Software Musings

Artistic Honesty

Posted on: 18/09/2006

My last blog recorded our brief stop in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA on our way home from holiday in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. While in Cincinnati my wife and I made a visit to the Contemporary Arts Centre (actually “Center” ) which left a rather nasty taste in my mouth.

One of the works of art, by Tom Marioni in an exhibition entitled Beer, Art, and Philosophy (to none of which I’m allergic) was a large painting of the Greek letter pi. Beside the picture was a notice, by the artist, explaining that pi represents the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle and that, although special computers had been built which have calculated the decimal expansion of pi to billions (presumably US billions) of places, no recurrence of the figures had been found. Mathematicians therefore believed that it was unlikely that there was any recurrence in the decimal expansion of pi.

I immediately wrote a correction on a scrap of paper and added it to the description of the exhibit but I noticed, as I was leaving, that

  • not only did the book of the exhibition perpetuate the idea that the justification for mathematicians’ belief in the irrationality of pi was a computer program followed by a conjecture
  • but also, my helpful label had been removed.

Aristotle conjectured that the diameter and circumference of a circle are not commensurable and, of course, Johann Lambert proved it in 1766—quite a while ago.

So, I have spent a lot of time wondering whether this invalidates the work of art. Certainly I think that the gallery removing my explanation is dishonest and leaves the work grubby but, if the artist genuinely believed what he wrote (and drew) then is the picture any less a work of art?

My first thought was of the other mislabelled pictures I’ve seen. In the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa, for instance, there is a fine piece of pornography by Lucas Cranach the Elder clearly labelled Venus. She’s no more Venus than I am but I can accept this lying label because I don’t believe that Cranach had any illusions other than that calling it Venus made it more palatable and therefore more saleable—he wasn’t confused.

Then there are all the Rembrandts with biblical characters dressed in contemporary Dutch clothing. Is that dishonest? I don’t believe so—the bible records universal rather than historical events.

Again there are the historical inexactitudes that shew, for example, General Wolfe expiring a hero’s death (Benjamin West) or Bonnie Prince Charlie being rowed in fine fashion across the sea to Skye by Flora MacDonald. These are lies of a different order—lies perpetuated as propaganda and therefore somehow more acceptable.

Given these dishonesties, ones I can accept, why do I react so violently to the dishonest pi and why do I still feel strongly about it a week later? The difference, I think, is that in the examples above, Cranach, Rembrandt and even West were not deluded: they simply decided to paint a fiction as another person might write a novel. But Marioni’s expression of pi was based on a falsehood and, once he knows the truth, by not correcting that falsehood, he is lying to every observer of the picture: the picture expresses something that is untrue. Presumably, if Marioni had known that pi had been proven irrational 240 years ago and that this was not an empirical observation based on output from a computer, he would have drawn a different picture. If such a fundamental change in understanding did not cause a change in the picture, then the picture could not have been the result of genuine feeling.

So, where does the responsibility lie? We cannot blame the artist for ignorance (although we can perhaps blame his mathematics teacher) but we can blame the gallery. I doubt that I was the first to point out this error and, by continuing to display the picture, the gallery is perpetuating a lie. And that is not true art.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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