| Home | About Edge| Features | Edge Editions | Press | Reality Club | Third Culture | Digerati | Edge:Feed | Edge Search |
John Horgan, Marc D. Hauser, Jaron Lanier, Stuart Hameroff, Marnie Morris, Clifford Pickover, Jaron Lanier (2), Douglas Rushkoff, Pamela McCorduck, Lee Smolin, Pamela McCorduck (2) and Marc Lambert on A Theory of Big Culture by Brian Eno.
From: John Horgan
Fascinating interview with Brian Eno. If he is interested in unified theories of culture, he should check out the Darwinian take of Geoffrey Miller of the University of Nottingham. Miller says that culture is and always has been "primarily sexual display by young males." But of course Eno, being a rock star, surely knew that all along.
From: Marc D. Hauser
Brain Eno makes a comment about "autistic children" and what they are and are not capable of doing. The first point I would like to make is that it is very dangerous making such global attributions. Autism, like schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, are umbrella terms. Consequently, they cover up quite a lot of variation. Thus, although many autistics do live in a socially isolated world, where they fail to take on the perspective of other indivisuals, fail to appreciate that a person's direction of eye gaze sheds light on their knowledge, and fail to appreciate that others may possess beliefs and desires that differ from their own, there are other autistics who are highly functional (e.g., Temple Grande, the vet studied by Oliver Sacks) and at the other extreme, others who are severely retarded and fail to engage in any aspect of the human world. The second point I would like to make is that there are new studies on normal human infants, autistics, and nonhuman primates suggesting that some knowledge about "other minds" may be implicitly in place, though not explicitly. Thus, for example, prior to the age when normal human infants correctly attribute mental states to others (i.e., around 4 years), they appear to make accurate predictions about others beliefs on the basis of their patterns of eye gaze. But, when they are forced to use their language to report on others beliefs, they fail. Thus, there is an intuition that making things explict is a developmentally more difficult cognitive process. And if this is right (and we have comparable data on non-linguistic monkeys), then there is the possibility that some autistic children have implicit knowledge about the social world, but lack explicit knowledge. And since many autistic children (but not Williams syndrome children) have language problems, this makes the intuition all the more powerful.
From: Jaron Lanier
Anyone who knows Brian Eno knows he is a complete delight. I grew up with the public Brian of an earlier time from afar; the slight, mercurial, alien albino. I had to smash some tired prejudices in my head in order to adjust to knowing the mature Brian in person. He's SMART. And original. And just to add to the frustration of one's categories, he can still turn out great popular records when asked to. It's as if KISS turned out to be resident scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study when the makeup came off.
For a further twist, as much as I enjoy and respect Brian, I also find I disagree with him in a fundamental way about art and life. Our difference might be so fundamental, in fact, as to be without consequence. Brian has achieved a career in rational art. He is able to explain what he does, why he does it, how he does it. Has anyone else ever done this before? Buckminster Fuller, perhaps? Brian might be the first of his kind.
Brian has defined culture as, "Everything we don't have to do", but then proposes that we have to do it after all in the name of meme diversity. A tidy scheme, but it points out where he and I part ways. I would say the decision to live, and it IS a decision for human beings, is irrational. It is the thing we don't have to do. Once we choose to live, culture is a thing we can't help but do and have.
For me, the fact that we haven't all committed suicide supports an unfashionable kind of dualism. I believe there is something transcendent at the core of living, of being able to experience a moment, of making a decision, of creating a new bit of art. This doesn't mean I support mystification of the artistic process. Rather, I find that the more we attempt to expose it, the more starkly the mystery presents itself.
Brian is attempting to turn art into a cousin of engineering, but I think even the conduct of good science involves an Orphic phase, just like art. Before the rigor of the empirical process can be applied, someone must be curious about something, and THAT is irrational. Scientists simply fall in love with Quasars, butterflies, or strange attractors.
My sense is that the best art often comes out of collaborations between artists who emphasize the rational and orderly with those who emphasize intuition and Orphic spontaneity. George Martin once said he thought the Beatles' music was so good because it was an intersection of druggy minds with his emphatically non-druggy mind. Brian has also done some incredible work paired with artists who create in a murkier way.
As Brian tries to tidy up the murky corners of art and life, I find that he is only exposing a miraculous spring of motivation.
From: Stuart Hameroff
Re: the delightful interview with Brian Eno. Brian said:
"What is cultural value and how does that come about? Nearly all of the history of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories, and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn't like that. It says that
We confer value on things. We create the value in things. It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable."
