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art and work by Vincent H. '23

i really struggled with titling this one

lately i’ve been thinking about my relationship with art – specifically, art that takes a while to experience, such as books and movies and symphonies. my attention span has gotten worse over the years, to the point that nowadays i regularly find myself skimming through chapters or skipping past uneventful scenes or zoning out for large portions of concerts

during college i developed a method for watching shows very efficiently – watch the first two episodes to get a sense of what each character is like, then read the plot summary for every subsequent episode, take note of the scenes that seem interesting or important, and only watch those scenes. this process was very helpful in the sense that it allowed me to finish shows i never would’ve started otherwise – for instance, i do not have the patience to watch the office in its entirety but was able to get through the highlights in around 15 hours – but i wonder how much of a show’s message or impact remains when everything unessential is stripped away

this mentality doesn’t just influence how i consume art; it also shapes how i create art. sometimes i’ll write blog posts where i have a few key points i want to communicate, so i’ll extensively edit the paragraphs containing those points and polish them; the rest of the paragraphs just become a way to link the main ideas together, and i do not give them as much care as they deserve. something similar can happen when writing music – sometimes when i arrange i’ll have specific climaxes from songs that i care deeply about voicing properly, and then i’ll begrudgingly write the rest of the arrangement to provide the necessary exposition

some of these issues can be masked through better technique. but i think improvements in technique alone do not address the fundamental problem, which is that any mentality which views art as trying to achieve specific goals will not be able to appreciate aspects of the artwork which are not tied to those goals. for instance: someone who views a show as trying to progress a main storyline will be bored by scenes from other storylines, someone who understands classical music as the development of a few themes won’t be able to interpret passages not derived from those themes, and so on. and it makes sense that this tunnel vision would translate into creating art as well – if you only have a single specific message you care about communicating, you either end up with a small amount of focused content or a large amount of underdeveloped content. you become lost and unenthused whenever you work on something not directly connected to your message, and as a result you cannot keep up with someone who knows what they want to communicate at every step of creation

all this reminds me of a miyazaki quote my friend showed me:

“The most important thing when creating art is that you know what you want to say with it. There are innumerable examples of people making films with a very high level of technique, but only a very fuzzy idea of what they really want to say. When people who know what they want to say make films with a low level of technique, we greatly appreciate the films because there is really something to them.
When young, nearly all of us want to be taken seriously, as soon as possible. Perhaps because of this we tend to overemphasize technique.”

a few weeks ago i had a call with a startup founder. he mentioned being an early engineer at R, now a popular tech company, and how working there was very rewarding because every day on his subway ride to work he would see people using his work. i asked him if his time at R would still have been rewarding if the company hadn’t gone viral, to which he immediately replied “no.”

i was really surprised by the abruptness of that response. i guess i was expecting him to say that even if R hadn’t been successful, he still would’ve learned a lot and enjoyed his work. i am bothered by the notion that only successful work is rewarding, because it implies that a lot of good work is unrewarding for reasons beyond one’s control. for instance, it means that if five companies worked on developing the same product and the one with the better marketing team won, then only people at one company would be able to consider their work rewarding, even if all five companies had solid execution

i’m reminded again of a conversation i had with an anti-aging researcher earlier this year. i asked them how they were able to fully commit to working on anti-aging when it’s such an opaque and high-variance field, and they said i thought about what would happen if i worked in anti-aging and made no progress for ten years and i realized that, even in that scenario, i still wouldn’t hate myself for working on anti-aging. after that i was fine with the risks

the other day i was talking to a friend about research and how much we should care about the longevity of our work. i mentioned that i didn’t think longevity should be that important because even short-lived and negative results can be extremely influential. for example, the field of ai research is filled with architectures that achieved state-of-the-art performance for a few years before being superseded by the next idea, but those systems were not in vain because each one gave us more intuition about the strengths and drawbacks of various approaches. i want to believe that when someone finally creates agi (artificial general intelligence), it will be because the researchers before them cleared out lots of initial steps and dead ends. reporters and historians may not remember the significance of those predecessors, but people who truly understand the field will be able to see the connections from one idea to the next. i do not know if this will actually turn out to be true, but i hope it does

(this isn’t an excuse for intentionally doing useless work though. my point here is that if you have an interesting idea and can’t tell if it’s fruitful or not, you might as well explore it and see what happens. but if you already have lots of evidence that the idea isn’t good and no reason to believe otherwise then it’s still not very smart to pursue that idea)

we cannot understand a complex piece of art all at once, so we pick a specific message to pay attention to and analyze the art through that message. we cannot understand the full impact of our work, so we pick a specific outcome and judge our work based on how it influences that outcome. these statements might not actually apply to everyone, but i think they’re an accurate description of what goes on in my head and many other peoples’ heads, of why i find it so easy to reduce art to a single message and work to a single outcome. i am trapped in the present, and the world is too complex to reason about all at once, so i collapse it into a single thread filled with simple causal relationships

i wonder what would happen if we were not so limited in our view, if we could see the world as it really is and understand all the ways in which it connects with itself. presumably we would have a more holistic appreciation for everything, and we wouldn’t have to reason so linearly. i’m reminded of the moment from siddhartha where the main character finally achieves enlightenment:

“‘Did you,’ so Siddhartha asked Vasudeva at one time, ‘did you too learn that secret from the river: that there is no time?’
Vasudeva’s face was filled with a bright smile. ‘Yes, Siddhartha,’ he spoke. ‘It is this what you mean, isn’t it: that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?’
‘This it is,’ said Siddhartha. ‘And when I had learned it, I looked at my life, and it was also a river, and the boy Siddhartha was only separated from the man Siddhartha and from the old man Siddhartha by a shadow, not by something real… Siddhartha’s previous births were no past, and his death and his return to Brahma was no future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has existence and is present.’
Siddhartha spoke with ecstasy; deeply, this enlightenment had delighted him. Oh, was not all suffering time, were not all forms of tormenting oneself and being afraid time, was not everything hard, everything hostile in the world gone and overcome as soon as one had overcome time, as soon as time would have been put out of existence by one’s thoughts?”

siddhartha essentially claims that, by understanding his entire life as a single concept devoid of time or causality, he is able to overcome his suffering. i’m not sure how literal that was supposed to be, but i do think there is some truth to it – that by learning to view art as an entity without a single intended message i can become a better artist, and that by learning to view history as a body without a single desired outcome i can work without worrying so much about longevity or impact