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Moving Parts: the Aesthetic of Intricacy

Veil after veil have we lifted, and ever the face is more lovely.
--Apuleius

I've noticed a while back that there are some interesting taste overlaps among "people like me." 

Bach is a big one.  Math people, with eerie consistency, really like Bach.  Even the ones who've never heard of the math/Bach connection.  When I was about eleven, the Bach bug hit me -- all of a sudden I had to listen to fugues, right now.  I remember my dad saying "Of course you like Bach, you have a mathematical mind."  I thought "Are you kidding?  I'm not mathematical, math contests stress me out!  I like Bach because polyphony is awesome."

Except that thinking polyphony is awesome only seems to be a feature of a certain group of people's brains.  "Geeks" isn't exactly the right word, because it gets conflated with a section of pop culture.  I'm talking more or less about people who are highly analytical but also really high in Openness.  My model of our tribe overlaps a little with Sister Y's, but is slightly different; where she's focused on our impulse to "go meta," I think the common theme has more to do with an impulse towards intricacy, play, and pattern-recognition.

I'm going to give a bunch of examples from my own file, things that have this quality of intricacy.  (If some of these are unfamiliar to you, and you're in the same cluster as me, you might like them -- consider it a recommendation list.)

Visual Art
Medieval and early Renaissance art with intricate surface detail
Gentile da Fabriano
Hieronymous Bosch
Persian miniatures
Moorish patterns
Edit from Nancy: The Book of Kells
***
19th century decorative art and illustration
Arts and Crafts Style patterns
Art Nouveau
Jugendstil
Aubrey Beardsley
Ernst Haeckel scientific illustrations
Gustave Moreau
Pamela Colman Smith
***
Psychedelic and visionary art
OZ magazine
Wilfred Saetty
Brigid Marlin
Luis Toledo
Alex Grey 
William Blake

Themes:
pattern
intricate symmetry
surface detail emphasized over depth perspective
decorative aesthetic
"low" art (posters, album covers, illustrations)
visual references to the fantastic, mythological, and occult

[Jonathan Coulthart has done a great job tracing the history of this "counter-tradition" against the grain of Western fine art.  The 19th century illustrators were inspired by the medieval aesthetic, and the 1960's psychedelic artists looked back to the 19th century.  There's a whole world here that gets overlooked by the textbook view that representational art is dead and decorative/illustrative works aren't art.  Seriously, check out the blog, there is so much coolness there.]

Music
Bach, especially fugues
classical Indian music

Themes:
polyphony
"moving parts"
multiplicity, intricacy

Books & Authors
Goedel, Escher, Bach
James Joyce
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Alan Moore
Infinite Jest
Neal Stephenson
Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire more than Lolita)
Jorge Luis Borges
Italo Calvino
Richard Powers
Robert Graves
Thomas Pynchon
Herman Melville
The Saskiad [an underrated book that nobody but me seems to have read]
Griffin and Sabine
Kids' books: Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, Madeleine L'Engle
Edit from Dave: Tom Stoppard.

Themes:
Big, sprawling, discursive novels (often with footnotes)
Formalism, mythological or symbolic patterns (e.g. the chapters of Ulysses; the Eye in the Pyramid; Graves' calendar stuff; etc.)
Speculative riffs
Intellectual play
The notion of "pulling back the veil," magic behind the mundane

Miscellaneous
interests related to perception, language, thought, e.g.:
mathematics
computer science (esp. AI and related fields)
neuroscience
meditatiom
lucid dreaming
law, Talmud, RPG's, intricately structured rule-systems.
Edit from Nancy: Catholic theology.
formal paradigms (there are N kinds of people in the world; you can organize things on a 2-axis grid; etc.)

[Mage: The Ascension is one of the best examples of formalism-porn in the world.  It's got the complex game rules and also the elaborately patterned system of archetypes and also the fantastic elements and also the "waking from the dream of the mundane" meme.]

It looks like there are two overarching patterns here:

1. Attraction to the bizarre or fantastic
2. Attraction to sufficiently complex patterns, structures, rules

Both seem to have to do with curiosity.  Interestingness.  The pattern-recognition impulse. 

You can short-circuit that impulse with low-quality stuff.  You can get locked into mysticism, fandom, gaming, drugs, literary criticism, etc.  Local optima, closed systems that you can obsess about endlessly, but which are disconnected from reality and keep you from learning more about the world.   But if you're careful, the impulse towards intricacy and pattern leads you to really revelatory art and science.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
nancylebov
Oct. 5th, 2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
The Book of Kells probably belongs on the visual arts list.

And Catholic theology belongs on the Miscellaneous list.
celandine13
Oct. 5th, 2012 03:11 pm (UTC)
Ooh, yeah.

I forgot about the Catholic connection but you're right, it's REALLY strong.
nancylebov
Oct. 6th, 2012 03:41 am (UTC)
I only bumped up against the Catholic thing recently. People who like Catholic theology would probably also like The Apocalypse Door by Jame MacDonald-- a moderately conventional horror/action novel with real theology rather than just the shiny bits.

Another possible preference is Greer Gilman (Moonwise et al.)-- fantasy's answer to James Joyce. Just about every paragraph has a reference to other fantasy, mythology, poetry, folk dance. The puns are superb. Glossary by Michael Swanwick.

Possibility for music: Liquid Tension Experiment (prog rock)
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xuenay
Apr. 27th, 2014 07:36 pm (UTC)
It's been a few years, but for some reason I find myself re-reading this post every now and then. Also wishing that I could share it with others. Possible to get it public?
Tim Noyce
May. 19th, 2014 05:05 am (UTC)
Match
Very recognisable and I shall certainly investigate the parts of the pattern that I do not share. I would give Escher his own visual arts entry and drop Ockeghem and Tallis into the music, "Fairy Feller's Masterstroke" into visual arts.
Robert Hochons
Mar. 12th, 2017 03:08 am (UTC)
Don Rosa
I am probably discovering this post 4 years too late, but I cannot resist submitting 2 additional and personally cherished examples of aesthetic intricacy. One is high-brow and obvious: Marcel Proust. The second is less obvious and as low-brow as it gets, but one of the purest embodiments of this concept that I have personally been exposed to: Keno Don Rosa, the author of "The life and times of Scrooge McDuck". I remember being fascinated by his work as a kid. This artist drew nothing but duck comics all his life - and everything he produced is beautiful in its fractal intricacy: details within details within details, all echoing, mirroring and referring to each others, all nested with an uncanny mixture of luxurious, creative exuberance and neat geometric regularity. (For representative examples, just Google Image "Don Rosa Life and times of Scrooge McDuck").

I keep wondering what Don Rosa's fame would be if he had gone beyond duck tales. Maybe "Godel, Escher, Bach" would be titled "Godel, Escher, Bach, Don Rosa".
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )