Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Is Improvisation an Art Form?

Is improvisation an art form? I will attempt to answer this using logic. I don't know very much about logic. I'd love to be able to tell you what this is:

But I have no idea.

Hagbard Celine had this to say about logical thought: "All propositions are true in some sense, false in some sense, and meaningless in some sense."

When someone tells you that x is y, this is may appear to be a very straightforward assertion. But it's actually complex and ambiguous, and the conclusions we draw will always depend on a successful understanding between the speaker and the listener. We have to agree on whether a) we're being asked to change or develop our definition of x in the light of a pre-agreed concept y, or b) We all know what x is, and we are being asked to amend our definition of y.

The ambiguity of the "x is y" forms the basis of all jokes along the model of "To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people": I'm not redefining you in relation to stupid; I'm redefining stupid in relation to you.

Propositions that are tautological, irrefutably true or self-evident – such as "Virtue is good" or "Too much fruit is bad for you" – don't mean anything at all. They are too true to carry meaning. And if I say "San José is the capital of Costa Rica". This statement is only meaningful if you either don't know where San José is or if you don't know what the capital of Costa Rica is. If we already know both these things, or neither of them, the utterance becomes a worthless. A statement is only meaningful insofar as its truth is debatable or its logic ambiguous.

According to this definition, it is certainly meaningful to ask whether improvisation is an art form. We can agree either that

"Improvisation is more than just a bunch of idiots clowning about in a pub. It should be taken seriously. It can be the equivalent of high drama, great painting and literature."

or that

"Art forms encompass more than traditional highbrow entertainments. Art forms can be experimental, popular, funny, transient and daft."

depending on what you want to believe.

The meaning of these statements don't exist in their truthfulness, but in the dissonance between the x and the y terms. By taking almost any two loosely defined concepts from a pair of columns, even a machine can create propositions that crackle with ambiguity, and can be asserted as "meaningful", even "inspired". 

Column A                            Column B
Courage                is               Hope
Movement             "               Understanding
Learning                "               Progress
Motivation             "               Chaos
Experience             "               Fragility
Honesty                 "               Sacrifice
Strength                 "               Madness

In the interests of full disclosure – or lack of it – I should add that my proposition "Meaningful statements are ambiguous" is itself an assertion of the "x is y" type. Am I asking you to guess whether the target of my logical satire is "ambiguity" or "meaning"? There exists a third option: I have no idea, and I am deliberately hedging my bets in order to appear clever. This is what most people do every time they open their mouths.

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