes an app 30 seconds to create is qualitatively different and in my opinion inferior to something a human being would need to spend years or even decades mastering various skills and techniques to achieve. I’ll explain why this is in another post, but it seems obvious to me. However, when it comes to the subject of ‘meaning in art’, it gets trickier.
I realized I had to stake out the terms of what art is as I understand it and then go from there. I meditated in various states of mind for several days on the issue. The ideas that came out of this meditation have led to the present essay.
I finally realized that at least from my quasi-Luddite view, there is some important distinction between human experience and the data representing it. And that this is the basis of my sense of what art is, at least on one level.
In this essay, I go back into the historical, symbolic and mythic roots of one facet of human life that has become a common artistic “trope” (just one among many): the transition from Winter to Spring, a transition deeply invested with the symbolism of death, rebirth and rejuvenation affecting nature and human culture at once. In my opinion, in order for computer-created art to represent this in any deeply meaningful way, computers themselves would have to be capable of experiencing this death and rebirth in some visceral or psychological/spiritual sense. A simulacrum of this reality through mere data is not sufficient and is misleading, but the power of mere images in the postmodern, post-human world is such that it marks a battlefield in the ongoing war between Persephone and the Replicant.
The seasonal change from Winter to Spring is something deeply engrained in human experience, as individuals and as a species. At least since the Neolithic, the hunters who ran down the bison or the auroch on the plain in winter knew the scarcity and deadly peril of dying on the frozen steppe, the immediacy and near certainty of death for themselves and everyone they loved, as well as the seeming death of the entire natural world around them. The threat was personal as well as cultural as it could mean the loss of human society in the bargain. Death meant extinction on a wide variety of levels. Hence when springtime returned, the reviving of nature and the rejuvenation of the world was a salvation and a rebirth on as many levels; not in abstract terms but in living, visceral reality. All this was an undeniable reality faced for millennia; it bound us to the natural world and established our dependence on it as well as an intimacy. It also allowed some rapport with eternal verities, a rapport we sometimes still recognize, though in degraded and diminished forms. A key feature of this process was its cyclical, non-linear nature, and as such, it created a kind of eternal loop which as the great scholar of religious studies, Mircea Eliade, has shown, is inherent to the idea of the sacred in archaic societies and an escape from the barren meaninglessness of ‘real’ historical time.
So this transition from winter into spring is imbued with an experiential, symbolic and religious importance which seemed ultimately to enter into the domain of the arts.
It might be said that the Christian religion has to some degree diminished the idea of death and rebirth by assigning it exclusively to its prophet Jesus and to the human beings who agree to follow his precepts. Christianity retained the gist, and Christian celebrations and rites during Christmas and Easter in some sense return believers to ‘sacred time’, but the Christian conception of ‘rebirth’ tries to detach it from its roots in the totality of Nature. The ancient pre-Christian religions saw it differently. They understood that the transition from Winter to Spring and from death back to life affected all reality, not just Jesus and/or his chosen human beings. It was inclusive and all-encompassing; everyone and everything was affected, from the lowliest bug to the King of the gods. Everyone suffered and everyone was reborn. Christianity acknowledged the first part but made the second contingent on obedience to its laws (with consequences still felt in the modern world). This limitation tended to be ignored by artists, especially in the Middle Ages, as the vitality of representations of the natural world, gardens, landscapes, forests, etc is undeniable. In any case, the death and rebirth idea entered the realms of both Christian and pre-Christian myths and art of its own accord, being an irresistible autonomous reality, one that then became enshrined in ritual practices and beliefs throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East.
However, it didn’t die there. Christianity gave the Winter to Spring renewal a distinct conception from what it had had in the pre-Christian era, but artists and poets in succeeding ages didn’t entirely buy it. As is well known, pagan deities and concepts (especially Greek and Roman) figured significantly in the Christian cultural productions of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance in both literature and the visual arts To give just one example, here are the opening lines to Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licóur / Of which vertú engendred is the flour; / Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth / Inspired hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his half cours y-ronne, / And smale foweles maken melodye, / That slepen al the nyght with open ye, / So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages, / Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, / And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, / To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; / And specially, from every shires ende / Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, / The hooly blisful martir for to seke, / That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Chaucer’s pointedly ironic Prologue, where the outset of a sacred pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket is marked by lasciviousness and what was then referred to as ‘cupiditas’, (And smale foweles maken melodye, / That slepen al the nyght with open ye), makes the point with obvious references to classical myth and the familiar emblems of the rebirth of Springtime. Composed in the late 14th century, The Canterbury Tales is a work a thousand years or more removed from the ancient world, but the poet adopts the images and symbols from that time as if perforce (while at the same time adapting them to his inimitable and particular ends.)
Obviously there is a nearly endless list of works in the visual and literary arts that rely like Chaucer does on these primordial and mythic notions of the transition from Winter to Spring. However, I am going to return to one of the original sources, an ancient myth which perfectly expresses the mythic and emotional dimensions of the transformation of Winter into Spring: the story of Demeter and Persephone. This myth is not the original by any means as similar stories were told throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East from very ancient antiquity, but it is the one we are most familiar with, and it clarifies the emotional and symbolic essences of this tradition.
