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  • Guenter Koch

Bridging Wittgenstein’s “hole” by the language of art?

I would not claim to be an art expert, although I have run an art gallery in Vienna for more than 10 years. Rather, I am an organiser of art exhibitions, at most an art curator. The impetus to engage in such affairs came on the occasion of viewing the film “A Beautiful Mind” during a period in which I was heading a large research organisation. I became interested in the question of whether there exists some correlation between genius and “madness”. My research ended up with the discovery of what in Continental Europe is called Art Brut, in the UK Raw Art, and in the U.S. Outsider Art (each connotation addressing a deviated aspect of art created by “non-normal” people). For the first time, I understood that artistic expression goes beyond “normal” explanations, because people with an “esprit tortue” can be gifted artists and express themselves without using words.

So, my personal discovery was that visual (or musical) art allows for forms of expression that more formal notations like languages can hardly cover (while admitting that poetry uses language). Taking Wittgenstein to his most extreme conclusion: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence”. I think that art can break this silence.

My motivation to join GRASPnetwork, however, was much more pragmatic. As a software entrepreneur in my youth, having proclaimed the mission of my company at the time to be the production of “quality software”, I too often had the experience that my clients did not get the point that professionally made software is worth a high price. Their usual response was something like “My teenage son has received a computer as a gift, and he could program what you suggest with no or little effort.” I had a second crucial experience much later, when I headed a research centre specialised in software management. One of its challenges was to “illustrate” the complexity of software systems. Software per se cannot be seen, heard, or smelled. Unlike other artefacts such as, for example, a wire model of a complex building architecture, software (as well as many other intangible constructs) has no adequate visual correspondence that allows us to grasp its structure and complexity in a natural way. And this is only for its static structure. The dynamics in execution of a software system add another dimension of complexity in time which cannot be followed other than by observing the results of the computer’s processes of calculation. (A satiric description of such a situation is when the supercomputer in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy calculates that the answer to the question of all questions is 42.)

The example of software is just a concrete instance of my concern: How can we “understand” systems or processes which we cannot grasp by our six senses? Which resources of expression do we have at hand to grasp what is immaterial and intangible by its nature? The case of software is relatively easy to handle with methods of visualisation. How much more difficult is it to conceive abstract hidden processes which are increasingly mastered through artificial intelligence (AI) and related algorithms? We are already in the middle of a vigorous discussion fuelled by masterminds like Elon Musk or Stephen Hawkings, warning that AI one day may “take over”, counterargued by Alibaba’s president Jack Ma stating that there are and always will be human abilities and competences which computers will never be able to substitute.

One of the questions which we shall try to investigate through the GRASPnetwork is how we as “normal people” (knowing that there exists no norm) can express their non-verbalizable conception of a future living and working environment dominated by computers and networks and, vice versa, how those who have some insight and knowledge about the world of complex intangibles can communicate their insights by means that go beyond classical representation. And this is not only for the results – i.e. the fully constructed intangible systems – but also for the processes making or using them. In practical terms: our discourse is also meant for elucidating the work processes of the future, which may no longer be comparable to today’s known practical work processes. Is it possible that these processes could turn out to be more comparable to intellectual productions made visible by means of art (again, because the “formalistic” means will not be sufficient for representation)?

That challenge might be too demanding. My suggestion is to think about the question “Can post-Wittgensteinism be mastered by means of art?”


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GRASP network is an officially registered non-profit organisation in Austria