Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

Panorama view of exhibition in Jedlitschka Gallery, Zurich.

17 June 2017

Dr Great Art Episode 15: Paradigms and Fuzzy Categories

My newest podcast! Episode 15: Paradigms and Fuzzy Categories.
This Dr Great Art artecdote is about a form of definitional conceptualization, paradigms and fuzzy categories, and how that is important to understanding art.

This is the script (not a transcript, as I change elements when recording).

Dr Great Art Podcast Fifteen                                                    
"Paradigms and Fuzzy Categories"

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 15th "Dr Great Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.

Today my Artecdote is about a form of conceptualization of categorizing, while holding that impulse in check.
Paradigms and Fuzzy Categories

Most people want to define things by making lists of characteristics, or in philosophical terms, 'qualities,' ---  essential or distinctive characteristics, properties, or attributes which distinguish a thing. Definition as listing the characteristics that each and every object in the category has. The dictionary approach, in a way.

Example --- A fruit: 1. any product of plant growth useful to humans or animals. 2. the developed ovary of a seed plant with its contents and accessory parts.
So, street version---  "a thing hanging on a tree or bush that you can eat. And it does not kill the plant." So that is a list: thing, hang, tree, eat, not kill. 

Not everything works this way. Some of the MOST important concepts indeed do not. And I think art is like this, indeed in the most complex way. Some concepts may even need to include their name in their meaning (art or games, e.g. exempli gratia via Wittgenstein), the big High School teacher no-no. You are told you can't say, "A fruit is anything kind of like an apple, but any other similar fruit." And yet, we often THINK that way --- and about important things. Most of all, the name may designate a kind of game situation, a sort of complex enterprise wherein the designatory rules are provisionally accepted, yet part of their use is adapting or expanding them. 

This has to do with paradigms and fuzzy categories! And that has a strong bearing on ART and how and why we understand it, or even why we sometimes do not!

A fuzzy concept is one in which the boundaries of the concept are vague, or varying, in some way, lacking a fixed, precise LIST-style meaning, without however being actually unclear or meaningless. It has a definite meaning, which we can intuit, but one including a closer definition of the context in which the concept is used.

The best known example of a fuzzy concept around the world is an amber traffic light. Nowadays engineers, statisticians and programmers often represent fuzzy concepts mathematically using fuzzy variables, fuzzy sets and fuzzy values. Since the 1970s, the use of fuzzy concepts has risen gigantically in all walks of life. It is one of the breakthroughs that will be needed for a machine to be really a thinking, AI, artificial intelligence
The intellectual origins of the idea of fuzzy concepts have been traced back to a diversity of thinkers including Plato, Cicero, Hegel, Marx, Max Black, Tarski, and more. The consciousness of the existence of fuzzy concepts, has been around a long time.

However, the Iranian born, American computer scientist Lotfi A. Zadeh is credited with inventing the specific idea of a "fuzzy concept" in his seminal 1965 paper on fuzzy sets, because he gave a formal mathematical presentation of the phenomenon. Zadeh also developed ideas of fuzzy logic, fuzzy sets and more.

Fuzzy sets have no clear boundaries, in short.

This is tied to the Family Resemblance Concept from Wittgenstein.

This is the idea that things which could be thought to be connected by a list of essential common features may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to ALL. Morris Weitz, an aesthetician, or philosopher of art, applied this idea to art, and I think it is indeed most fruitful there.

First though, let's visualize BIRDS quickly! Or rather a drawing of a big circle with fuzzy edges. In the middle is the bird most of us think of when we say "bird." Something like a Starling or a Robin. Beak, wings, feathers, sings, can fly, etc. But we are perfectly clear about penguins and ostriches. They are clearly birds. Yet closer to the edge of the category. Beaks. Feathers. Cannot fly. do weird things like swim or dig. And Bats are clearly flying mice, not birds, so just outside the category. And cows are nowhere near the circle or edge! Thank God they do not fly! This is overly simple, yet clear, I hope. Such are fuzzy categories with a paradigmatic center.

Paradigm (Paradigma for my German speaking friends) comes from Greek "pattern, example, sample." A concept is a generalization while a paradigm is an example serving as a model or pattern; a template.

Now think of visual art. First the fuzzy-edged circle. In the middle is some highlight of traditional art. A marble statue. A painting on a wall or other carrier. Then as you get farther out, there is installation, still relatively clear, farther performance art. Hmmm, that seems more theatrical than visual art-ish. And yet most of these artists, at least in the beginning, were clearly from the tradition and concerns of visual art --- most of the first even being made by painters! Somewhere also on the edge. Somewhere also on the edge is comics --- sequential art --- that mongrel mix of writing and drawing. Just outside the circle, even just beyond the fuzziness, is much Conceptual Art. It came out of the circle, yet shuns visuality, thus is not visual art, yet sooooo close, and indeed an art. And we are so open in this field we enjoy the near-yet-farness. Way outside is poetry. It can be highly, yet indirectly visual, even painterly. It is AN art, but not art itself, as we conceive of it in relationship to the paradigm. That is why some would insist something is NOT art, and others would insist it IS art. Both are right! and wrong! For they are trying to force a list-form category back into operation --- one expanded, but with clear edges. It ain't so. And indeed let us remember NOT to mix definitional reasoning with QUALITY judgments, the sense of judging superiority or excellence, and taste judgments, whether YOU like it. The three are separate, yet most of us sloppily want to mix them (believing, especially in such Noun-dominated languages as German, that "Art" ("Kunst") means "good art" --- there is also bad art. That whole distinction I will certainly address soon here in a future podcast. It is, by the way, an important logical insight derived from Kant and Goodman.
MANY other things work this way as well. In particular art, and its subcategories such as comics or painting. --- It is a paradigmatic conceptual category with fuzzy edges, and indeed even involves constantly redefining itself as part of its definition, --- more about that redefinition in a future Dr Great Art podcast as well. We will have occasion to refer to paradigmatic, fuzzy categories frequently in the future on Dr Great Art.

Art is a paradigmatic, fuzzy category.

That was "Paradigms and Fuzzy Categories."

Thanks for listening. That was podcast number 15. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.

I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations. Some recent ones were on the image of Social work in Art History, "Kunstgeschichte in Schnelldurchlauf, Sozialarbeit in der Kunst," the entire history of Postmodernist Art from 1979 through today, and Metaphor(m) in Art History.

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