On Chords, Maps and Effects in Art

This is an absurdly overgrown comment on this post by Graham Johnson at Suspended Reason.

Johnson picks up an article by Gabriel Duquette, published on the art blog Liposuction. In it, Duquette establishes some new terms to describe art, specifically “chords” and “maps”, representing different kinds of fit that makes art good.

Chords are elements combined in a way that is appealing, but not because the combination describes reality. Chords exploit the many evolved sweet spots of the senses. They can be comprised of “real” things but prioritize creation of an experience over transmission of knowledge. Chords can be consonant or dissonant — the sum of their parts can elicit pleasure or irritation, or even revulsion. Chocolate and peanut butter fit better than chocolate and ketchup

Maps describe what exists. They exploit the evolved need to understand how reality behaves. They can be aesthetically pleasing but they put the task of abstraction first. Maps “fit” when they achieve compression — when they eliminate redundancies in a pattern of real-world relationships without sacrificing essential features. Poor map fit is usually due to bad compression (irrelevant information that feels like fat on the bone) or outright misrepresentation (features that don’t appear in the abstracted territory). The Wire fits better than unedited surveillance camera footage or CSI: Miami.

Johnson argues there is a third category of fitness, which he calls “effect ideas”:

Effect ideas are mechanisms of action by a work and onto an audience member, the effect conveying in it valuable information, or posing valuable questions, about the world. Effect ideas are a form of philosophy which exert themselves through the reader watching himself watch the text. Through the self-watching, the reader comes to understand more about art, reality, perception, the world, or the self.

Some examples:

You realize you thought X thing about a novel character based on the character’s gender, race, or other stereotypable feature. You realize you anticipated a different ending based on tropes of the genre. You realize something flawed about your literal perception. You realize you act or feel differently after exposure to specific media products, including behavioral/emotional mimesis of their protagonists. /—/

All these effect ideas, or rather effect ideas period, require some amount of reflection or “noticing” by consumers of the art stimulus. This is why visual arts and literary fiction especially encourage this category of response. Their consumption involves silent pondering, especially viewer self-evaluation when faced with the art object.

It’s not described in great detail, but I think I understand what he means: “effect ideas” (although I prefer just “effects” to keep the pattern established by “chords” and “maps”) are elements of art that communicate with the audience by inducing a reaction in them that they in turn observe. That observation itself teaches them something about themselves and their relationship to the world and leaves a lasting impression.

It’s a good addition, certainly worthy of its place among the others. But it doesn’t just claim a place among the others. It claims primacy. Johnson says:

Effect idea fitness is the so-called “artsiness” of the work, and a certain prerequisite for successful “high” art.

He’s right about this, descriptively. I just kinda wish he wasn’t. I want to say, not to him but to the whole art world that does indeed think this, that that’s just, like, your opinion, man. To me, the primacy of effects over chords and maps in “high art” isn’t a result of its obvious superiority but of particular social dynamics in the art world over the last century.

There is a significant risk that what I’m about to discuss (valuing art in terms of its effect on the audience) isn’t exactly what Johnson meant by “effect ideas”. In that case I apologize for using his post as an excuse for getting a lot of half-related, long-brewing personal thoughts out[1].

The subtlety-sensitivity feedback loop

Imagine artists and art critics/enthusiasts as two interacting communities where the artists create works and the critics validate the artists’ creations as good and successful. They depend on each other. Crucially, one’s position in one community is partly dependent on playing along with the other. Critics earn status by being skilled at interpreting art — the subtler and more difficult the better — while artists get critics’ attention and praise by making works that let them show how skilled they are.

This sets up a feedback loop where critics cultivate increasingly sensitive mental faculties specialized in perceiving artistic messages, while artists make increasingly subtle and ambiguous works to match the audience’s increased sensitivity[2].

What happens then?

At some point the interpretation capability of an art lover is sensitive enough to be triggered by almost anything it’s directed at. We get simple geometric shapes and splotches of paint, blank canvases and Duchamp’s urinal (judged the most influential work of art of the 20th century by a panel of critics). Readymades in general and by extension any art people can barely tell apart from random crap shows that past some sensitivity threshold and with the right context we can view anything as art.


