Robin's Blog

Art: in other words?

Last night I went to see a production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production, and very thought-provoking in many respects (particularly useful for the Theory of Knowledge course my Dad teaches). I wanted to pick up on a particular line which occurs when one of the pupils talks about describing art "in other words", and the teacher responds immediately saying that surely the definition of art is that it cannot be described "in other words". This definition is what I want to investigate here.

At first the definition seems very simple, rather obvious in fact (at least to me). Of course Van Gogh’s The Sunflowers can’t be described "in other words", in fact, it cannot really be described in words at all. It definitely can’t be described in other blobs of paint (at risk of sounding insulting to artists…) as then it wouldn’t be the piece of art that it is. But how about other types of art?

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

Can Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony be described "in other words", or even "in other sounds"? Well no, I would say that a description of the symphony in terms of the notes, the chords and the key changes is not a work of art: instead, it is a reduction of the art of composition to a simple listing ("stamp collecting", in the words of Rutherford). I was introduced to this concept at a young age (I think I must have been around eight at the time) when I composed my first piece of music (a very simple piece for piano). I wrote it down very carefully on manuscript paper and took it to show my Dad. "I don’t want to see it!" he said, "I want to hear it – it’s music, it needs to be heard to be appreciated" (even though my Dad can read music and hear it in his head easily).

Moving away from the visual arts…how about a poem? Can that be described "in other words"? One of the few poems I know relatively well (through studying it at GCSE) is Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est, an excerpt of which is below:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.


My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

That can’t be described in other words can it? The little excerpt doesn’t do it justice – read the whole thing, and think of the emotions it’s showing, and the powerful view on war expressed in the last stanza. Could I express that "in other words"?

Well, maybe I could. I could write something like the following:

It’s not nice being in the trenches. Seeing your friends die is horrible. In general, war is really horrible, so please don’t tell people it’s a good, honourable thing to do.

But that’s not art – that’s just a description of art, and it doesn’t do it justice at all. Reading what I just wrote makes you think "oh yeah, war’s not very nice really", reading Owen’s poem gives you a very different feeling.

The same could be said for other literary works. West Side Story is a very good retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but I’m sure Bernstein wouldn’t suggest that he’s trying to recreate Shakespeare "in other words". Yes, it is derived from Shakespeare, but it is not Shakespeare "in other words"

So, I’ve argued above that work produced in various fields generally taken to be "art" (various types of visual art and literature) cannot be described "in other words". But how about some other fields?

Take computer programming for example (see, everything in my life comes back to computers somewhere!). Can you describe a computing algorithm "in other words"? Yes, of course you can represent it differently, in different programming languages or using iteration instead of recursion (or vice versa), but surely it is still the same algorithm? Take the Quicksort algorithm – I can’t describe that in other words. Can you?

How about Fermat’s Last Theorem? Can you describe the question Fermat posed in any other words? No, at least not within our current mathematical system. In maths, and to a lesser extent in science, there is one way to describe something. Pythagoras’ Theorem has multiple proofs, but only one statement of what it is. Indeed, mathematical proofs should always be as simple as possible, based on other simple proofs, which in turn are based on more proofs which eventually lead back to axioms.

So, what does this mean?
Is this a simple test as to whether something is an art? Well, maybe…

Computer programming is not generally considered an art, yet one of the pioneers of the field, Donald Knuth, wrote (and is indeed still writing) a series of books called The Art of Computer Programming. He obviously thinks it is, at least partially, an art.

How about maths? Although it is based entirely on simple logical steps, there is definitely an art to doing maths, and certain pieces of maths are definitely "works of art". Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (described so well in Simon Singh’s book) is, in my opinion, just as much a "work of art" as a painting by Monet, or a novel by Jane Austen.

This is why I feel there is a problem with the black and white distinction between "arts" and "sciences". You find this a lot in education, at A-Level or University particularly. For example, most universities offer a BSc Geography degree (science-based) and a BA Geography degree (arts-based). However, is there not a significant amount of art in my BSc Geography degree? My (very efficient) code to calculate the Getis-Ord statistic on satellite images is, I believe, an artistic achievement.

I want to end this essay by asking you – what do you think? Do you think that the "in other words" test is a good test for whether something is an art? Is there a distinction between arts and sciences? How fuzzy is it? Can the "in other words" test be combined with a test for whether something is a science or not (Popper’s falsificationism comes to mind) to enable distinction between arts and sciences. If so, what happens when something can’t be described in other words, but is also falsifiable? Is it an art or a science? Or a ScArt (no, not the cable you use to connect your DVD player to your TV) or an Arence?

Comments are most definitely enabled on this post, and I would be very interested to hear what you’ve got to say.

If you found this post useful, please consider buying me a coffee.
This post originally appeared on Robin's Blog.

Categorised as: Essays, TOK-related

One Comment

  1. Sam says:

    Only just discovered your Blog and have spent the last few days reading most of the articles; some interesting pieces, keep up the good work.

    Generally, I agree that Art cannot be described “in other words” and I think this applies to most human creative efforts: something novel and worth appreciating can only be done using the original form, and any attempt to summarize whether in writing, speech or pictorial will fall short of the original.

    Regarding computer programming: on the micro level (i.e. quicksort algorithm) where abstraction is low, describing it “in other words” would be difficult, if not impossible, as you would be changing the fundamental operation of the algorithm; however, on the macro level the amount of abstraction is sufficient to mask any under-lying changes, therefore allowing different implementations to have a kind of Artistic merit.

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