I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

John Whitney: Not-So-Mad Scientist

by Jake Goldman
Sept. 17, 2011
In looking at a piece art, there are of course, a vast number of ways to determine its value.  You can judge art purely on aesthetics and functionality.  You can judge it on its emotional quality.  You can judge it critically, trying to focus on the deeper meaning.   Personally, I believe if you’d like to give art, especially strange and risk-taking art a fair shot,  you’ve got to combine all these avenues of criticism.

Often times, strange or avant-garde art doesn’t get a fair shake because it’s viewed narrowly, judged solely on aesthetic value.  People look at a torn piece of paper stuck inside a frame at MoMA and say “I don’t get it,” without trying to understand context, which in this case, would simply be trying to understand where the guy who ripped that piece of paper was coming from.  What was his angle?  His vision?  After analysis, you may find that it’s still just a piece of torn paper, or that his idea behind it was half-baked, and that’s completely fine.  But, at least you gave it the good ‘ol college try in trying to understand the piece’s intent. 

Now, you may be wondering why I’m so defensive here.  No, I haven’t any offbeat art under my belt.  There are no Jake Goldman exhibits going up at modern art museums any time soon, and I don’t suspect that there will ever be.  However, I believe there’s room for strange art.  I get unbelievably excited when I see something I can’t quite explain on first glance.  I love looking at art that has no discernable beginning or end, no visible story, just a portrait of someone’s brain splattered onto a canvas or video screen, or in this case, an embedded YouTube video. 

So now you know where I stand and I can actually talk about John Whitney.  As you might have guessed by this point, Whitney was an artist who did things his own way.  From the beginning, Whitney pushed the boundaries on what was possible.  He’s considered one of the first people to ever use computer animation.  In 1960.  On an analog computer.  That he built. By himself.  Jesus Christ! Whitney was also an incredibly accomplished composer and his pieces all range in the 7 to 10 minute range, played underneath his fairly wild animated films. 

The visual quality of his work is stunning, especially considering the context.  This is what I’m talking about when I say that avant-garde stuff often isn’t given a fair chance.  Because, at first glance, someone who was raised in the age of the internet would take a look at Whitney’s work and pooh-pooh it, writing it off as some early version of a Windows Media Player Visualizer.  (in fact, a friend of mine to whom I sent some Whitney videos said just as much.  I still haven’t replied to his email.  Letting it simmer.  Not gonna make any rash moves and blow my lid).  But this is where you must look deeper.  Whitney wasn’t just a filmmaker or just a composer, but the man was a damn scientist.  He built his own computer!  He conjured up original equations to create these beautiful, intricate, mesmerizing pieces of visual art before people were daring to try.  To top it off, he scored these pieces with dissonant, sometimes haunting, sometimes beautiful music, that he created all himself.  A mad genius, this guy was. 

This isn’t to say just because you are a capable person and someone that is very adept at filmmaking, music and science, accolades are automatically hefted upon you.  You have to have vision and execution.  Whitney had both. 

His films are stunning, visually.   It’s almost as if each piece starts with a seed of an image and blossoms outwardly.  But the films don’t grow perfectly like flowers.  They spread like beautiful weeds, moving every which way about the screen, flooding your senses.  It’s intense, but hard to turn away from.  It seems, too, that there’s a lot of improvisation to Whitney’s work, in the sense that nothing is predictable visually or sonically. 

The music too, fits the visuals quite well.  There is a certain symmetry to the piece altogether. To be sure, nothing about Whitney’s work is rigid, but for example, in Catalog, the music alongside the visuals is chaotic up front, but then gets to a calmer, slightly melodic middle.  The visuals onscreen follow suit.  Whitney uses soothing colors, and a slower, more methodical pace.  But, as we near the end of the piece, we see more reds, yellows and oranges and the music picks back up again, jolting you back into paying close attention.  It’s mightily effective. 

On music, Whitney says “…the content of music is really motion.  It’s a matter of generating and resolving tensions.”  He and Jimi Hendrix should’ve hung out.  Hendrix, as we know, was sort of plagued by his own ambition to create music that sounded like color.  He came damn close, but I think could’ve taken some lessons from Whitney and this sort of high concept thinking.

Whitney had a rare and beautiful ability to look at his own work from almost every angle possible.  He knew how to create something aesthetically and sonically pleasing, but he was also able to break that apart and look at it from the scientific angle, the almost practical angle of what music and art really is.  You rarely hear art discussed like this, and I recommend watching his films all the way through so you can listen to him speak.  Dude was truly a wild genius. It’s inspiring and intimidating all at once. 

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.