Once the interpretation function becomes sensitive enough to latch onto what’s little more than noise, the difference between art and non-art disappears. You don’t need any actual art for art experiences anymore. A placebo object works just as well[3].

I could do this all day.

If we were to define the power of effects it’d be something like this: the greater reaction you can get and the subtler stimuli you can get them from, the more powerful the effect. And of course, the more powerful your effects the better artist you are — the world’s greatest artist could stage life-changing experiences just by snapping their fingers the right way[4].

In short, I’m suggesting that the social dynamics of the art world (specifically the social nature of art appreciation) has led to a greater focus on effects to the detriment of chords and maps in much of what counts as high art, and that this is because effect-heavy art offers the critics/enthusiasts an active part as they take on much of the meaning-making process.

Art as impressive objects

With an ever more sensitive audience and ever subtler works, a larger share of the total meaning came to reside outside the work itself. As a consequence of this shift in the center of gravity from the work itself (and the artist) to its interpretation[5], the actual art objects became less impressive.

And there’s the rub. That’s what loses people. People like me.

See, in my mind, art is inseparable from impressive objects (not necessarily physical objects), and I wonder if Duquette didn’t include it in his original article because he feels the same.

An artist creates a work of art by making a unique, truly special object — an object embodying insight and beauty in such a way that we can’t help but recognize it as a triumph of human achievement.

A work of art is man-made object that commands our respect by virtue of its sheer aesthetic brilliance; an instance of perfection in an otherwise messy, imperfect world; an inanimate object that by human creative powers of conjuring and reshaping has aquired emotional qualities, and in much higher concentrations than we find in nature.

More romantically, it has soul in it[6]. It demonstrates a level of love and care over and above what’s necessary. It’s conspicuous production. I read Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct a few years ago and found myself agreeing with his main point, exemplified by the quote:

The value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation.

By that he means that a great work of art is something into which a creator has infused their exceptional skill and creativity, making it unfakeable proof of their unique capabilities.

Art appreciation becomes all about the qualities of the object itself. Engaging with a work of art is to study its little self-contained universe and appreciate its unique configuration and what it took to make something so unnaturally beautiful, insightful and stimulating. Chords and maps explains part of what such art objects are constructed from and what makes them more or less brilliantly engineered.

Effects, not so much, since they mostly don’t reside in the object and exclusively effect-based art exists as a set of relations to its audience. In my mind, “outsourcing” large parts of the artwork like this is kind of cheating, shirking from your artistic responbility to, you know, create.

Having an effect on the audience is all good, but if it means creating an object that, as an object, is trivial and completely lacking in embedded beauty and brilliance then it shouldn’t qualify as great art.

Art based almost completely on effects becomes concept art, a significant branch of modern and contemporary art. Duchamp’s urinal (or Artist’s Shit, or the Euthanasia Coaster et cetera et cetera) is just an idea and the “work” is merely a vessel, a stick with which to prod the observer to make them think. John Cage’s 4’33” is similar — cool thought, but as music? Come on.

I react mostly with irritation. It seems simplistic, trivial and above all underwhelming. You had an idea. Ok. Ideas are everywhere, I have ideas all the time. Do more. Just eliciting a basic thought isn’t enough. A tweet can do that. Tweets do do that. Showerthoughts do it too. Silly corporate teamwork exercises are meant to make us aware on a visceral level of how we do work together, and optical illusions or puns can trigger little bursts of cognitive-perceptive self-awareness as well. They’re fun but not considered “high art”. Nor should they be.

As I wrote in Rant on Arrival:

“Well it makes you think, doesn’t it?”

