Complicated vs Complex

Recently, I heard Arthur C Brooks discuss the difference between complicated and complex problems on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show and it made me think about how that distinction applies to art.

Complicated problems seem difficult when first encountered, but are easy enough to crunch with enough compute. It might take a while, but if you work through the process from beginning to end, you’ll get the answer.

Complex problems often start with simple questions — who will win this football match and how? — but the correct answer, if it even exists, is unknowable. Too many moving parts. Too many unknowns. Too much randomness.

Of course, complex problems are more interesting and important to contemplate:

  • why are we here?
  • how can I live a good life?
  • who do I want to spend it with?

I think this applies to art too. Art that asks more questions than it answers endures, both in the mind and in the canon.

The complexity inherent in good art shouldn’t be confused for complication. The key is work that is dense with meaning and mystery; not necessarily dense pictorially, musically and linguistically. It can be simple, but not shallow. I’m thinking of artists like Agnes Martin, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Basho who draw power from a minimal approach.

I want to make photographs which share the qualities of the work I admire: pictures that get better over time, that contain details missed on first glance, that leave you with a feeling that you can’t shake. I’m seeking complexity.