Essay

Finding order in art and life

PHYSICISTS, WE ARE often told, dream of formulating a single equation to explain the world. Yet the fundamental law of life has been articulated for more than 150 years and was appreciated intuitively long before then ‑ the second law of thermodynamics which, though it has been expressed in various ways, is probably best understood as, "The entropy (or disorder) of any system is constantly driven towards a maximum".

Put another way, a garden does not weed and care for itself; nor does my study or my son's bedroom keep itself tidy. Nothing happens without input, the expenditure of energy. Yet, if few need persuading of the importance of order, this is far more than a banal utilitarianism. We all feel we understand an ordered world better than a chaotic one – accordingly, most of our lives are spent in trying to hold back the tsunami of entropy. If the importance of order is appreciated as a generality in our quotidian existence, it is crucial to health and to art.

 

WHAT IS GOOD health (the notion of "perfection" being a different and more nettlesome one, no more amenable to easy summary than "happiness")? And how is it comparable with good art?

A healthy body is a magnificently ordered system. When medical students first begin to learn anatomy, they are overwhelmed – some are overawed, others intimidated – by its complexity. But progressively, through dissection and the microscope, they begin to appreciate that those end-products of evolutionary modification and adaptation are, indeed, superbly ordered and reproducible. Particular bones have characteristic shapes; particular nerves, experience shows, should always lie in particular locations; particular muscles have typical contours; the heart and its valves have predictable conformations. Examined in minute detail, the kidney, the lung or the colon is distinct, possessed of its own and knowable order; each is readily and unmistakably identifiable. When those characteristics are blurred, when the constituent cells become less distinguishable (or even indistinguishable), the histologist can confidently diagnose and identify disease. The order has been compromised or lost.

Thus anatomical order is a demonstration of good health. The critical recognition of this and the birth of modern medical science occurred with the publication of De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius in 1543. It is still essential to the education of every medical student. Since function and structure cannot be orthogonal or incompatible, the same is true of physiology, our understanding of the operation of healthy animal bodies and systems. Thus it must follow that the normal magnitudes of these functions (the quantitative data) constitute the essential vocabulary of medicine, the benchmarks against which the presence or possibility of disease is determined.

We all know, for example, that there is a normal body temperature and, probably, everybody realises that there is a normal blood pressure. The operations of the various systems of the body – the heart and lungs, the kidneys, the gut, all of them under the control of the hormones and the brain – ensure that the huge range of physiological variables are kept within tight limits. These include, for instance, the levels in the plasma of several metabolically important metallic ions and the concentrations of glucose, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Should any of these stray outside a habitual bandwidth, the physician knows that there must be a pathological reason for the deviation.

Disturbed order, increased entropy, in bodily systems signals disease, an indication that some operational system or organ must be compromised. It is then critical to identify the locus of that malfunction so that a surgical, pharmacological, dietary or behavioural procedure can be instituted to support or boost the faltering organ. Of course, there may not be optimal restoration of normal order, but the crucial point is that the maintenance of our physiological, biochemical and anatomical order – good health, in short – is an expensive business and it cannot stop.

 

ONE MUST NOT confuse "health" with "perfection", at least not without further reflection on the implications of "perfection", which is a slippery word. If Pontius Pilate did not stay for an answer when he asked "What is truth?" how do we answer "What is beautiful?" To a doctor, a beautiful body is a healthy one, not abused by sloth or poor diet; perhaps it is otherwise for an artist. Few, though, could regard the grossly hypertrophic musculature of the obsessive body-builder – delineated to the point of caricature – as beautiful.

Likewise, asymmetry need not mar beauty. Most fashion models – conventionally considered beautiful – radiate self-centredness, a face glowing with an embalmed vacuity that is not beautiful, surely. Many are so slim they verge upon the cachectic; an absurdly low body mass index is not beautiful, it is dangerous. If a body is not healthy, it is not beautiful; if there is ideal physiological order, it is deeply beautiful. Even so, it must be conceded that superficial beauty has its pragmatic dimension. Repeated scientific studies have demonstrated that females – especially birds – actively seek out males with desirable physical features ("erotically" desirable, perhaps) linked to inheritances that will enhance the survival of the species or genus. This appears to be the case even with birds that were previously considered monogamous but which (thanks to DNA technology) are now believed to be decidedly promiscuous. There seems to be an advantage if desirable genetic traits are linked to what the animals find "attractive" (or could that be "beautiful"?), so it could legitimately be asked whether genetic perfection is also being sought.

"Beauty" or "perfection"? "Fitness" is another such laudatory notion but one that is comparably nebulous. If the word has meaning at all, it must be in some way that is relevant to survival – to flourish is, obviously, not possible without survival. Our greatest error is to consider muscular development – which, to some, is somatic "beauty" – a sign of fitness, which it could be only if "flight" or "fight" remain components of that survival. More sophisticated physicians look closely at cardio-respiratory "fitness" (in the process scrutinising a variety of tests – of oxygen uptake, of heart rate with exercise) – and this fitness, which might be considered an approach to perfection, does contribute to survival. Even more important to survival in the modern, "civilised" world are our immunological fitness and, perhaps most important of all, psychological fitness or order. Psychological difficulties – or frank disease – are probably the most serious impediments to "happiness" in "developed" societies.