The myth of Demeter and Persephone centers on the anger and grief of Demeter upon the loss of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades the Lord of the Underworld. Demeter retaliates through her refusal to allow plants to grow (sometimes interpreted as inability), thus plunging the world into death and desolation similar to that experienced in Wintertime. Here is the myth:
Demeter was the goddess of corn, grain, and the harvest. She was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. It was believed that Demeter made the crops grow each year; thus the first loaf of bread made from the annual harvest was offered to her. She was the goddess of the earth, of agriculture, and of fertility.
Demeter was also intimately associated with the seasons. Her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades to be his wife in the underworld. In her sorrow and anger at her daughter’s loss, Demeter laid a curse on the world that caused plants to wither and die, and the land to become desolate. Zeus, alarmed for the barren earth, sought for Persephone’s return. However, because she had eaten while in the underworld, Hades had a claim on her. Therefore, it was decreed that Persephone would spend four months each year in the underworld. During these months Demeter would grieve for her daughter’s absence, withdrawing her gifts from the world, creating winter. Her return brought the spring.
Demeter’s grief and anger are easy to identify with as we know what it is for a parent to lose one’s favorite child, but these emotions have to be magnified; they extend to the entirety of Nature, not just to an individual human woman, because Demeter, like Isis, her Egyptian counterpart, embodies the fertility of Nature and the cycle of life and death. Accordingly, her grief and despair following the abduction of Persephone can not be felt just in human terms but have to be exaggerated to supra-human dimensions.
In terms of magnitude, the import of Demeter’s reaction is similar to that of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Christ’s passion is thought to be tremendous and sublime partly because of his divine nature, but also for the significance of his appearance in history and all the ramifications that follow for the faithful. In consequence, the crucifixion is a cause for sorrow far beyond that of an individual human being, to put it mildly – and for joy as long as one accepts the accompanying conditions. Demeter’s plight, however, must be greater still because she represents not just humanity but all of Nature with its infinite regenerative power, which thru the cycles of time and of death and rebirth, has sustained the totality and diversity of life for millions and millions of years.This is what Demeter and her many Mediterranean and Near Eastern counterparts (Isis, Ishtar, Inanna, etc) represent whereas Christ signifies the possible redemption of only one species (without much official consideration for the greater natural system that supports it).
In any case, after being abducted, Persephone spends three to six months (depending on the source) in the Underworld alongside Hades with horrible consequences for humanity already alluded to, i.e., death by starvation. Zeus finally responds to the direness of the scenario by sending Hermes down to negotiate for Persephone’s release. Things seem to go off without a hitch, Persephone is freed, and the resulting joy on the part of Demeter and of human beings and all Nature is tremendous (and well known to us as the yearly return of Spring). Unfortunately, however, there was a slight complication. Persephone had consumed some seeds of an Underworld fruit, generally thought to be a pomegranate, which required her to return every year to re-occupy the office of Queen of the Underworld, thus enshrining the annual and eternal cycle of seasonal change as well as the death and revivification of Nature.
This tale of Demeter and Persephone, for all it represents in symbolic and emotional terms and because of its profound and beautiful imagery (Persephone on the throne in the Underworld, her abduction by Hades, the search Demeter undertakes and her retaliation, plunging the Earth into barren winter and the harsh conditions that implies for human beings and for animals and for the gods for that matter, and her joyous release) is so deeply infused in Western culture and consciousness (even now in its degraded and infantile state) that even thousands of years later, it still resonates down to the present day.
The point of this blog post has been to investigate one facet of the infinite multi-dimensional gemstone of human culture and to suggest how this element has played into one dimension of human life and its representation in the arts.
When I was arguing (or failing to argue) with my friend on the beach in Pacifica, this was what I was hoping to get at. A computerized or cyborg artist would be able to replicate the entire encyclopedic data stream that encompasses this one artistic trope, but it goes without saying that this set of data would have no visceral or emotional reference points. The cyborg might just as well be processing statistics on sales of toothpaste. I’m familiar enough with the work of Philip K. Dick (and reference him in the title of this essay) that I’m aware of the limitations of some ultimate distinction between human and ‘machine’ consciousness. Especially nowadays when it’s common to hear human beings referred to as ‘processors’ or as ‘hard wired’, ‘programmed’ etc.
I guess the only thing that can be said for sure is that if a cyborg were to produce a poem or painting on the subject of some rebirth, real or metaphorical, and if it wanted to be intelligible to a human audience, it would have to draw from the deep well of symbolic tropes and associations going back to antiquity and the Neolithic before that. Because that’s where it all comes from. So in the end, regardless of how advanced technologically we get, Demeter and Persephone always win.
Stay tuned for more meditations of the arts, literature and our shared non-machine based cultural heritage from Omni Tutoring!