Immaterial World

The original forms of art made by our species were almost surely singing and dancing. And maybe body painting. Carving in wood and painting on cave walls would have come along later.

We can easily see why the genes that caused our ancestors to sing and dance were favored in evolution. Singing and dancing demonstrate physical and mental fitness. And of course demonstrating fitness would be useless if we didn’t also have the right genes to perceive and decode the demonstrations. We’re artistic, both as creator/performers and as audiences, because those of our ancestors who were artistic produced in each generation slightly more offspring than those who weren’t.

None of this explains why individuals today make specific types of art rather than other types. That has more to do with how a variety of drives entangle with one another in the brain.

For the past couple of days I’ve been working on the design of a new board game. I find this process very interesting indeed. Many people would, I’m sure, consider designing a game very much less uplifting or ennobling than writing a novel. And for them, that might be a sound and appropriate judgment. Nothing to do with me, though.

It strikes me that what I enjoy is taking pieces of raw material and working them into a satisfying and coherent whole. There’s discovery in it, and pleasure. The nature of the raw material doesn’t matter much, and the nature of the finished whole will arise out of the raw material in whatever way it arises. For me, the process of construction is what matters — fitting pieces together smoothly. The idea that gets me going could be a character or a setting. It could be a melody or a synthesizer sound. It could be some type of interaction of pieces on a board.

I’ll go further: The coherence of the whole should be perceptible not just from the inside but from the outside. Tonight I happened to tune in to an avant-garde piece on bandcamp ( There may be some internal coherence in this music. That is, the composer may have had some specific idea in mind and worked hard to bring the idea into fruition. But it’s impossible for the listener to tell what the idea may have been. All that’s audible is … well, it’s gibberish. Some people may enjoy listening to this sort of thing, and indeed brief fragments reminded me of Wendy Carlos or Frank Zappa. But the brief fragments don’t add up to anything. The brief episodes of coherence dissolve into incoherence, and incoherence leaves me cold.

I try to create structures that hang together — and honestly, that’s pretty much all I care about. Naturally, I’d like people to appreciate what I’ve done. I’m disappointed when they don’t. But what disappoints me, I think, is that I know I have done something good but my accomplishment is not being appreciated. If it didn’t satisfy me to begin with, I would never bother showing it to anybody. But I suspect they aren’t excited by it, whatever it happens to be, because they’re hoping for something that’s not there. It’s not there because it doesn’t interest me, whatever it is.

Very darn few people are ever going to read my fiction. Very darn few are ever going to listen to my music. And if any of them do, I won’t be in the room with them. Designing a board game is actually more likely to lead to positive strokes than music or fiction, because I’ll need to cajole a few people into helping me test it. They’ll be in the room. We’ll be able to talk about the structure of the game. They’ll tell me what they like and what they don’t. I’ll be able to incorporate a few of their ideas, and then they’ll be happier and I’ll be happier too.

This will happen once the lock-down ends, of course. It won’t happen this month or next. But as a creative field leading to social interaction, designing a game is actually better than writing a novel.

Other people may write novels for other reasons. Some people write them in order to present ideas that they feel are important. Some people write them in order to work through the implications of some emotional dilemma. Or to have a framework for pouring out beautiful sentences. Or to make money. That’s all fine. I have no quarrel with it.

Me, I value formal and intellectual coherence. If nobody else cares about that, it’s their loss. As Bernard Shaw once said, “A picture gallery is a dull place for a blind man.”

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