This is, in other words – and it brings us face to face with art – a matter of the enduring and profound axiomMens sana in corpore sano ("A sound mind in a sound body"); not, let it be noted, "beautiful" or even "perfect" minds and bodies.

 

IT IS JUST as true of art as health to assert that a high degree of order – and it is no more easily achieved, either – is its essential characteristic. Wordsworth may have characterised poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", which sounds dangerously like a superabundance of entropy – the antithesis of fine art. But he added at once, "it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" which is surely the rigorous imposition of order on that emotional surge. For that reason, art is not – despite the flat prose of science – antithetical to science or religion: all three represent attempts to make sense of, to order, different dimensions of the complex and problematic world in which we live.

Ars longa; vita brevis. If life is short, it is because the second law of thermodynamics will not be frustrated. We all hope, however, to create a more enduring order with art, to pass on more than simply our DNA.

Just as the musicologist John Blacking considered music to be "humanly organised sound" (it might, perhaps, be better worded as "the purposive human organisation of sound and silence"), we can usefully think of pictorial art as the organisation of colour and shape in space. Art is, then, the imposition of order on solid, tangible, visible or audible materials to achieve some purpose, though we need to be careful if we choose to add "in order to give pleasure", since, to avoid a romantic fallacy we must at once distinguish between abstract and emotional pleasure.

A recent research paper detailed a patient in whom a localised stroke led to a complete loss of his emotional response to particular pieces of music. "He had," the neurologists wrote, "derived particular pleasure from listening to Rachmaninov Preludes [and] experienced an intense, altered emotional state or "transformation" when he did this."[i] The patient lost this response after his stroke, but in every other respect his hearing and musical perceptions were normal. So the cerebral processing of art and the emotional response (often erroneously referred to as a "gut response", though it is a brain-driven response) are quite distinct. Before that neural processing can occur, however, our sensory organs must respond to, measure, encode and then transmit to the brain the information they receive from the outside world.

Our ordering begins there at the sensory interface with the world.

A composer produces instructions for the performers, the "dots on the page' as they often say. "I have all these marvellous noises in my head," a composer once said to me, "and I have to put the dots onto the page so that when the orchestra reads them, the sound will come out to the listeners just as I imagined it." Organised and then transmitted sound, but without the ordering capacity of our ears to complement the work of the creator, it would all be futile.

The Pythagoreans realised millennia ago not only that the sounds we hear are essentially produced by vibrations, but, more importantly, that the sounds we find most pleasing or euphonious have frequencies that are in simple ratios to one another. For example, if we halve the length of a vibrating string, we produce the higher octave, a note with twice the vibrational frequency of the original sound. If we divide the string into thirds, we have the "fifth" (C-G, for example) with a frequency ratio of 3:2, the relationship that is the fundamental basis of classical harmony. What we hear as scales are a series of frequency ladders in which the notes bear the same relationships to one another – logarithmic, in mathematical terms – whatever the pitch that we perceive.

Fundamentally, this is because the inner ear – the first sensor of "hearing" – operates as a frequency analyser, as well as a detector of the amplitude, or energy content – the "loudness", in other words – of the oscillating pressure wave which, eventually, we will perceive as sound. That inner ear (or Organ of Corti) is coiled up like a snail, but if it could be unrolled it would be seen to be akin to a thin strip of rubber in which the stiffness changes progressively along its length, thereby altering the way it can vibrate in response to the sound waves. This means that different sections resonate to different frequencies – in the way different piano or guitar strings, of different thickness, will resonate at distinct pitches. So the location of the sensory cells, which are glued tightly along that resonating membrane in the ear, determines its sensitivity to different frequencies and this changes logarithmically along the length of the Organ of Corti. Its operation is like a reciprocal of the piano where each key produces a specific note: in the Organ of Corti response occurs to a specific pitch.

Ordering of sound, therefore – or of vision or touch, for that matter – so important if the artist's imposition of order (idiosyncratic though that may sometimes appear) is a fundamental operational principle of our sensory organs (something just as true of the internal sensors of blood pressure, body temperature or posture, so integral to the sustenance of physiological order). All those receptors link to nerve cables which radiate to diverse parts of the brain to evoke different functional responses.

One way of recapitulation is to reject Keats's poetic aphorism about the co-extensiveness of truth and beauty. In fact, they really have little or nothing to do with each other. The physician and the scientist must deal with truth: it may not be beautiful. The artist, by contrast, can manipulate "truth" to a different purpose which may or may not illuminate the world. Artists have an opportunity the scientist does not: they can deliberately create or flaunt chaos and thereby create contrasts beyond what colour, darkness, timbre or loudness can achieve. They can let slip the dogs of war and call them to order at will (sometimes unsuccessfully, of course). Art can tolerate – even thrive on – such contrasts, while for good somatic health and accomplishment order must be sustained, whatever the cost. In art, wildness can coexist with peace: the reconciliation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is the story of the history of art as well as the vilification of individual works of art. That artistic battle – the classical versus the romantic disposition – is as old as mankind and it potently occurs in our psyche with the fusion of the artistic and the physical.


[i] "When the feeling's gone": a selective loss of musical emotion, T.D. Griffths, J.D.Warren, J.L.Dean, D. Howard, Journal Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2004: 75: 344 – 345.

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