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The Human Factor

When I was in my early twenties, androids and iPods were phantoms of the remote future depicted in Science Fiction movies or books. Swathed in fantasy, instruments of virtual omniscience were manipulated by advanced humans or aliens, for better or worse.

But computers were real. They were also relatively new. One of the popular rumors at the time was that computers would free us from the five-day workweek. Four days would suffice to do the work that previously required at least five, sometimes five-and-a-half or even six full workdays. As we now know, that utopian goal has never been accomplished. Instead of a reduction of the workweek, workloads have been increased. So, with the help of computers, firms that once handled 100 clients per week are now able to handle 100,000 in the same amount of time that they had taken to handle 100. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that weekends are shorter than they were in the 50s.

Another popular rumor claimed that computers would be able to create art. Attempts to do so have done more to refute that claim than any other fact about art or computers. For example, today it may amuse us to explore an application designed to show us a famous painting as it would look in a variety of different styles. Androids can do that at the flick of a click. But that trick should not be confused with the creative process we call art. An individual can certainly appreciate art without being an artist himself but only an artist is capable of the creative process itself even if he does not fully understand it.

The creation and appreciation of art is often regarded as primarily subjective. That is true in part because art significantly deals with beauty. However, a beautiful sunset is not art unless it is depicted in one form of art or another. Form includes principles. Principles assist an artist in the realization of his vision. He reviews them as he creates art, using those that apply and omitting those that do not. When the realization of his vision has no existing ‘rule’ he adapts or creates a new one. An artist should be familiar with all the rules before breaking any of them or creating new ones.

Judging art also has its criteria. Taste is unreliable as a primary factor in judging whether or not a painting or a ballet performance qualifies as a work of art. A judge should consider the universality of a piece and not automatically equate new with good or fame with authenticity. For example, when someone randomly splatters paint on a canvas, he is engaged in an intense need to feel like an artist, even though he doesn’t have the talent to qualify as one. With or without the aid of a computer, the results of his random splash may be beautiful, but like a beautiful sunset, splatter doesn’t qualify as a work of art.

There are art critics who are skillful in pointing out details of a work of art. There are others who for various reasons claim that a can of tomato soup is a work of art. A good rule of thumb is that if a painting, or sculpture, or dance needs to be explained it is not a work of art. It is important to examine a critic’s personal qualifications for judging art apart from their fame as critics. Remember that when someone critiques art she is revealing much about herself as well. If she has the psyche and experience to honestly judge art, then it is wise for the artist to heed her critique. If she lacks those attributes, then an artist should ignore her.

Back in the 50s, I was mistaken about the reduction of the workweek- – -I have thousands of grunt-work hours to my credit that remind me of that error; but I never doubted that computers cannot compose music. It was easy for me to be prescient about that. When forecasting the future of computers, the prophets failed to factor-in the reality of minimum requirements for composing music: a human brain, and the genius to transmit human experience through sound. The potential for computers to shorten the workweek was there when it was predicted that they could do that, but it is impossible for computers to ever create music. The minimum requirements are absolute. Humans, like wheels, cannot (and need not) be reinvented: it’s so much easier to make a baby.

Music is an international language. The same is true of all the arts except literature. Ironically, that is true because literary art is founded on language itself. Unlike music, dance, sculpture, architecture, and painting, literature has linguistic barriers, especially in its poetic form. Despite this, there are occasions when literary art, like dramatic art, can impact readers and audiences that do not share the same language with the authors of novels, plays, or operatic lyrics. The catalyst through which literary art may be transmitted to foreigners is an artist with talent equal to that of the original artist. I’ve noted several extraordinary examples of that.

One of them relates to two artists: Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito. Boito wrote one magnificent opera, Verdi wrote many of them. Boito was also Verdi’s librettist for three of his operas based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Falstaff, and Othello (Italian: Otello).

As in Shakespeare’s Othello, Otello murders his wife moments before he learns that she was not unfaithful to him as he had been led to believe. In remorse, he mortally wounds himself. Boito’s libretto then provides Otello with final words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Poor creature born under a malignant star

(note: Boito replaced ‘poor’ with ‘pious,’ thereby highlighting Desdemona’s innocence)

So, we have a world-class operatic masterpiece enriched by a world-class libretto that includes several passages from Shakespeare’s Othello and one from his Romeo and Juliet, two world-class plays. Above the restrictions of cultural differences, Otello combines the genius of three poets, one of them posthumously.

None of this could have happened without the ineffable element of creative genius. Add to that the vocal art of performers, each of them unique, and you get emotional responses that cut above the limitations of ethnicities and foreign languages. I happen to know Italian and Shakespeare’s Othello, but I deeply appreciated Otello long before I paid attention to the libretto. Opera lovers need not know the language of an opera’s lyrics to be spellbound by it.

I’m told that the English lyrics for the review, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris, are as fine as the original French. That is a remarkable feat. Bilingual readers of world-class novels and audiences attending plays spoken in a language foreign to them report the same phenomenon.

There is an interesting legend about Helena Modjeska, a polish actress, who (despite her accent) was renowned for her Shakespearean roles. After a closing performance, she attended a celebratory party held in her honor. Having seen her perform Shakespeare in English, the guests requested that she recite something for them in Polish.

She delivered a brief speech without identifying its source. During her improvised performance, the guests were moved to laughter and tears. When she finished the piece, she was asked the source of her script. She responded, “That was the Polish alphabet.”

Legends are often suspect, but I believe this one because I had the same experience as those guests had when—before I learned Spanish—I reacted to a Spanish actress’s interpretation of a passage from Federico Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.

Computers are of inestimable value to humanity. Their programmers continue to excel our greatest expectations. I am in awe of their kind of creative talent. But I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought that computers could be programmed to create art. 

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