The wait for the successor to OK Computer was a tough time for Radiohead dorks like me. Coldplay and Muse may not be here if it weren’t for the superficial itch-scratching they delivered to us desperately impatient fans. But when Radiohead finally released an album in October of 2000 it was a shock to anyone who enjoyed the one before it. The guitars were replaced by electronic tones and distorted vocals. Bleeping, blooping, bullshit.
After I let go of my expectations and gave it more time those bleeps and bloops began coming together. Kid A grew on me and became a favourite album, one I listen to over twenty years later. My perception of Radiohead changed from a band that was comparable to other alt-rock groups into something else. Other music I enjoyed before began to feel thin and limited. My mind had been opened a notch more than before.
Perseverance after the unexpected
What if, before Radiohead released the album, an AI system generated a bunch of albums as possible successors to OK Computer and fans were asked to choose the ones they preferred. What are the chances they would pick something as confronting and unconventional as the one Radiohead created?
This isn’t an attempt to define art, nor is it an attempt to raise one form of art above another. The variations in how things are made are unquantifiable; unique to each maker. The same goes for how those things are received.
This is about what happens when a creative work gives us more after we give it more; and what makes us do that.
It has nothing to do with what prompts us to give something another chance; instead it’s about what we require in order to believe that it’s possible for more to be there. A friend might tell us about the subtext we missed in a boring film but we’re not going to rewatch it without a thought of the director or writer and their intent.
Nick Cave’s response to a song generated by AI in his style may be dramatic and overly fond of suffering as a prerequisite but he makes a strong point:
What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognisable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self.Nick Cave – The Red Hand Files, January 2023
Cave confines his view to the interests of the artist but it applies as much to the receiver of the art. We give more because we hope to get something back and we hope it will be something new that catapults us forward.
Superficial beauty is pleasant but it can only hold you until it is replaced by something else. Superficial beauty can be automated because it follows conventions of composition. We can’t break conventions of composition without a genuine intent to communicate something in a way that is shaped by what is being communicated.
Sometimes we dig into a creative work but find nothing; an empty void. It doesn’t mean we failed to dig enough or that the artist failed in their communication. As long as we know something was made to express something other than superficial beauty, we’re left to like it or not; we can’t invalidate it as failure because that denies the artist of the integrity in their intent. An unconventional composition created without any intent to communicate something is noise; any beauty would be accidental.
We don’t need to reduce artistic expression to a product of pain and suffering. If that were true we’d share our galleries with the works of elephants, tigers, and snails. Sympathy is not empathy.
When a chimpanzee throws its shit at a tree we don’t consider it a remarkable expression of the chimpanzee condition. Conversely, if we frame that shit and display it in the Louvre the chimpanzee won’t feel any more understood. We don’t know how a chimpanzee would express themselves through art because we don’t know what a chimpanzee wants to express and how they would express it.
Art communicates through a kinship between the artist and the observer. This translates into a relationship of trust because we have to believe that the artist created the work with genuine intent. Artists need to be observers as much as the observers they expect to appreciate their art. How can we trust the intent of an artist that can’t relate to a person’s appreciation of an old hand-woven rug over a mass-produced one?
A computer can’t synthesise that human artistic expression without synthesising the trust required for a human to appreciate it. That is a dishonest relationship which survives by keeping everything as conventional as possible. The result is infinite variations of aesthetic appeal which mask the fact that every variation is composed within a set of rules that gained legitimacy in the past. (See “Corporate Memphis“)
Consider how much the web has been visually standardised to the point it creates an almost unreasonable yearning for something different. That’s a symptom of the synthesised trust that conventional composition techniques result in. Jony Ive’s flattening of the iOS gui; Google’s Material Design project; Facebook’s uncustomisable profile pages. They all contribute to a pool of automatable resources that can make a crypto exchange appear legitimate despite almost any suggestion to the contrary.
That yearning for something different is a yearning for those unconventional compositions and it feels unreasonable because we know deep down that they won’t make any sense if their purpose is purely ornamental.