For years I’ve struggled with trying to define (for myself) the difference between “art,” and visualizations that (while of course they fit in the domain of art) I find inspiring or meaningful. I want to start with the understanding that yes, these things are rather subjective, and you are of course free to disagree with both my definitions and sentiments. This is an introspective, and personal post, and I do not intend to upset or spawn argument. I simply want to think through some of these ideas, and how they relate to academic research.
Skepticism of Stereotypical “Art”
The thing is, I really dislike experiencing most art. I usually don’t get it. Most of it is boring, and maximally it has some colors or shapes that are interesting or pleasing to the eye for a brief moment, but then it’s boring again. I know that “art” is a big part of human culture and has value for that, and in this light I’m probably just uncultured and ignorant. There are masterfully created, technically impressive works of art that catch my eye, however my appreciation does not extend beyond this superficial aesthetic. I largely don’t buy most assertions of claimed symbolism: if some kind of message isn’t clear from looking at the art alone, then the artist did not do a good job of communicating said message. If it’s not pleasing to my eye when I look at it, some underlying spiel from the artist isn’t going to suddenly transform the experience of the work for me. Creating something for someone that you care about is fundamentally different than creating something useful for society. Done.
I am conflicted because I love beautiful things. In my everyday life I am distracted by colors, lights, and natural beauty. I want to be at the top of a mountain when the sun rises, or discover patterns in the light peeking through the trees of a forest. Most “art” fails to capture these things for me, and in fact it bothers me when artists create some abstract thing that looks like squiggles and package in in some symbolic mumbo-jumbo that they claim to be profound. For me, “art” is a very personal practice of creating things that allow for personal expression in the same way as writing, or baking a cake for someone that you love. Going to “art school” has never made sense to me, because this personal drive and creativity has to come from within the person. Traditional school with grades and other incentives for learning makes sense in the context of obtaining skills that are essential for jobs in the traditional workforce. If an individual must use art school to support incentive for creating the art, he or she is going to be in trouble when that incentive stream comes to a close. Art school is also confusing because it places other artists in the role as “teachers” under some assumption that there is a “right way” to do things, but it’s totally subjective. If training in art is desired, the motivation must come from within, and when that motivation is present, the individual might naturally seek out other artists for learning and inspiration.
I am not suggesting that art does not have value. The practice of creation (or for some), experiencing something that is visually pleasing could add richness to an individual’s life, and this is again personal and subjective. It may be a shaky foundation to earn a living, however, if an individual wants to be an artist, that is a respectable aspiration. As I hinted at above, I do not think that such an individual would do best paying a tuition and going through the conveyor belt that has been defined in academia of doing thesis work, defending, etc. Most “art school” is a waste of time, and someone who is serious about creating things should just skip the formalities and devote every aspect of his or her being to doing just that – practicing, creating, and learning by doing. He should just put his money where his mouth is and prove that he can produce beautiful things, do it better, and attack the feat with unquestionable drive and passion to produce a substantial body of work. He should seek out others to learn from and collaborate with. With that level of intense focus he might successfully earn a living. And that will demonstrate that he is truly talented at his chosen craft so much more than some extension of letters to his name.
This mindset extends beyond “art” – there is so much more in proactive “doing” than spitting out hot air about ideas. The ideas are actually ok, well more than ok – they are essential – given that they are interspersed with periods of “doing.” This “doing,” whether it be creating something visual, an algorithm, a piece of writing, or an analysis, is essential. I am so inspired by these “doers.” I am inspired by seeing people that put their heads down and stubbornly pursue building something until it goes to a state of completion. I’m inspired by people that come up with ideas, refine them, and then implement them. When challenge becomes exciting, and learning is craved, you can achieve this unbelievable mindset of not being afraid of failure. I want so badly to follow the lead of these doers, as I am also driven to make things. However, the context of these things having visual elements alongside my skepticism of art is something that I find very ironic. Sometimes I make a thing with the knowledge that it’s probably useless, but was fulfilling for me to make, or useful to learn something. My hope is that if I get good enough, I can master the elements and techniques of visualization to generate tools that add value to scientific discovery. I’m convinced that, if it’s done right, if it’s backed by data and has an actual use for society, then it becomes a completely different animal all together. And if the visual element is not up to par, I can hopefully sleep at night because the accompanying analysis was useful. And if neither of those things were useful, then I need to try again.
