Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Arts and Crafts and Claude Shannon

So, the always-interesting Mr. Chuck Wendig, esquire had some things to say about Art with a capital A and craft. I read that, and the stuff he linked to, and having mostly digested it, I find (to some surprise) that I have something of my own to say on the subject. *cracks knuckles*

I look at it in terms of signal theory. Art is the signal, craft is the channel. The artist has an idea, a concept, a feeling, a signal that needs to get through to the audience. Whatever the artist is trying to say has to get somehow from the artist’s brain to the viewer/reader/player/user. When someone says, “is it art?” they’re usually trying to receive that signal and judge its effect on them. If the signal comes through clearly, it can still be shot down as “not art” based on the receiver’s judgment. If it doesn’t come through clearly, the receiver may have to work to understand in a way the artist doesn’t intend, like trying to decipher a child’s drawing.

The question, then, is how effectively that signal can be transmitted. That’s where craft comes in: an artist with craft is throwing bits into the void. Maybe the signal gets through, maybe not. Craft, skill, gives the artist a clearer channel. There have been a lot of times when writing where I sit there with a scene in my head, and I just can’t describe it. That’s a craft issue if it really is that clear in my head... but it’s so easy for a craftsman to blame his tools, right? And which would a writer rather admit: lacking talent or lacking vision? (I really don’t know, I lack both)

We need to talk about bandwidth, too. Not all channels can support the same throughput of information: try to cram too much meaning into flash fiction, and it’s likely to get garbled for all but the clearest channels. (Hemingway could write a novel in six words. Most writers can’t) At a given level of skill, there’s a limit to what can be said. The high-frequency signal, the fiddly little details of your vision, are lost the easiest. Now, looking at the subject from this point of view, we can talk about that book/chair comment (“I don’t think a chair is going to save someone’s life in the way a writer can.”) in a different way: a chair just has less bandwidth than a book. There’s a limit to what can be said through even the most well-crafted chair. Rodin might be able to get across a fundamental human truth in a chair (especially if it’s allowed to be a rocking chair). Me, I’d be lucky if I could get across the rough notion “you can sit on this and not die.”

The receiver, too, has a role in this dance. In some ways, just as much as the transmitter. The best transmitter on the clearest day won’t do too well with a rusted-out rabbit-ear antenna sitting in a concrete bunker. To an extent, you can make up for a tinny transmitter by having a really good receiver. In the same way that NASA uses enormous powered radio antennae to pick up the very faint signals from faraway spacecraft, well trained lookers-at-art can discern meaning where others cannot. Ever sat dumbfounded while a parent proudly shows off a crayoned monstrosity, enthusiastically pointing out one purple blob as the dog, a green stick as a grandmother, and a remarkable representation of a 1973 Pontiac as a juice stain? Or a wine taster prattle on about notes of peaches, smokiness, and bitter almond. The craft isn’t there, but a good reader can still pick up the idea being transmitted. This can work against a writer: if you always show your drafts to the same person, you risk that person knowing what you mean rather than what you say, overlooking flaws in the craft. It’s like, hypothetically speaking, picking up a cell signal with a freaking satellite dish, then claiming, “Oh sure, you get great reception out there in west-central New Hampshire, you won’t have any problems if your car breaks down by the reservoir” like those miserable fuckards at Sprint must have done.

So, your artistic vision isn’t getting across -- what does signal theory offer by way of an answer in terms of your art and your craft? Plenty, I think.

The obvious message is to strive for the clearest channel you can get: perfect your damn craft. Even the simplest message can get garbled. Like Humpty Dumpty, when you say a word, it should mean exactly what you want it to mean.

The next thing is to try to have a sense of what your bandwidth is. Flash fiction, short stories, photographs: There’s a limit to what even the best craft can effectively put into those forms, and if you try to encode too much you'll overwhelm the receiver and your message will be garbled by its own sheer weight. I have great affection for Tolkien’s work, but I think he struck a better balance in The Hobbit than in the Lord of the Rings in terms of how much world he crammed into those pages. The basics got through, but some signal was definitely lost on this reader. Me, I don’t have Tolkien’s skill, and if I try that I’ll just drive readers away. The Nyquist-Shannon theorem gives a fundamental limit to the amount of information you can send in a particular channel. It turns out, there’s a remarkable similar theory for literature in terms of words per minute, but it won’t fit in the margins of this blog.

The other thing you can do is to crank up the transmitting power: hit the audience’s emotional triggers. Blam! down goes Bambi’s mother and all of a sudden you weepy bastards give a damn about deer for the first time in your lives. It’s a manipulative trick, and people can resent it, but hey, whatever works.

Or, conserve bandwidth with a simpler message: drop the subtleties and go for a coarser, clearer artistic statement, painted with simpler, bolder strokes. This is frequently needed when going from a high-bandwidth channel to a lower one: making a movie from a television series, for example (why yes, I did recently read an old review of Serenity, why do you ask?). This is often derided as dumbing-down (particularly when Hollywood does it), but when you really know and understand the basic artistic motivation, this can instead be a refreshing clarification, stripped of unnecessary clutter: think about the Renaissance paintings of classical stories and myths, for example, or paintings of Shakespeare’s plays. A thoughtful condensation can have the effect of amplifying the important bits and making them clearer to philistines like myself. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Alternately, if you’ve got a really important point you can’t bear to leave off, you can use a kind of literary Gray code: use repetition and your knowledge of the reader to make sure that a potentially garbled message can be correctly interpreted on the far side. Basically, trade bandwidth for a guarantee of delivery. Teachers use this a lot to drill through dense skulls, by saying the same things multiple ways, or stopping periodically to ask, “did you get this?” Ayn Rand was terrible for this: for her longer books especially, it seemed that she was so afraid that the reader wouldn’t get the point that she would eventually just break the narrative and beat the reader over the head with it.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject, and probably some terrible advice. Hack away.

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