Potential Energy vs Kinetic Energy in the Arts

Climbing steadily up a steep mountain will increase your body’s potential energy in relationship to the earth. The farther you get from the earth’s center of gravity, the more potential energy your body contains. If you get to the top of the mountain, look over the cliff side and jump, your potential energy will be converted rapidly into kinetic energy. And where you steady climb might have been beautiful in its way, it won’t be as eye-catching as flinging your body off the precipice. If you want to make people gasp in horror and feel sickness in their stomachs, jumping off the cliff is the way to go!

Of course, there’s always the business of the unpleasant ending. But perhaps you will be one of the lucky ones, and in the meantime it does feel rather liberating to be in freefall. And besides, we’re all going to die, right? Maybe you won’t feel anything at all…

If I have a handful of gold coins and toss them in the air, they will flash and spray in the sunlight. Turning, flying up and hanging in the air, they would be a pretty sight. I could probably get the attention of many people with such a display.

Of course when it’s over, my gold has been scattered, sullied, maybe lost. I must go around, back bent, picking it all up here and there, searching for the pieces that rolled off I know not where. What was once in my hand is now just something I am searching for. If thieves snatch it up or dirt covers it over, I may eventually become convinced that there was never any gold in my hand. Maybe that was just a random glittering of pyrite? There’s really no need to go searching around for gold. Anyone who believes the old gold-in-hand theory has been taken in by authoritarian propaganda meant to subjugate the masses!


Enough analogies. I write these because I often think about this analogy when we see explosions in the world of art (I mean the broader world of art that includes music, literature, etc; I don’t mean it in the narrow sense of galleries and collectors of the “art world,” though I suppose that is included in the larger sense). BGC in a comment on Originality, says, “Looking back on the Arts in the West, the cult of originality was the beginning of the end – even though the first exemplars were often geniuses.”

I use the term “explosion” rather than “flowering,” because while a great deal of energy is released, the end result looks more like splatter than a bouquet. By loosing the bonds of traditional constraint, we can sometimes release a lot of stored up energy.

Take, for example, the modern practice of free verse poetry. A modern, or especially post-modern, “poet” can crank out 10 or 100 pages of poetry in the time it took to write one well-crafted sonnet. Angst-ridden teenagers, drugged-out hippies, pseudo-educated dilettantes: anyone can write poetry!

And who is to say this is a bad thing? Well, me, for one. Not that there should be a law about who can and cannot write poetry. But there should be laws of poetry (and in fact there are such laws, people simply choose to ignore them). Poetry need not be the exclusive purview of the aristocracy, for example. A peasant poet can compose beautiful lines. But both lord and laborer create good poetry, lasting poetry, insofar as they respect the strictures inherent in poesy.

Nowadays of course, the laborer (or couch potato office drone) writes nothing more than text messages and facebook updates, and the lord (or upper-middle class creative-writing Master’s candidate) writes ugly, egotistic, unreadable academic “exercises.”

Another example: the ease of making electronic “music” these days. [Edit: Another example: the ubiquity of photography convincing people that to take “artistic” photographs of their own life constitutes creativity. Again, I don’t object to people making things for themselves, but these new and degraded forms of instant art are actually considered better (because less stuffy and constricted) than older, more difficult and more rewarding forms of art. Because extremely easy to do and because democratic, they are considered better. This is what I lament.]

Emptying out the wine cask very quickly makes us drunk. There’s a rush of energy and a feeling that this, this is where the action is at. Like children run amok when the adults aren’t looking. But soon the cask is empty, the belly aches, the mind is clouded. There’s no wine left to drink and no energy or creativity stored up to do anything about it. The modern artist is left prone on the ground, nothing to say, numb to the world, wanting just to close his eyes and fall asleep so the ringing in his head will stop.

2 comments on “Potential Energy vs Kinetic Energy in the Arts

  1. R.A.W. says:

    Mencius Moldbug has explored this theme briefly using a similar analogy; the old society built up chemical energy and this modern… whatever it is released it as flame. It will stop eventually because there is no energy to be liberated from burning ash.

    • outofsleep says:

      Yes, I think I actually read that post by Moldbug. Also Toynbee has his famous growth/flowering/collapse model of civilizational evolution (that’s what I was thinking of when I said I don’t like to call it “flowering” but “explosion”). And all we need to do is look around at the natural world to see that things grow, flourish, and decay. In this particular case — though I’m not explicit about it here but plan to be moreso in coming posts — I think Moldbug might disagree with me. I think the ultimate cause of this loud ugliness which ends in entropy is a spiritual malaise. Moldbug, as far as I recall from reading through his archives, is a strict materialist.

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