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Art, Surprise & Artistic Process- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art, Surprise & Artistic Process- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Path From Randomness To Intention


In this series of blog posts navigating a path from chaos and randomness to meaning and purpose through artistic expression, we delve into the concept of randomness and start to illuminate its opposite because understanding what something is is often best achieved by understanding what it isn’t. 

A definition: Randomness is the apparent or actual lack of pattern or predictability in events. A random sequence of events, symbols or steps often has no order and does not follow an intelligible pattern or combination. 

First identified in the early 1300s, random originally referred to “great speed” or “force,” used especially in the phrases to run at random or with great random, originating in the French randon.

Random’s velocity and violence conveyed a sense of impetuousness and rashness, but also direction and intent.

But two centuries later the expression at random morphed into “without aim or purpose,” a short step from the modern adjective, which settled in by the 1650s.

It doesn’t make it any easier to talk about things when the terms themselves are slippery.

Like randomness, art is rooted in the lack of predictability.


Art that we remember surprises us. But art is not random, it is very much an expression of purpose and intent. 


Randomness vs. Non-Randomness In Art


So how does art combine elements of randomness and non-randomness?

The key word above in the definition of randomness is not predictability or random, but rather “intelligible.”

In our last post, we gave an example of a series of numbers that looked random, but in fact was produced by a large amount of computation, driven by intelligence and purpose:  Ten digits taken from the decimal representation of Pi. 

In order to know that these digits were not random, we needed information and communication to make them intelligible. We needed to be made aware of the process by which the sequence was produced.

If you have a lot of patience or a fast computer, you can compute many digits of Pi and of course get the same result every time. This is definitely not random. 



“Thunderbird” supercomputer



If we contemplate the standard example of rolling dice as a generator of random sequences of numbers, we can see that randomness stands in for “ignorance.” 

If we were able to measure the position and velocity of each of the dice, we could solve equations or simulate motion to figure out how they’ll land.

But obtaining that measurement of position and velocity is not usually a part of rolling dice and is not so easy to do in the confines of a casino or bar, so we have to assume maximum ignorance, even though we can *in principle* know what the dice will do. 



Las Vegas Casinos



There are exceptions to this assertion of “we can know in principle” that come from quantum mechanics, but we will let Schrödinger’s sleeping cat lie for now.



Schröedingers Cat

Schrödingers Cat, bifurcating trajectories



Maximum ignorance means that our initial assumption is that all faces of the dice are equally likely. 

We can start modifying our belief about dice after rolling them a large number of times. If we’re dealing with loaded dice, we might find that one face shows up too many times to be explained by our initial guess of equal likeliness. 

So this information causes us to modify our initial belief, though perhaps we cash in on a few bets first. There’s even a principled way of doing this belief updating due to a 18th century British cleric, but we will leave the Reverend Bayes and his theorem at that.



Reverend Thomas Bayes (1701-1761)



If one asks a group of people to generate “random” sequences of symbols or numbers in their heads without using dice or any other crutch, they don’t do a very good job. People are very good at seeing patterns where there are none, or creating them if there are none to see.



Two-dimensional machine-generated random image



Truly random sequences look to be too “ordered” for the aesthetics of many people, so when making them up they tend to avoid things like “runs” (where the same symbol shows up several times in a  row) that show up in truly random sequences. People impose order by trying to be random.

“Let’s see, I’ve had a 1 and a 4 just recently, so I should try some other digits now.” This creates correlations where there shouldn’t be any.

“Try to be random” reminds me of the adage, “Try not to think of an elephant.”



Mature elephant


Our Predisposition For Order


People have a predisposition for order.

Perhaps because we are surrounded by the interaction of apparent randomness with physical laws, like the fractal beach drainage patterns of the last post. This generates patterns which we incorporate into our beliefs of how the world should work.

Random raindrops falling or wave surge on a beach drains back to the sea, creating patterns that look anything but random. No two are alike, but the whole class of patterns looks almost designed.


Art & Surprise


I assert that artistic creation has more in common with beach erosion patterns than it does with the calculation of Pi or the rolling of dice.

Artists incorporate surprise into a process, a personal process that stands in for the physical laws in the beach erosion example.


Unlike the laws of physics, this process varies from person to person and artwork to artwork, each one creating a miniature new world with new laws, a cosmology of pigment and pattern.



Dr. Nancy Hillis painting



Art has the element of surprise, filtered through process, the interplay of elements both random and anti-random. Meaning emerges from the message, the message is rooted in information and context.



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Create the art of your dreams. We have a once a year Holiday special! Give yourself or the artist in your life the gift of art.

Get started HERE. 





TAJC - Holiday


Holiday Special on our courses


Go to https://www.artistsjourney.com/online-courses to choose your course.








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