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Leonardo

Art, Therefore Entropy


Author(s): Michel Mendès France and Alain Hénaut
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 3, Art and Science Similarities, Differences and Interactions:
Special Issue (1994), pp. 219-221
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576055 .
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SCIENTISTS LOOK AT ART

Art, Therefore Entropy

MichelMendesFrance
and Alain Henaut

in memoriam
Anne GrunerSchlumberger, COMPLEXITYAND
INFORMATION
ENTROPY AND COMPLEXITY A statement such as x is x carries
ABSTRACT
no information. Strictlyspeaking,
If a system can exist in Ndifferent states, then we say that this
it is correct, but we learn nothing
system has entropy equal to log N. For example, the entropy Theauthors discusstheidea
from it. Let us imagine for one ofentropyandtheimplicationsthat
of a die is log6, whereas a coin has entropy log2. A system that
moment that we find ourselves in ithasbothonartisticcreationand
consists of Ncoins has entropy Nlog2. However, a system that
a large and crowded hall where a onperception ofart.Throughex-
can exist in one state and one state only has entropy logl, or amplesitis suggestedthatcom-
thousand or so people are talking
zero entropy. The larger the entropy, the more complex the information
plexity, andentropy are
in a very animated fashion on a
system will be. In other words, entropy is a measure of the threefacetsofthe
essentially
vast variety of subjects among samereality.Noclaimis madere-
complexity of a system. (Since, as Heraclitus says, "everything themselves. The noise pattern estheticevaluation.
flows and nothing stays,"the words we use may have fluctuat- garding
generated from this meeting is
ing meanings. We hope this will not offend specialists.) indeed highly complex. It prob-
Let us represent each possible state of a system as a point.
A set of N points will have an entropy log N. Extending this ably contains over a thousand
sentences or statements. Whether they are true or false is of
idea one step further, let us consider several sets whose aver-
no importance when all we can distinguish is a loud hubbub.
age number of points is N*. This family of sets will have en- This loud hubbub, however, contains all the information in
tropy log N*. We are now in a position to define the entropy the statements uttered: rich information indeed! Going one
of any curve in the plane (Fig. 1).
Let N* be the average number of points of intersection of step further, imagine every sound that has been made, that is
the curve with all possible straight lines drawn through it. It being made and that will ever be made (and even that which
can never be said) put together; this is known as "white
can be shown that N* = 2L/C where L is the length of the
noise." The message in this white noise is so dense that it is
curve and where C is its perimeter (i.e. the length of a thread
drawn tightly around the curve) [1]. The entropy of the totally inaccessible; it is impossible to extract one single item
of information from it.
curve is given by log N* = log(2L/C) [2].
This situation is not unlike the axiom of choice in math-
Should the curve be a straight segment, then C = 2L, so
ematics, which states that from any set one can distinguish an
that its entropy is equal to log(2L/C) = 0 (Fig. 2). In other
element in it and choose, for example, a countable subset
words, a simple curve has low entropy, whereas a complicated
curve has high entropy. among the real numbers. Yet some mathematicians refuse to
What we would like the reader to retain from this short pre- acknowledge this axiom, and they are perfectly free to do so.
For such mathematicians, any sufficiently large set will be so
amble is that entropy is, in fact, complexity. Through this
dense and thick that no point in it can be distinguished: a situ-
identification, which is common practise in mathematics, ob- ation entirely analogous to the "whitenoise" mentioned above.
jects and concepts are mutually enriched. Let us now go back to the idea of information and see how
it can be applied to painting. A plain white canvas would ap-
Fig. 1. As the straight line moves around, the number of points pear to all intents and purposes to contain no information
where it intersects the curve varies. Its average is equal to the ratio whatsoever. A painting showing a single brush stroke would
of twice the length L of the curve by the length C of the perim-
eter, represented by the dotted line. appear to convey perhaps a little more. J. Pollock's paintings
present us with a great display of complexity: the information
.^ / - *, contained therein would seem to be enormous.
We could say that, at the limit where colours are mixed ran-
domly on a canvas to the extent that the painting becomes a
uniform shade of grey (albeit rather dull in aspect), the com-

Michel Mendes France (mathematician), Dept. Mathematiques, Universite Bordeaux I,


F-33405 Talence Cedex, France.
Alain Henaut (mathematician), Dept. Mathematiques, Universite Bordeaux I, F-33405
Talence Cedex, France.

