Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

"In a creative argument both parties are more interested in finding the truth or solving the problem than in being right. "
Michael A. Gilbert

In philosophy, an argument is a claim that is backed by reason and should be sharply contrasted against a fight. A fight is a struggle for dominance and actually has more to do with power/ego relationships while an argument is concerned more with the creative development of ideas. When entering into a dialog, some people confuse an argument with a fight because it may seem logical that you can force people to believe your ideas by establishing dominance over them. Hence, we can see how bullies develop the notion that you can win an argument by transforming it into a fight and then attempting to crush the other person’s ego. The strange thing is that if you ask someone who frequently instigates fights why they do it, they will reply that they don’t and that they are in fact intelligently arguing.

It’s like bullies don’t know that they are bullies.

So, here are some signs that you are actually more interested in fighting than developing a creative argument:
1. If you make personal insults, then you are not presenting an argument, you are picking a fight.
2. If you attack the way someone presents their argument rather than presenting your own reasoning, then you are picking a fight.
3. If you are simply stating or re-stating a claim without providing your own reasoning, then you are fighting.
4. If you are attacking a side issue rather than presenting reasoning about a central claim, then you are not participating in the argument.
5. If you present circular arguments, then you are not arguing.
6. If you are more concerned with the labels or semantics that someone is using rather then the reasoning they are using, then you are not participating in the argument.
7. If you constantly try to change the subject to something you want to talk about, then you are not participating in the argument.
8. If you constantly try to argue from popularity (e.g. Everyone steals office pens. or Everyone bribes customs officials. or Everyone smokes marijuana., etc.), then you are not presenting reasons, you are presenting rationalizations.

A Good Argument:
1. Shows what position a person holds.
2. Allows others to present their point of view.
3. Helps arguers reach and understand new views and reasons for those views.
4. Does not stomp on people.

With that said, I am interested in this column becoming a place of creative argument. So I’ll present a claim and then my reasoning behind the claim:

Jonathan Field’s latest exhibition at “Trois Gallery” in Atlanta deals with the intersection of entropy, politics and the tradition of history painting. The tradition of history painting seems to have disappeared since the advent of newer technologies that have been designed to capture history as it happens. It made some historical sense in 1840 for Delacroix to paint “Crusaders Entering Constantinople” because there was no visual record of the event, but why paint the capture Baghdad when we have photos and videos? Field’s work encapsulates this question both visually and conceptually through the notion of Maxwell’s demon.

Maxwell’s demon is a thought experiment that asks if it is possible to violate the Second Law of thermodynamics (an expression of the universal law of increasing entropy where entropy can be thought of as a measure of microscopic disorder). In the thought experiment, Maxwell proposes the existence of a demon that can follow the course of every molecule in a system and release just the ones he wants, there by violating the Second Law by decreasing the entropy of a system.

While this may sound like esoteric physics, it actually explains why we can’t predict the future. As time increases, the universe will always become more disordered. If the arrow of time was symmetrical, you could predict the future by looking at the past, but the Second Law implies that time is asymmetrical with respect to the amount of order in an isolated system. The only way to violate this is if you have a demon with enough information so that he can control where all of the particles in a system go …

Enter Jonathan Field (our demon of the moment). Jonathan has taken thousands of pins and recreated scenes from the New York Times as well as the favorite paintings of George Bush and Obama. As a visual artist, Field has used the pins so they begin to look like molecules and of course, he is the demon ordering them into a pattern. The patterns, by definition, are not random, but are reflections of the energy of our time. In this case, the political energy.

Because our world is now inundated with people capturing events as they occur, the question arises as to what will be remembered from our time. What is the role of a historian when everything is constantly being recorded, but with no conscious order? The historian is no longer the recorder, holding on to events for future generations. The historian has become the editor, selecting from the chaotic pool of recorded data to form a clear picture.

The historian has become Maxwell’s demon, desperately trying to create order out of disorder, but knowing full well that it is a loosing battle.
And so, Field has resurrected the concept of the history painter. Why should we continue to paint historical events rather than relying on the history recording technology that is now at our disposal? For the same reason that we should continue to write history rather than just allow all of the news reports of our time to represent the cumulative history of our time. It allows history to be more than just data; it becomes knowledge. Field has re-invented history painting so that is relevant for our time. Field places himself in the position of Maxwell’s demon that self-consciously produces images about the flow of information from the present into history. He is an artist, he is an historian and his work questions the role of the artist and the historian all at the same time.

But that’s just my argument about the work, here’s a video of him talking about the work and if you get a chance, go see the work in person:

Jonathan Field, "Maxwell's Demon [ind 011003]", steel pins and rubber on board, 45"x32", 2004

Eugène Delacroix. The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France


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