A Critical Response on Data and Art
by Vaishnavi Singh
“The horror not to be surveyed.”
Emily Dickinson, on loneliness
This is the opening line of one of the stanzas of Dickinson’s poetic articulation of loneliness and solitude. Despite being a lengthy and well-thought-out piece, the poem infamously remains unnamed and the very first line has been functioning as its title. With a single sentence, Dickinson equates the state of being alone to a data void. A metaphor that is numerical in nature but exudes a sentiment of profound poetic pain. To not be surveyed, to have one’s experience unaccounted causes a response close to horror. Just one gap in data collection leads to an intense abstraction, according to Emily Dickinson — the woman who stayed a bachelorette and a poet all her life. Thereby, she earned her expertise on the written word and loneliness through her lived experience.
The way data interacts with a creative practice is pervasive to the point of being essential. The experiences an artist has, the kind of media they engage with, the disposable resources they have at hand, etc. contribute to the data sets that come together to build an artist’s individual creative process. With regards to creative practice, data could fluidly translate as experience, idea, or any abstraction that might seem banal but contributes to the artwork. Despite being seen as binary opposites, data and creativity prove to be not just parallel but absorbed together. A creative practice then evolves as a marriage of data and art.
“No, just follow the numbers.”
This was Warhol’s nonchalant response to the Abstract Expressionists about his famous series called Do It Yourself (1962) which included paint-by-number artworks of Sailboats, Flowers, Seascape, etc. The critics looked at the DIY style of his paintings with instructional numbers botched all over them and suggested that it was inspirational as if ‘the hand of God was guiding them’ but Warhol had a different, more simplistic take on his creation which could be replicated by his audience in a paint-by-number fashion.
It is just following the numbers for Warhol and not divine guidance, not even a convoluted take on the assimilation of art and pedagogy. It is this philosophy that art is devoid of complexities that made Warhol the face of pop art.
The consumability of art does not necessarily imply oversimplification. The academic reputation of data does not necessarily imply omnipotence of statistics. Numbers can be highly misleading, and art can have profound layers to it. It’s this fluid nature of data and creativity respectively that makes them function smoothly together.
Data and creativity, as often discussed in the cultural binary code are now being acknowledged as coterminous. The two major flag bearers of this novel discourse — marketing moguls and social media propagators — have traversed the generally mistaken gap between data and creativity. However, this has happened in a limited scope of the advertising industry and social media.
Creativity screams louder to sell a product when the noise made by its utility gets muffled in the market by the presence of similar products. When a product is wrung out of all its functionality, what sells is wordplay, flash of colours, nostalgia, storytelling — advertisement. These narratives, however, are often manoeuvred to suit business statistics and trading goals. Ever since its origin, marketing has been frowned upon for detaching the results of creativity from the creator and rewarding a business enterprise instead. Capitalism has found a way to employ creativity but failed to build a system that will reward something as intangible as art or ideas with financial and proprietary justice.
Through social media, the creative industry today has been hypnotised by the words ‘data’ and ‘algorithm’ to create ‘content’. The notion of consistency making your art superior has taken over creative practices. As if everything you create cannot be studied in isolation but somehow in relation to what you have produced already or will produce in the future. An artist’s work ceases to be a piece of art and is being reduced to a component of a portfolio or worse, a social media post that is scrolled past with unintended cruelty.
Any social media platform will flood you with data on how your artwork is performing, it will have audience engagement statistics that are updated to the last second and in that sense, numbers have become very accessible. The reality of reception is staring a modern-day digital platform-based artist in the face lit by the screen of their device. However, as accurate as this data might be, it accounts for just the digital media engagement and serves the supplier platform more than the individual artist. The algorithms are designed to fuel social media consumption over creativity. This in turn leads to a loss of authentic voice in the desperation of consistency which can cause burnout, social envy, mindless media consumption, or any art-killer abstraction that one can imagine.
The abundance of data, seemingly, has created struggles for art practitioners instead of enabling them to execute their unique ideas. This is a blaring reminder that from the perspective of the creative field, data is neither a saviour nor a destroyer but an essential tool that should neither be pedestalised nor infantilised. The coexistence of data and creativity is a well-meaning play of balance.
I've always wanted, basically, to do research in the form of a spectacle.
With a singular statement, Godard pretty much sums up his career as a filmmaker. It’s the unquantifiable research — observations, emotions, stories, epiphanies — that come together as a spectacle for the cinema audience. Godard’s research, considering his rich history of storytelling, is concerned less with numbers and more with experiences.
When seen within a creative industry, data keeps changing its anatomy as it swings between being quantifiable and qualitative. For instance, the 250 years of enslavement and the following systemic racism is a piece of data, which again has several statistical constituents. This statistical information is often articulated through texts and visuals that have identifiable aspects of generational aggression and diasporic discourses. Since most of history has not been lived by the self, one engages with the past by treating it as data. If history is data, art is the crunching and presentation of data through colourful bar graphs and pie charts that explain why we act the way we do and why the world goes on the way, and despite the way, it does.
Data gap in human history makes way for what the creative industry will look like. The Harlem Renaissance was a result of years of political turmoil. The marginalised voices emerged in the creative industry as well when Americans recognised the lack of Black legislators and bureaucrats. This led to the Civil Rights Movement to be accompanied by a sister movement — the Black Arts Movement. In that sense, art has been a legacy of politics and it masquerades as a child that grows up to take the responsibility of asking the bitter questions. It is the one-thing-after-the-other nature of data that gives art its context and profound meaning.
There is, although, a data crisis in the creative industry. The crisis is not a lack of data as much as it is the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of data in the arts field. There is an undeniable scarcity of resources that help an artist find a gallery exhibition, financial stability, or ideal networks. This is where data and information can play an important role. Schools, colleges, universities, art institutions, museums, etc. can fight the battle to enable research and educational repositories for the artists. It can create what an artist needs the most — conversations, exposure, and money.
‘The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen.’
Gaiman offers this little consolation in his book Art Matters which is flooded with advice for artists who are starting out their journey in the creative field. He constantly reminds the reader that art is liberating and can not be tied down by challenges that might seem debilitating.
Data, numbers, and statistics are terms that might seem antagonistic to the creative process but there is always some misplaced data that validates art sincerely. Creativity is reviewed outside the standard of five-star reviews. When a book is whipped out for an 11 minute subway ride, a piece of an heirloom that has been in the family for 3 generations, a song played on repeat for 17 times — these are valuable statistics that cannot be presented through infographics on an academic website.
A lot of the critical acclaim is unaccountable and so are the apprehensions of being an artist. Data is data and everything else is evolving. There will be no evolution of art if there is too much data or, paradoxically, a lack of data.