Manuscript solicited byJacques Mandelbrojt.


Received 19 October 1993.

( 1994 ISAST LEONARDO, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 219-221, 1994 219
plexity of the painting itself is infinite. are to reach and affect their public.
This is analogous to the "white noise" Each member of the public has, of
that we mentioned above. Yet, from the course, his or her own personal emo-
observer's point of view, there is no es- tional and cultural framework. It is nec-
sential difference between the original essary that the information that the art-
blank canvas and the finished painting. ist conveys be sufficiently large for there
Fig. 2. The perimeter of a straight segment
Paradoxically, it follows that the original to be an area where it intersects with the L reduces to a dotted line tightly drawn
canvas must therefore be highly com- viewer's recognition: i.e. large enough around it. The length C of the perimeter is
plex. The scale of complexity thus ap- for the viewer to be able to construe 2L.
pears to be cyclic. some of the artist's information from
One could probably say that the what he or she sees. The viewer's re-
above procedure underlies the concep- sponse will be one of appreciation, ad-
tual creation that was brought about miration or some other kind of strong
Coup de ds jamais n'abolira le hasard"
when W. de Kooning did a drawing, R. reaction to the work to the extent that (A throw of the dice never will abolish
Rauschenberg then totally erased it and the viewer has a feeling of sharing in the
chance) and J. Joyce in Finnegans Wake
the resulting "blank"page was signed by creation with the artist. There is a sym- were well aware that this principle was at
both artists. The idea or concept pre- biosis, or identification of the viewer work, that what they were writing had a
vails; the moment of creation seems with the artist in emotional terms. I. life of its own. Conscious of this underly-
fixed at the point where the paper re- Prigogine claims that he sometimes has ing drive inherent in their creative activ-
became "blank." the sensation, when listening to music,
ity, they exploited it to the full.
At this point we must mention the that he can anticipate the notes before P. Cezanne, J. Pollock and F. Bacon,
quantum vacuum as it is understood in they are played: as if he himself, at this among others, have all been preoccu-
the world of physics: the extraordinarily privileged moment in the piece, is actu- pied by the degree to which randomness
complex result of the superposition of ally the composer of the work. was an integral part both of their cre-
matter on anti-matter. According to P. It is the duty of all artists to provide ative activity and of the life of the work
Dirac, matter is a hole in a vacuum. To information and hence complexity. Ac- itself. Bacon has perhaps given the
obtain matter one must remove anti- cordingly, I. Xenakis wrote: "le son beau clearest description of this:
matter from a vacuum. Do time (for- ou laid n'a pas de sens, ni la musique
ward time) and anti-time (backward qui en decoule; la quantite d'intelli- When I wastryingin despairthe other
time) coexist in this quantum vacuum? gence portee par les sonorites doit etre dayto paint that head of a specificper-
le vrai critere de validite de telle ou telle son, I used a verybig brushand a great
The vacuum fluctuates, but it never deal of paint and I put it on very,very
seems to evolve, because time and anti- musique" (Beautiful or ugly sound is not freely,and I simplydidn't knowin the
time "superimpose," or, quite simply, meaningful, nor is the music of this end what I was doing, and suddenly
neutralise each other. sound; the amount of information con- this thing clicked, and became exactly
like this image I was trying to record.
Before concluding this section we veyed in the sound should be the real But not out of any conscious will, nor
would like to take the liberty of inviting criteria on which to base any judgment wasit anythingto do with illustrational
the reader to delve into F.Jullien's beau- concerning the worth of a work) [4]. painting.Whathas neveryet been ana-
tiful book, Elogede lafadeur (In Praise of This idea is also developed by U. Eco in lyzedis whythis particularwayof paint-
the Dull), in which he recalls a story L'oeuvreouverte[5]. ing is more poignant than illustration.
I suppose because it has a life com-
taken from the biography of Tao But the question then arises: can and
pletelyof its own. It liveson its own ....
Yuanming (fourth or fifth century) in should an artist strive towards the ex- [emphasisadded] [6]
Songshu. treme limits of complexity? One would
be inclined to think not, and is even It has a life of its own. We find a simi-
Tao Yuanming knew nothing about lar phenomenon in music in the works
music but he kept at home a very tempted to quote Eco's amusing and
highly pertinent observation that no of such masters as K. Stockhausen, H.
simple lute without any chords. Every
time he was invaded by a feeling of matter how well constructed and com- Pousseur, P. Boulez in his Marteau sans
wholenessafterhavinghad some wine, plete a dictionary may be, it can hardly maitre,Xenakis, of course, and finally, A.
he would touch the lute to express be considered a poetic work. Boucourechliev, who takes us on a magi-
whathis heartwaslonging for [3]. Infinite complexity is randomness, cal ride through Archipels.
Silent music, empty music; and yet, and randomness is certainly not a hu- There is also composerJ. Cage, who
how moving. man creation. Randomness is not a ve- held a musical stave drawn on transpar-
hicle for communication between two ent paper up to the night sky and traced
human beings. It is up to the artist to in the stars as notes on this stave. The
ART AND ENTROPY discover what the acceptable limits are, composition obtained from these "star"
Complexity, information and entropy and hence avoid being too simple or too notes can be performed as clearly celes-
are hence essentially three facets of the complex. These limits are obviously dif- tial music. In the case of Cage, the idea
same reality. It would perhaps be appro- ficult to define and are variable. They is the work of art.
priate to add communication to the trio. depend on the current cultural climate In the world of jazz, composers and
All artists try to communicate, to ex- and change over time. Moreover, any performers alike acknowledge that there
plain, to reveal their ideas or, in some given complex work of art has its own exist certain rules that prevent them
cases, to conceal their goal (but by so internal dynamism. The dynamic force from playing just any old thing. Yet they
doing they give themselves away). The of the work dictates what the artist may all agree that a vast range of free expres-
more information artists are able to in- do, and is not entirely within the artist's sion is still possible within their rules of
clude in their work, the more likely they control. Both S. Mallarme in his "Un improvisation. J.L. Chautemps has per-

220 MendesFrance and Hinaut, Art, Therefore Entropy


haps spanned the most spectacularly mountaineer is bound to maintain an ad- rather powerful answer to this ques-
broad range of possibilities concerning equate number of holds on the face, at tion. Each of these three words is asso-
the length of a work. His shortest, the risk of falling off otherwise. At the ciated with a cohort of attendant im-
"PAQLPDRasoir d'Occam PEENM,"lasts bottom of the rock face the moun- ages that are specific to that word. By
but a quarter of a second, whereas his taineer's entropy was log N, and on the associating these images with each
piece entitled "Froma Saxophonological rock face it decreases to log M. We postu- other, we are able to enhance the con-
Point of View"lasts 200 million years. late that the loss in entropy log N- log M sistency of the words, fleshing out and
An artist draws material from the sur- is equal to the entropy log(2L/C) of the coloring their skeletal forms. For ex-
rounding world, from the past and from pathway.In other terms ample, when one thinks of the word en-
the anticipated future. He or she can tropy,the word randomnessimmediately
extend and increase the message by log N= log M+ log(2L/C)
springs to mind. Similarly, the word
sprinkling it with rand6mness. In The This expression of the principle of the complexitytriggers the word difficulty,
Name of theRose,Eco played this card by conservation of entropy is not unlike the and the word informationleads us head-
loading his text full of Latin quotations theories of Prigogine. on to the media. There is a subtle dis-
that were totally incomprehensible to us We will now attempt to justify the tinction between the way a mathemati-
lesser beings, "the unhappy nonfew." above equation. A good mountaineer is cian and an ordinary person in the
The reader, feeling overwhelmed and very much at ease on a rock face and street will use the word information.The
inadequate when faced with this massive moves as he or she wishes. This meaning of the word for one person
dose of information that excludes all but mountaineer's M is close to N, so the does not have to be perfectly matched
the most erudite of readers, is bullied variation log N- log M is small, as is in every detail to the meaning that
into reading through the whole work log(2L/C). A weak mountaineer is virtu- word has for another. It is most fortu-
even though he grasps but fragments of ally a prisoner of the rock face, where nate that this is so, and that people
it. This probably results in more read- his or her cultural universe is greatly re- recognise this fact when they speak to
ings than Eco could have ever foreseen. duced; it is highly unlikely that such a each other. Remove the "I-get-the-gist-
The work of art has a life of its own, as climber will be able to read the informa- of-what-you-say"aspect of the game of
we have already stated, but one usually tion available there. This mountaineer lexical exchange, and communication
associates life with the animal and veg- will probably even miss the point (!). In would grind to a halt: communication
etable world. A work of art may also be this case both the variation log N- log M is only possible if the meanings of
viewed as a mountain about to be scaled and the entropy log(2L/C) are high. words fluctuate to fit the context. A de-
by a mountain climber; it holds itself in- The analogy that we suggest is that the gree of uncertainty, vagueness or messi-
accessible but can be reached if ap- rock face is similar to a work of art. A ness is both desirable and necessary:
proached with the necessary sensitivity very rugged rock face is rich in informa- Without entropy there would be no