But who or what are We? This brings us back to consciousness. We confer value through our conscious experience. The cultural relativism which Brian describes and the "fundamentalist [view that] some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning" may both derive from the Planck scale.
Jaron Lanier wrote: "Brian has achieved a career in rational art. He is able to explain what he does, why he does it, how he does it. Has anyone else ever done this before? Buckminster Fuller, perhaps? Brian might be the first of his kind."
Yoicks! Can this be true. Jaron? Suggesting that Brian Eno might be the first artist to explain what he does, how he does it and why he does it? That there is not a quantifiable (and rational) effort underlying artistic activity.
I'd like to suggest that there is very little distinction between artistic and scientific discovery. Although the vocabulary and tools are unique, the inquiry is the same. Discourse within artistic communities is as rigourous as any scientific discussion. Qualitatively, group of mathematicians can recognize one mathematical solution as more "elegant" than another. Is this an art question? Quantitatively, artists refer to scientific principles (light, gravity) as fundamental to the representation of truth in their work. Is this a scientific discussion?
It is a fairly new phenomenon to imagine that artists create in an intellectual vacuum. For truth that belies the myth I'd suggest Readings in American Art since 1900 a wonderful survey by Barbara Rose. Fascinating discussions from Rothko to Rauschenberg.
PS. Am I alone in being tired of this simplistic right brain/left brain theory? Would someone please explain why we have all been segregated?
John, you commented,
"In The Third Culture I refer to the schism between the literary crowd and the scientists. No such problem exists between artists and scientists."
I cannot entirely agree because I have done numerous surveys in which I ask traditional artists if art made using computer graphics or driven by algorithms can be great art, and many say no. The debate can become quite heated, which suggests to me a schism exists -- although I admit that as we approach the 21st centuries there is an ever-increasing blurring between science and art in many arenas. Since it is often difficult to define what great art is, I defer to one controversial measure -- the greatness of art is related to how much a work can be sold for. Alas, we find that computer graphics -- or art derived from mathematical formulas or fractals or stunningly-colored electron micrographs -- cannot command the awesome prices of great oil paintings.
Interestingly, when I've conducted surveys on "Is Computer Art Really Art?" a majority of those that answered by sending me electronic computer mail said "yes". A majority of those who wrote their answers to me using paper letters mailed through the conventional mail system, said "no".
In my own work, I find that the line between science and art often becomes blurred. Imagery is the heart of much of the work in my books. To help understand what is around us, we need eyes to see it. Computers with graphics can be used to produce visual representations with a myriad of perspectives, many of which are beautiful to the eye. In many cases, the computer graphics, and scientific visualizations, function like a stain applied to a wood grain to bring out and highlight hidden structures. In my personal opinion, anything that moves me emotionally is art, and I do believe the computer is a tool for producing art. I do believe that beautifully-rendered fractals can be art.
We live in an age where there is increasing interplay between scientific and artistic disciplines. In the early 21st Century, I believe that almost all advances in science and art will rely partly on the computer and advanced technology. Moreover, humans will not be able to rely on any one single field of knowledge to make significant advances.
Since their rapid growth following the Second World War, computers have changed the way we perform scientific research, conduct business, create art, and spend our leisure time. The computer has also changed our perception of visual art. From my own experience I have found that computer graphics is a powerful vehicle for artistic expression. The line between science and art has always been a fuzzy one; the two are fraternal philosophies formalized by ancient Greeks like Eratosthenes and Ictinus. Today, computer graphics helps reunite these philosophies by providing scientific ways to represent natural, mathematical, and artistic objects. Computer graphics representations of the behavior of certain mathematical processes has revealed a surprising variety of beautiful, and sometimes unpredictable, patterns and surfaces. Many attractive patterns are graphical representation of intricate curves called fractals.
If Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were alive today, would he give up his canvas, oil paints, and brush for a computer terminal? What about Lenoardo da Vinci (1452-1519)? Even if they could not obtain funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Endowment for the Arts, they could -- with just a personal computer -- create, manipulate, and store fairly sophisticated art works. Colors could be mixed and chosen from a palate of millions of different hues. Screen resolution could emulate the grit of the canvas. Their colleagues from around the world could receive their images over their phone lines for their comment and collaboration. Probably Leonardo would spend a large amount of his time inventing entirely new computer input devices to substitute for today's standard mouse -- such as hand exoskeletons sold by several manufactures. These devices would allow them to precisely emulate his own masterful brush stokes, the viscosity and drip of wet paint, or a chisel chipping away at an imaginary chunk of shiny marble. Within the next decade, personal computers will feature hands-on manipulation of computer-generated images along with tactile sensations and force feedback. Artists such as Leonardo will work within an artificial reality, where computer sensors measure the position of the head, and track eye and hand movements. Voice recognition programs will allow Leonardo to make voice requests, and special goggles will allow him to peer into colorful new worlds limited only by computers, and the imagination.
