The Search for a Thread

As a musician who is fascinated by mathematics and very interested in fine arts, I was understandably drawn to a series of talks called "The Search for a Common Aesthetic", the first of which (24 May 2001) had a mathematician talking with a composer and an artist.

The speakers were Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University and author of Nature's Numbers and Life's Other Secret, Tim Hodgkinson, composer, formerly with Henry Cow "etc etc", and Fiona Rae, a painter who "uses her work to play with expectations of painting and the cultural baggage it carries". The Chair was Mark Miodownik, lecturer in mechanical engineering at Kings College, London.

Stewart kicked off with a slide show about fractals and chaos, a subject he wrote a book about in 1989. Some of us have managed to see such images since then, but if we hadn't, here they were. Unfortunately, he or the Chair bungled the timing, and the last half-dozen slides of this state-of-the-art presentation were blinked onto the screen without commentary.

Hodgkinson then played us a few 3-second samples of his music, whereby passages of one of his string quartets were processed to sound like other instruments, shuffled around, and variously transposed, without much explication of the procedures involved. He opined that computers had introduced nothing new to composition that Stockhausen hadn't acheived just after the War using tape recorders. So much for computer music.

Then Rae delivered unprepared musings on her own work while facing projected slides of it, rather than the audience. Here she tentatively provided the context, emotional or art-historical, of the works presented. For anyone who already knew her paintings, which were distinctive and interesting enough, this may have been of value, but there arose the feeling that answers were being provided to questions that nobody was asking.

This may seem too harsh, but it was all too clear that someone showing a few slides of fractals, a composer playing a few fleeting recordings, and a painter passing personal comments on her own work does not add up to a co-ordinated discussion about any "common aesthetic".

We looked to the Chair to drag things into focus. Miodownik thought it would be helpful to tell us about the hedonism of his own work on formulae in mechanical engineering, and how such a feeling could not be revealed in his academic papers, but was often expressed verbally at conferences, together with his frustration at others' inability to appreciate the aesthetics of said formulae. If this was a man in search of a "common aesthetic", he seemed poorly equipped to find, let alone ride his own hobby-horse.

Nonetheless, off he went, and for the next 25 minutes, an aimless colloquy was struck up between the panellists. During this, it emerged that Miodownik thought that abstraction in music was only another word for discord or dissonance. Eventually, someone in the audience butted in with a question, and the Chair promised to return to it when the time came. This he did, and thus the first question from the audience was generously permitted, with a full 20 minutes remaining.

The second question was mine, and I asked why neither of the artists had addressed the issue of rules and constraints (thinking of Oulipo), that being one handy way to discuss comparisons with their work and that of the mathematician, whereas they had each preferred instead to dwell on their subjective feelings and preferences in respect of their own work. I ventured to say that the work of some artists, for want of any discernible principles or structures, might seem like "one damn thing after another", and that it was disappointing not to have had more discussion focussing on patterns, structures and principles. This was not to say, of course, that only rule-bound or structured art meant anything.

Rae was stumped, and indeed momentarily speechless, as if she had never been confronted with such a puzzle. (The person sitting next to me muttered that it was the first time that such a question had been asked in the ICA.) Rae then told us that she disliked the unremitting constraints implicit in some of the fractal images shown by Stewart, going on to extend this to cover any and all cases of rules and principles, as far as I could tell. I produced the old chestnut about Shakespeare and the sonnet, and when I asked why she hadn't emphasised the procedural or principled aspect of her artistic practice, rather than her subjective takes on her own paintings, she replied that she would gladly give examples of her artistic principles, given another hour to explain them. Given that I had already spent 8 thus far, I was not tempted.

She did mention her preference for using letters of the alphabet in some of her paintings, as a way of addressing, in some oblique sense, issues of language. When I suggested that this amounted to the rule, "Use letters in paintings where deemed desirable", she seemed to accept this as a meaningful principle of construction.

A third question was permitted before Miodownik terminated the 90-minute event. (No time, then, for the question, "is the ICA elitist, or what?") During responses to this, Rae told us, inter alia, how annoying my question was. Hodgkinson returned to it, though, and got round to mentioning his own ad hoc use of procedures such as the 12-tone system, and raised the notion of someone being a good composer despite restraints (constraints, presumably, rather than leashes and such). Stewart figured that mathematicians operated under two constraints: their work should be both correct (I had referred to the constraint of rigour) and interesting. He doubted that students were being instructed with the latter in mind. But what kind of constraint is this? What would one think of an artist who announced, "I have decided to adopt a new constraint in my artistic practice: I shall henceforth produce interesting work!"?

So, to wrap up: no noticeable, let alone noteworthy, parallels drawn between the artistic practices concerned, and, in stark contrast with, say, the (free) public events at the LSE, the public is allowed a meagre 3 questions in the final 20 minutes. And, strangely enough, in the bar afterwards, nobody spoke to me, let alone bought me a drink.

ICA membership is perhaps not indicated.

Be your own judge:

ICA events

LSE events



Paul Taylor 2001