and skill. tion, and any person endeavouring to possibility of exchange, and without en-
climb such a face may well succeed ac- tropy there would be no art.
THE MOUNTAINEER cording to his or her personal cultural
universe. When the rock face is very
AND THE MOUNTAIN
smooth there is very little information Acknowledgment
The above idea leads directly to the dis- available, and practically no mountain-
Nous remercions chaleureusementJoan Mendes
cussion of work that is being undertaken eer-however talented and cultivated- France pour l'adaptation anglaise de notre
at the present time by Michel Mendes will undertake its premiere version "SansEntropie point d'Oeuvre."
conquest.
France along with P. Cordier (a moun-
tain guide), P. Bolon and J. Pailhous
CONCILIATORYNOTES References
(cognitive scientists). In this work, we
are trying to measure the level of skill of It is clear that the study we have under- 1. H. Steinhaus, "Length, Shape and Area,"
mountaineers. A given number of taken tends to oversimplify and that we ColloquiumMathematicum3 (1954) pp. 1-13.
mountaineers are invited to climb a have no pretentions whatsoever of ven- 2. M. Mendes France, "Chaotic Curves," in Rhythms
in Biologyand OtherFields of Application:Deterministic
given rock face. Their respective path- turing into the world of esthetics. Some and Stochastic Approaches, Proceedings of the
ways are recorded. It turns out that (if people have overstepped the mark and Journees de la Societe Mathematique de France,
we simplify rather radically) the better tried to measure the worth of a work of held at Luminy, France, 14-18 September 1981;
LectureNotesin Biomathematics,No. 49 (Berlin, New
the mountaineer, the straighter the art in scientific terms using scientific pa- York:Springer-Verlag, 1983) pp. 352-367. See also
pathway will be. The entropy log(2L/C) rameters. It is most alarming to find the M. Mendes France, "The Planck Constant of a
of the pathway of the good mountaineer following kind of statement, penned by Curve," in Fractal Geometryand Analysis,J. Belair
and S. Dubuc, eds. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands:
will thus be low, while that of the weaker Soviet physicist A. Kitaigoroski: "Anyde- Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991) pp. 325-366.
mountaineer will be higher. viation from artistic truth in literary
3. F. Jullien, Eloge de la fadeur (Paris: Editions
This analysis can be approached from works of mediocre authors can be con-
Philippe Picquier, 1991) p. 60.
a different angle. At the bottom of the sidered as being a transgression against
4. I. Xenakis, "Musiquesformelles," La RevueMusi-
rock face the mountaineer is free to order" [7]. cale,No. 253/254 (Paris:Richard-Masse,1963) p. 10.
move in whatever direction he or she We have talked a lot about entropy,
5 U. Eco, L'oeuvreouverte,Chantal Roux de Bezieux,
pleases; there are no constraints. We con- complexity and information, and we trans. (Paris:Editions du seuil, 1965).
sider that the mountaineer is free to use have tried to show by examples that
6. David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact: Interviews
any of N muscles (all the muscles in his these three concepts cover one and the withFrancisBacon (New York:Thames and Hudson,
or her body). Once the mountaineer is same reality. One therefore asks why 1987) p. 17.
on the rock face he or she can only use M three words are used when one would 7. A. Kitaigoroski, L'ordreet le desordredans le monde
muscles where M is less than N. The suffice. Fortunately, we feel we have a des atomes(Moscow: MIR, 1980) p. 237.

MendesFranceand Henaut, Art, Therefore Entropy 221