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    Photogravure etchings at https://kamprint.com/ & https://kamprint.com/xpress/

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Five Pillars of Wisdom

Five Pillars of Wisdom: A Common-Sense Guide

As readers of these Views know, art and culture provide useful ways of looking at the so-called real world. Here are my Five Pillars of Wisdom — things to watch for — and how to apply them:

  1. Authenticity.
  2. Coherence.
  3. Experience.
  4. Style.
  5. Design.

1. Authenticity. We ask of artwork, Does it carry conviction? Does the author ‘really mean it’? Is it an honest, heart-felt expression? Or on the contrary, is it contrived to elicit a pre-fabricated response? Is the author merely ‘faking it’, not really feeling the emotion claimed? Or worse, is it manipulative, an attempt to promote some agenda? This contrast reveals one of the essential qualities of authenticity — its open-endedness. Authentic art opens up new, even unexpected, possibilities. It trusts viewers to respond according to their own best instincts, and respects their freedom to do so. In science, business, and government as well, with authenticity in mind one can distinguish views reached by independent thought, free of ideology or pre-set conclusions, from those determined by sponsorship or partisan interest.

2. Coherence. Aesthetic coherence helps people make sense of their surroundings and how they fit into them. Of an artistic or cultural object, one may ask ‘Does it hang together?’ Or is it a hodge-podge of items thrown together on the fly? Even Jackson Pollock’s abstractions have aesthetic coherence if viewed as a creative experience (rather than as a picture of something). Inundated with data as we are now, the need for aesthetic coherence is stronger than ever. To create what can be seen at a glance, or enacted in drama or experienced in music, an appreciation of what’s going on in the present moment, which yet survives this moment to epitomize it, is required. Copying the prevalent chaos merely adds to the noise. The artistic task is to transcend the noise and the chaos, or use them as raw materials to produce a new coherent vision.

Science, business, and politics all have their own principles of action, each its own way of resolving the natural incoherence of these endeavors into something that ‘hangs together’, that makes sense. Scientific research may be random (‘let’s try this and see if it works’) — incoherent — until an inspired hunch or serendipitous discovery brings coherence to years of effort. Business firms that cannot explain to their customers, their employees, or themselves why they are in business — lacking a coherent vision of their mission — will probably be out of business sooner rather than later. Likewise a nation’s failure to pursue national goals more encompassing than that of keeping a governing elite in power is likely to degenerate into incoherence and division. The aesthetic quality of coherence / incoherence thus applies broadly to institutions of knowledge, wealth, and governance.

3. Experience. We want art and culture to ‘ring true’ to actual experience, however they may transform it. Originality brings us directly to the source of experience, which re-creates that

As If

        As If, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014)

experience in imagination. It conveys the ‘immersive’ feeling of actually ‘being there’, enabling viewers to put themselves into the picture (or the drama or music) as if they were themselves living that experience now. Neural mapping has shown that thinking of an activity fires the same synapses as the activity itself. From exhibits I have produced around the world, I know from viewers’ comments that pictures can transport them to places they’ve never in fact visited. Drama and music can also draw people into imaginary worlds, as if part of their own life-experiences.

In science, business, and government as well, first-hand experience tells us more about the way things work than do hearsay, supposition, or models.

4. Style. Style in art reflects an individual sense of fitness, a way of selecting various elements for

Rembrandt, The Windmill

Rembrandt, The Windmill

aesthetic coherence. An individual style becomes recognizable not only in the entire finished work, but in each part of it — in every line of a Rembrandt etching, in every note of a composition by Mozart or Beethoven. Style in this sense is fractal — it provides the self-generative dynamic that spins the entire work out of any fragment. Or, to use a biological metaphor, style is a kind of DNA whose basic code sets the terms for organic development to follow. Without it, the object is merely mechanical (like the ostentatiously named giclée) or artificial.

Even the famously ‘no-style’ products of Muji have a distinctive style, their no-nonsense minimalism instantly recognizable. Corporate style is often confused with branding, but the style of a commercial endeavor emerges from thorough integration of product design, customer-identification, education, and visible public presence. Science may seem an odd place for style, but actually it takes individual imagination to pierce the randomness of possible theories and experiments. Those hunches are of the essence of scientific style. Even the multifarious operations of government are essentially reducible to two styles: open, town-meeting-like citizen involvement, or opaque, secretive, officious procedures that concentrate power in a few. An arbitrary or absurd style of art or governance demeans those subjected to it.

5. Design. Effective execution of a design requires knowledge of materials and anticipation of structure and composition to achieve overall aesthetic coherence. To conceive and execute a


    Renewal, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2019)

design, one must know or anticipate how the various elements inter-relate to create a workable composition. Beyond mastery of technique, one must know how to make it serve an artistic vision. In the graphic arts, it is a matter of applying ink or paint to a surface; in music, counterpoint and harmony, theme and variations, timing; in drama, story, character, and voice. Design is where the practical work of assembly is planned and then carried out. It is also where the materials or notes or characters take on a life of their own, with unexpected results. Whether to reject these as mistakes or incorporate seemingly chance elements into the work is an inescapably recurring design question.

Science and engineering refer to this as the error-feedback loop, the constant adjustment of complex structures to changes in their environment. A thermostat is the most familiar example. Business practitioners as well constantly adapt to circumstances, to enable their firms to survive and prosper. Products, services, and organizations are constantly updated in response to market-driven information. Governments typically operate with obsolete designs, with little or no method of error correction, relying on exclusive control of their domains to stay in power. Faulty governance designs persist despite widespread recognition of their flaws, opting for patchwork ‘solutions’ until some vital part fails or an obviously superior design emerges from the melee (an historically rare occurrence).


Living With the Unexpected. If the year 2020 has confirmed one thing, it is the unexpectedness of our lives. For some, it has brought that final outcome that none of us is prepared for, the end of our existence. For others, an illness whether mild or severe has brought home the fragility of that existence, and the contingent nature of all our plans, hopes, and expectations for the future.

Governments the world over are among the least adaptable of human groups. In response to the plague of 2020, they have cycled through denial, censorship, panic, model-mania, lockdown, money-printing, miracle-mongering, and theatrical displays of frenetic activity, before finally taking the measure of the disease and educating the public about what everyone can do to minimize it. With a few exceptions — mainly countries in Asia where front-line experience is quickly put into practice — governments have ‘pulled rank’ rather than listen to those most familiar with ‘facts on the ground’. Around the world, only with the most heroic efforts of front-line health workers has it been possible to learn the truth and apply the knowledge gained through hard experience. Doctors and nurses have had to fight not only the plague, but also censorship, threats, and expulsions administered by health bureaucrats. The plague has exposed the hollowness of these bureaucracies, pointing the way toward new structures of work and livelihood.

A world-altering cataclysm like this plague forces us to imagine the unexpected, to enlarge our sense of the future beyond that of previous custom. It teaches us to accept that our assumptions and models of the future have no basis in fact, that we really know very little about what will happen. We proceed with our best guesses, realizing they are full of uncertainty, relying on our instincts and common-sense. Common-sense belongs to everyone, and is held regardless of rank. Unless suppressed, everyone can exercise it.


So, to return to our five pillars of wisdom, here are some common-sense questions suggested by each, originating in art and applicable to science, business, and government:

  1. Authenticity: Is it truly heart-felt?
  2. Coherence: Does it hang together?
  3. Experience: Is it based on first-hand knowledge?
  4. Style: Open and transparent?
  5. Design: Adaptable to error-correction?

These are of course the beginning and not the end of inquiry.

Printed from: https://kamprint.com/views/fivepillars/ .
© Peter Miller 2024.

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