Friday, November 21, 2003

Art is a Generative Function

I wanted to expand on some ideas I touched on earlier. Any work of art is what I'd call a generative function; it can produce many, possibly an infinite number of, reactions in the mind of the reader/listener/viewer. But most art is a particularly static kind of generative function; it produces a single kind of experience, which then is perceived in manifold ways. In other words, the generative nature of the work is in the brain of the perceiver rather than in some intermediate.

In the example of the symphony, the sheet music is the generative function. If the composer and all of the people who had ever heard a symphony died, and all recordings were destroyed, the symphony could be reconstructed from the sheet music. Without the sheet music, even with people who had heard it, it would be difficult to reconstruct. Of course, the essense of the symphony as a work of art is the sound; reading the sheet music gives almost no sense of the art. And the conductor, the individual performers, and the listener all have roles in further interpreting the intention of the composer and turning it into an irreproducible, singular work of art.

But still, the interpretation happens within narrowly confined limits. I don't know of any works of music or drama, for example, in which the order of movements or scenes is ambiguous or up to the conductor/director to decide. (Such things undoubtedly exist, but not among major works.)

Software-mediated art is simply a different class of generative functions, and it is, in the computational complexity sense, more powerful. A single "work" of software-mediated art can be expressed in a countably infinite number of ways, even before the interpretation-in-the-brain stage. And that's why the potential of such work is so exciting.