mcgann_letterhead

#3 On the intolerance of rigour

Dear Jamie,

I was embarrassed that you described it as a “perennial question”. It made me feel as though I’m out of this loop that all artists talk about all the time. But luckily my embarrassment was revealed to be simple stupidity when I realised the question is also something scientists talk about all the time. Scientists want to go off and research what interests them but find they’re channelled into the safer topics that bring the money, it’s at least analogous. Whatever the relation I’d say artists do better than scientists in this regard. The sunk cost of a scientific education is way too valuable to risk. It’s better to squander it for cash or *shudders* security.

After your letter I’m even more in favour of doing things for oneself only. The alternative technique you described seems dangerous. In it you betray a true style that no one has heard for a false one, only to betray that style once many people love it.

Statistically your idea makes sense. Assuming your style is attractive to a fraction of the general population, you could use your shallow fans as an indirect launching pad to a massive audience and your fraction now expresses a sizeable group of real fans. A little extra thought tells me that this technique is nothing but poor marketing. That group of real fans exists from the start so your time would be better spent marketing to them. Find that resulting set early and directly, being true to yourself the whole while. Alas, this advice is unlikely to be heeded by artists, as you know if there’s one thing they hate more than betraying their art it’s marketing their art.

I think your worries about ideas boil down to credit and money. If you want credit for an idea you need it to be new itself or at least a unique combination of old ideas. In which case “Such and such said much the same in 1842…” rightly dis-credits you. If you want to turn your idea into money you’ll probably need others to not know or use it. In which case the idea is by definition worth something and taking it is stealing. It’s a pretty cool example of a moral problem than most people are intuitively comfortable with but gets more confusing the more you think about it. If you want credit, people can discredit you, if you want money, people can steal it. You’ll also remember that credit is negative money, this confuses the matter and doesn’t help at all.

One thing that worries me. I’m getting more and more intolerant of impeccably crafted, rigorous arguments. I accept the value of rigour in fundamental physics and mathematics, but I don’t have the patience to work through the details to the extent the rigour demands. As one zooms in rigour becomes more and more important while the implications on your life become less and less. I still like some very specific topics and are happy to read papers on these.  But this distaste of rigour would disgust my 20 year old self.

In any other discipline I feel that rigour is at best misguided. It’s at least a waste of time in a world where exceptions are rules and most things only happen once. In these disciplines the more rigorous you try to make a theory the more useless the theory becomes. I wanted to understand my scepticism of these disciplines so I bought a book called Ignorance. However when it arrived I promptly didn’t read it once I saw how academic it was. To this day I don’t feel as though I’ve completely grasped the irony of this escapade.

This all worries me because it could be me just getting lazy, or getting quote “too old for this shit” (what’s the shit in this case?).  In these latter disciplines the idea of building up a careful argument, finding and weighing evidence (always contradictory), considering and pre-empting counterpoints is boring. And reading something that other people have researched and bolstered is even more boring. I actually prefer rhetoric in these cases. Here style matters because at least you can have fun with the uncertainly.

Rules finalised. I’ll back-number my first letter.

Downright fucking stolen,
Mat