Software Musings

Regular Expressions

Posted on: 08/10/2008

My wife has already written a blog posting about our trip to the tents in the park last Friday. It has taken me a little longer to work out the implications. For those of you not familiar with my wife’s blog, I should say that for three nights last week some 70 tents were erected on Major’s Hill Park in central Ottawa. Each tent was lit from the inside and each told the story of a person with an intellectual disability and displayed one of his or her works of art. One could browse around the tents, read the stories and at least look at, and in some cases interact with, the works of art.

In general the works of art were dire. This is not a reflexion on the intellectual abilities of the artists—most works of art are dire. I speak as a person with no ability in the art of drawing and painting but someone who, albeit limited by my red/green colour deficiency, can understand the excitement of seeing a great painting or drawing. Points of revelation and understanding in my life have included paintings—mixed in with reading Gödel’s incompleteness proof, hearing Ligeti’s first quartet, watching Richard II, reading Dermot Healy’s When They Want to Know What We Were Like and so on for the first time, I have also been changed by Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed, Dürer’s Oswald Krell and several of Rembrandt’s self portraits.

My understanding is that a great painting requires:

  1. a significant idea,
  2. an impulse to express it,
  3. an original manner of portraying it and
  4. technical competence to execute it.

Ideas I have a-plenty. And the drive to express them. What I lack is the intellectual creativity to find a form in which to portray them (step 3) and the technical competence to put the portrayal on paper (step 4).

And this brings me back to the works we saw last weekend. They were generally dire not because of the execution and presumably not because of the idea (after all, they were produced by people trying to express their (largely justified) anger and frustration). The hardest step is to find a way of portraying the idea and that was the missing link. And this set me thinking further. I have never cared for or worked with a person with intellectual disabilities so am way out of my depth here but I always seem to hear of such people being told to use drawing, painting and sometimes music to express themselves and I wonder whether this is too limiting.

Compared with Littlewood or William of Ockham I am intellectually disabled. But that does not stop me creating (meta-)mathematics and philosophy. Littlewood and Bill would justifiably say that my scratchings are trivial but that neither dissuades me from creating them nor reduces my pleasure from the creation. And mathematical and philosphical ideas, however trivial, may be right or wrong but are never dire.

I wonder whether the people who created those works of art that I saw last weekend would get pleasure from creating mathematics; could they obtain pleasure from rediscovering some simple theorems, already well-known in the literature but not to them? I suspect that they are not given the opportunity because art is somehow seen as “suitable” whereas mathematics is not.

The intellectual engagement required to create mathematics beyond your current knowledge is no greater than that required to move across my step 3 above to produce a good painting. However, the difference would be one of quality—all mathematical proofs are good, however simple. Most paintings are bad, however complex. And that must affect the satisfaction of the creator.


1 Response to "Regular Expressions"

You said:
“I suspect that they are not given the opportunity because art is somehow seen as “suitable” whereas mathematics is not.”

I say:
It is unfortunate but most artists have no interest in the aesthetics of math. I for one am trying to change that by using math as a language for art.

Cheers my friend,

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October 2008
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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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