“Makes me think”? Bitch please, everything I see and hear makes me think. Saying something “makes me think” is like saying food ”takes up space in my stomach”. Hey storyteller! How about doing some thinking yourself and showing it to me? I don’t want you to “make me think”, I want you to show me thoughts I couldn’t have thought on my own. /—/

Don’t just do step 1 and act all satisfied. Where is step 2-100? An interesting question, dilemma, idea or motive is a starting point, nothing more. Anything complex enough to be interesting has many parts and steps and just giving people the first piece or two and expecting them to reconstruct the whole edifice means you’re either expecting to much of your audience or what you’re trying to say is simplistic. I mean, if it’s possible to communicate something by being vague and unclear, that something is too simple to be worth engaging with (unless you have a truly novel idea, but those are rare).

There is plenty of art with effects that doesn’t suffer from this, I’m sure. But a lot of it does and I do maintain that the centrality of effects as the primary marker of high art is largely unjustified and a peculiarity of our own time and social context. Chords and maps are necessary and underappreciated.

The special subjectivity of effect fit

Pure “chord art” is abstract aesthetics: combinations of shapes, sounds, impressions, colors, textures and patterns. I like such art.

Pure “map art” is some branches of philosophy, literal maps, plots and graphs and “insight porn” of all kinds. I like that too.

Then why don’t I like pure “effect art”? Why is it so underwhelming to me? And why does its status bother me so much that I write thousands of words complaining that high art has become too heavily reliant on this particular aspect?

Let’s back up and look at subjectivity.

Chords have fit between two or more elements, and whether you like a chord or not depends on your individual sensory responses. People like different colors, sounds, smells, textures and patterns etc. They’re sensitive to different moods and feels, and react differently to various kinds of dissonances. If your personal idea of chord fit is unlike that of most artists, you’re not going to like most chord-heavy art.

Maps have fit between itself and the world. This also has a big subjective element because we all see the world differently. What’s a great map for you might not be for me. An example that comes to mind is the incredibly divisive Atlas Shrugged, which many hate partly because of bad map fit: “the world doesn’t work like that at all, it’s twisted propaganda!”. Those who love it do so because of unusually good map fit “oh, finally a book that doesn’t misrepresent entrepreneurs and capital owners as one-dimensional villains!”[7].

Bad map fit doesn’t have to be political or moral. If a work uses elements you’re not familiar with or manipulates them in a way you don’t recognize, it’s not going to be able to make your mind follow it along the path laid out. You’ll drag your feet for lack of motivation or get lost for lack of directions. In short: If your worldview is unlike that of most artists, you’re not going to like most map-heavy art.

Finally, effects have fit between itself and the audience, which of course makes it the most subjective of all. If the fit is bad you’re not going to get the effect you want (it’ll feel like nonsense) or the effect will occur but not resonate with the observer (it comes off as trivial and underwhelming). Effect-based art requires intimate understanding of the audience to be successful, and such understanding is likely to be a straightforward function of how psychologically similar artist and audience are. So, if you don’t feel or think like most artists, you’re not going to like most effect-heavy art.

In my experience most creators of effect-heavy art aren’t that psychologically similar to me, and what might have a powerful effect on them and people like them does very little for my type. So in conclusion I suspect I would like effect-heavy art if it was tailored to my psyche.

I’m interested in art but get frustrated because I want better, subtler, more complex and challenging versions of the popular works I don’t find rewarding enough any more, but when I sample so-called High Art or Serious Literature I’m left dissatisfied because the meatier things I want are absent. I feel there is a whole universe of high art of the kind I’d like missing, because the “culture of the artsy crowd” is so dominated by people unlike me.

Second-guessing myself

As I get to the end this post and think to myself “Over 3000 words, seriously? How did that happen?”, I feel as when I wrapped up my discussions of Infinite Jest and Arrival: slightly uneasy when recognizing that what I’ve written and presented as categorical statements forming a philosophy of art isn’t even close to that.

I’ve given an account, an argument, a attitude with some post-hoc justification tacked on. But outside that structured argument, swimming around in a shapeless mush I can’t quite make out the contents of, is everything else. Everything that doesn’t fit, everything that isn’t like I said it was, every counterexample, counterargument, objection and exception. Not just examples of how what I’m saying is wrong, but of how it doesn’t even accurately represent what I think.

I can pick up a thought fragment from my mind and have it bond with other compatible fragments nearby. Together they form a coherent structure that makes sense to me. But I could pick up different thought-atom, bond it with its own natural allies and form another coherent structure that would also make sense to me.

