Ordering the Signal From the Noise

When I was an English major in college, I stumbled across my perfect book. It wasn’t a perfect book by any means, but it was one that spoke to me on a soul-deep level about the nature of art.

Namely, that we are all artists; that our lives themselves and our callings are our art; and that as artists, we are given not only the agency but the responsibility to order the worlds around us through our art-making.

By page twelve, I was enraptured. It was the subject of my senior thesis. It inspired a pilgrimage of sorts to St. Ives, Cornwall on a trip abroad. For Christmas one year, my mom framed the final two pages for me; and they still hang on my living room wall as a reminder of just what was so beautiful to me about this book.

Recently I was drawn back over to these pages on my wall, and I reread them – and I re-realized a few things.

1. You can’t have the signal without the noise.

There’s this thing called signal-to-noise ratio in scientific measurement that is most commonly used for electronic communications, such as radio. Signal is the music that comes from the station you’re dialed into. Noise is everything else: signals coming from other stations you’re not dialed into, static, wind, temperature, humidity, lunar effects, etc.

Of course the signal-to-noise ratio concept is also used metaphorically, and it’s easy to see why. As human beings, we are very non-metaphorically surrounded by a universe buffeting us with noise in which we are constantly looking for signals. We just happen to variously call the search for those signals science, religion, and divination.

But I’d also argue we call the search for those signals art of all kinds – the fine arts, yes, but also in the same spirit as To the Lighthouse’s kind of art: administration, singing, dancing, number crunching, throwing parties, setting friends up on blind dates, marketing, sales, civil service, arranging flowers, farming, or anything else you can thinking of done to bring some kind of order to the chaos of the universe, no matter how small an effect is has.

Because here’s the kicker: The signal is only able to emerge for you because many other people put out their art into the world in the blind faith that it must be shared, that it was meant for more than just ordering their world – it was meant for ordering yours, too.

Here is also the kicker: The signal only exists because your mind, and your mind only, is able to order it out of all the noise and chaos – or, alternatively, all the works of art and life that the next person will never see the same lines and threads through that you do. And in this sense, the signal exists for you, and for you only.

Which means there’s a hell of a lot of noise out there – but also that it’s kind of beautiful.

2. Art doesn’t happen in isolation.

Art is an inherently personal thing. Of course artists just starting to claim their art are usually pretty reluctant and/or terrified to share it with the world – it’s literally their souls bared to the world for judgement.

We’ve all got our own signals that we can hear, and that’s great. But one signal just ain’t enough to get us wherever we’re wanting to go – cosmically, literally, or metaphorically. We can’t get to the lighthouse on our own. We need community; we need people with whom to share our lives, our greatest art; we need people who can help us in the creation of that art.

I’ll leave you with a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately about the art of living:

  1. Are you hearing a signal right now?
  2. How are you sharing your life – and how are you being called to share it?
  3. If there are parts of your life you’re keeping back, what are the reasons?

Dear fellow artists – take care, and take care of each other.

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