A Shift in my Research to Need Visualization
This drive to produce beautiful visual and meaningful things is a recent development when I realized that so much of data analysis could be aided and improved by simple visualization of the data. Something that is assumed to represent something may be completely off when you actually spend the time to properly visualize it. Something that has immense value that is not properly communicated to the broad scientific community may be entirely lost simply because people cannot see it. So when I realized two things, : I was making assumptions about things in my data based on something trivial (extremely loaded in science is the p-value – it’s common to plug data into algorithms, get small p-values, and call it a day) and : that I was not good enough to produce the visualizations that would be necessary to see these things, I came to the realization that visualization was essential to add to my toolbox as a researcher. I knew exactly what I wanted to produce, but I didn’t have the skills to make it. That seemed pretty lame. I don’t think an analysis without a meaningful visual communication of the findings will ever be enough for me anymore. I might have just shoved myself between a rock and a hard place, but it seems that there is enough time in life to get better at things.
Standards in Science
Is it a death sentence to set such high standards for work? Does it guarantee erring on the side of perishing? More importantly, could anyone ever really feel OK about pursuing publication of work that does not feel (gut-feeling wise) “good enough?” I could not. The work that we produce is a reflection of ourselves. I fundamentally believe that as scientists, artists, human beings, we must work so hard to be transparent, honest, and communicate our findings in the most unbiased way that is possible. Visualization can be essential toward this goal. There is also another, dark side that makes me terribly uncomfortable – the idea that because academic success is rooted in publication, it could be common practice to take some result and try to convince others of its value by inflating it with language. To take something that has not been properly pieced apart, visualized, and understood, and blindly try to convince others that it is sound seems like just another form of hucksterism. I think that good, solid science should almost stand on its own and require minimal additional convincing. In the light of “publish or perish” some kind of balance must be achieved. There is no way that we can be perfect, but we have to have some standard and just do our best. Learning to achieve this balance is part of graduate school and being a young scientist. We are all trying to figure out how we best fit into this larger academic and knowledge producing beast.
“Art” vs. “Something Else”
I was moved to write because I recently came across a talk by Santiago Ortiz that captured the “art” vs “scientific visualization” dilemma perfectly. He also moved me because of his sheer drive to learn and produce, independently, and under extreme pressure. I will try to summarize his main points:
“It’s not what it is, its where it operates. I want to work with people with real problems… and be part of the solution… I don’t want to create experimentalist stuff that ends up being presented as food for thought or inspiration etc. I wanted to work for clients with data… tools that enable people to explore, identify patterns, etc.”
And that hits the nail on the head for me. Meaningful visualizations solve problems. They may not be perfect, but they are backed by data and drive discovery and insight about some human behavior, biology, natural phenomena, etc. It is not enough to be someone that creates visual things, but it can be enough to be someone that creates tools to extend the human ability to understand the world. Santiago is inspiring because he brings to light (what I think) is an understanding that most “artists” choose to leave as an unconscious thought because scrutinizing their work for its true usability would be devastating. It may be impossible, but if in my lifetime I can contribute just one meaningful thing, and immensely enjoy the experience along the way, I think the time spent is worth it. The basis of my learning is informatics, machine learning, and brain imaging – we can call that the cake. The cake is a safety net, and the visualization a bonus, because we always have the cake to fall back on. However, if I can also contribute meaningfully with visualization, that means that I’ve baked a green cake with buttercream frosting, and chocolate bits, and from personal experience, I can attest that it is immensely fulfilling!