by Quentin Long
©2007 Quentin Long
What is Art?
No, Im not talking about the Ineffable Essence that separates Great Masterpieces from plebeian hackworkask any three art critics, and youll get five different answers. Rather, Im talking about the physical qualities this Art stuff possesses. After all, whatever else Art may be, its definitely a physical thing! You doubt me? Finename any form of Art thats not physical.
Paintings? Obviously physical.
Music? Acoustic vibrations in a physical medium (generally air, but occasionally water), often recorded on another physical medium (CDs, etc).
Sculpture? Hoo-boy, is this ever physical!
Stories? Written on physical paper, or viewed on a physical computer display.
Oral storytelling? Acoustic vibrations in a physical medium.
Drama? Physical actors, in physical costumes, using physical props, on a physical set, to perform a script written on physical paper.
You get the idea: Art is physical. If you want to argue that theres more to Art than just its mundane physical aspects, fine; those three art critics over there will be more than happy to discuss it with you. Feel free to re-join us over here when you get bored
Anyway: Art is physical, so Art is percieved by physical senses. Which isnt exactly an earth-shaking revelation but consider that human art is geared toward human senses. Not all of human art, to be suretheres a few bold/crazy experimenters whove dabbled in ultra- and infra-sonic music, and light of wavelengths outside the human-normal visual rangebut certainly the vast, if not positively overwhelming, majority.
What does this mean for visual arts? Well, the human eye percieves light whose wavelengths range from a low of about 4x10-5 centimeters (i.e., violet) to a high of about 7x10-5 (i.e., red)not even one complete octave of the full electromagnetic spectrum. But there are critters who can percieve light in the ultraviolet range, i.e. wavelengths down to 3x10-7 cm; likewise, there are critters that see in the infrared range, i.e., wavelengths from 7.5x10-5 up to .1 (yes, one tenth) cm. What could a painter do with that kind of chromatic range? Could there be interesting and æsthetic effects which we humans will never be able to fully comprehend, simply because were unable to percieve more than one octaves-worth of light?
Then theres sound. For humans, audible frequencies occupy a range of about 20 Hertz (cycles per second) up to 20,000 Hz, with a certain amount of slop on both ends. There isnt much room for improvement on the low end, but the high end is something else again. Bats and cetaceans (i.e., dolphins and whales) are good up to 150,000 Hz; rodents top out around 100,000 Hz; dogs can hear up to around 46,000 Hz; horses and cattle, 40,000 Hz; and cats, 32,000 Hz. Before anyone starts to sneer about how lousy human ears are, its worth noting that the 20Hz-20kHz human range of hearing covers about ten full octaves, which is nothing to sneeze at. Bats may have a top end of 150 kHz, but their low end is only 1 kHz, which means their hearing range covers only seven octaves; rodents (1kHz-100kHz), six and a fraction octaves; cats (100Hz-32kHz), eight octaves plus change; and so on. Still and all, youve got to wonder what musical use a composer could put six-digit frequencies to, if only he were capable of hearing such things
Note that these two senses are just the ones we humans tend to focus on; other species may or may not share our concept of which senses are most significant. So what sort of art can be created based on the sense of smell rather than vision or hearing? Even us humans, as olfactorily challenged as we are, have put some effort into smell-based art (see also: perfumes); what could be done by a species that really knows what to do with their noses? And similar remarks apply to the senses of taste and touchwe humans have dabbled in minor ways with art founded on these senses, but we really havent any idea what serious touch-based or taste-based art might be like.
And lets not forget those senses which humans dont even have in the first place! Platypi (platypuses?) and sharks, among others, can detect electric fields; what kind of art could be built around that sense?
Lots of questions but no real answers. And in all likelihood, there wont be any answersat least, not until we encounter another sentient species which perceives the world via sensory mechanisms much different from ours. Such a species could be extraterrestrial or it could be artificially created, genetically engineered, by us. Either way, its possible that this species could be the gateway to entirely new worlds of artistic expression!