What I’ve made above is a partial narrative, a fusion of pathos and patchy knowledge. And in doing that I’ve made the loose bits of every other possible story become invisible, consigned to the corner of my minds eye. At least I know they’re there; the same person that wrote the article you’re currently reading also wrote the following a few months ago in People Are Different:

“Words of wisdom” go into one ear and out the other, and I suppose this is a reason why a novel, a painting or a song can be more effective than a philosophical tract. Successful idea-driven art doesn’t simply supply us with ideas to use whenever we want to (which isn’t necessarily when we ought to), it burns them into our minds through repetition, elaboration and strong emotion. That way they won’t fade away like fragments of the last dream before you wake up and we won’t have the option to not use them.

Sounds like an endorsement of effects as an major part of art. I also remember having heated discussions with my friends about how watching movies just for entertainment was meaningless — if a movie (or book etc.) doesn’t change you in some way, consuming it is just masturbation. I’ve even defended the exakt kind of conceptual art I now complain about in discussions with my girlfriend, an even more committed aesthetic traditionalist than me.

These days I’m often not sure if I really have opinions any more.


• • •


This post is, with quotes and notes, more than four times as long as the one it’s responding to (and plenty of tangential and/or poorly articulated thoughts have been cut). I guess that makes the original post highly successful on me as effect-driven art: reading it helped things coalesce in my mind and make me understand things about myself and my relationship to the world. Funny, that.

One way to appeal to art critics/enthusiasts and enable them to use their specialized skills is to do works referencing their favorite topic — art. Hence a lot of works about art and the art world.

There is of course value in the idea that we can look at everyday objects as we would art and get a new appreciation for them. But to say that that makes them art is to destroy the notion of art that enabled us to look at things that way in the first place.

When widely held aesthetic standards and common practice broke down with modernity, the only remaining measuring stick became impact — the attention a work of art could command and the influence it had on critics, historians, other artists and the general public. “Memetic fitness” in other words. Natural selection took over from careful cultivation and in the process artists went from being artists in the traditional sense to being a kind of memetic engineers working on producing things optimized for spreading itself and its descendants, and getting into the right social position for access to signal-boosting institutions.

The Death of the Author idea, broadly speaking, represents this change by explicitly putting the interpreter’s own reactions and interpretations on an equal footing with the creator’s intended meaning.

This might sound familiar to Harry Potter readers. In the HP universe, horcruxes are parts of your soul you embed into objects to keep you from passing on when you die. In the books, horcruxes are dark, evil magic. The way to make one is to tear your soul apart by an act of unspeakable evil. The real world, luckily, isn’t that brutal. You can embed parts of your soul in objects not by mutilating it but by nurturing it and letting it flow over.

Works of art are a way for your soul to reshape part of the physical universe in its own image and thereby extend and perpetuate itself. This is why a major part of great art is being something that (for reasons like unique skills, experiences or insights) no one else could have made.

I think that’s what makes so many Rand fans so devoted: maps like theirs are highly underrepresented among writers, which make them go “finally a book that doesn’t feel wrong“. I might also speculate that what makes other people hate it so much is that they are used to having their own map reinforced by fiction and react with disgust when it is, for once, contradicted. Compare with the end of this (again from Rant on Arrival):

Can we have a movie that isn’t about personal drama, please? You people get almost every movie, including all the highly prestigious ones. Can we have this one, please? Can we have a movie about how humanity meets aliens and not have it be about the personal lives of the particular people who meet them?

“Well, interpersonal drama is the foundation for all stories. Plots and events are meaningless by themselves, it’s all about the characters and how they react.”

No! I don’t want to use such a douchey expression but since you’re an imaginary straw-person you won’t mind: check your goddamn privilege. You think personal drama is an essential part of stories (and therefore that stories without it are deficient) because it is to you, it is to most people, and the majority of stories try to appeal to those sensibilities — Serious Literature especially. You’re used to getting your way all the time; personal drama has to be frickin’ everywhere.

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