What is art? The answer is difficult. Marcel Duchamp, the French Surrealist, once labeled as "art" a defaced poster of the Mona Lisa, a big battered bottle rack, and a mass produced urinal. I think most people would consider a beautifully rendered, carefully-colored fractal pattern more of an artwork than a urinal. On the other hand, computer art does have its limitations. Patrick Hanrahan of Princeton University once noted that 90 to 95 percent of the pictures you see as photographs can't even be simulated on a computer screen.
Dr. P. W. Atkins from Lincoln College in Oxford has eloquently expressed an opinion on the topic of fractal art:
"Fractal images are incomplete art, of course, since they are abstract and not culturally rooted."
But he also notes that:
"I wonder whether fractal images are not touching the very structure of our brains. Is there a clue in the infinitely regressing character of such images that illuminates our perception of art? Could it be that a fractal image is of such extraordinary richness, that it is bound to resonate with our neuronal circuits and stimulate the pleasure I infer we all feel."
I conclude by adding my voice to the chorus of others which are suggesting there is only a fine line between science and art. Sven G. Carlson in his letter to Science News says it well:
"Art and science will eventually be seen to be as closely connected as arms to the body. Both are vital elements of order and its discovery. The word 'art' derives from the Indo-European base 'ar', meaning to join or fit together. In this sense, science, in the attempt to learn how and why things fit, becomes art. And when art is seen as the ability to do, make, apply or portray in a way that withstands the test of time, its connection with science becomes more clear."
To Marney, who in my imagination is leaping by on a sleek stallion:
I'm not suggesting that artists and scientists are that different - in fact I am suggesting that scientists are more like artists - the stuff I said about falling in love with a piece of the universe...
Brian is an exceptionally open book. I haven't run accross anyone with quite his temperment before, in art history or in person.
All the best,
From: Doug Rushkoff
RE: BRIAN ENO'S - A BIG THEORY OF CULTURE
I love thinking of high art and low as an experiment in mutual world-creation - test runs of one another's dreamstates, future scenarios, or even interpretations of the past.
As someone who has been frequently teased for attempting to equate the validity of haircuts and high art in discussions of cultural theory, I empathize with your frustration and share in the quest for a universal language of art at least as comprehensive as the language of science. That's what my work has been about - whether it's using chaos math to understand fantasy role-playing, or fractals to understand a rave dance. But boy, the mathematicians and scientists sure hate hearing their language being bandied about on something other than applied math or science, no matter how well you might understand it.
Maybe the only language of art is a set of appropriated imagery and themes. It's always once removed from the original utilitarian function of the word or idea. Art is a meta-language.
So the quest for a unique language of art is ultimately futile, because art itself might already be the universal language of art.
In a sense, the language of art is the opposite of Darwin's language of survival and competition. Art provides commonality, communication, and world sharing. It's a ritualized form of compromise - you wrap your brain around my short story and I wrap my brain around your sonata. The recipient or auditor is in an act of surrender, or ritualized surrender to the artist. The ritual simply means that there is a prior agreement that nothing "real" will happen. Like break dancing or rap face-offs it's a conflict or competition avoidance. (Likewise, the artist using chaos or fractals in his work is less making an assertion or proving a theorem than asking us to "suppose" something.)
As you point out, wearing fashions is a form of role-playing; not utility, as in uniforms, but acting or symbolic play. So a civilian wearing army clothes down on Canal Street means something quite different than when a soldier is forced to fight in one. It's ironic, not functional. It's a "meta" wearing of army clothes. Army clothes as language or a symbolic system.
A verbal discussion of what it means to be wearing army clothes as a civilian on Canal St. would be a meta meta conversation. If, as Mondrian said, all art can eventually be reduced to the artist simply pointing at something and saying "this is art" (and your toilet example would certainly count as that) then it's these framings and reframings that matter more than anything else. If art is simply a framing or pointing, then this conversation is meta-art.
If, on the other hand, there is an intrinsic Golden-mean-like intrinsic value to individual works of art (which I tend to doubt there is, too) then these sorts of conversations would concern themselves more with weights and measures. It reminds me of the central divide in stock market analysis, where some brokers claim that you should buy stocks for their fundamentals, and others claim that the only thing that matters is their changing market value. It's easy for Warren Buffet to say that fundamentals like price-earnings ratios are more "real" than emotionally driven speculation, but you can earn a hell of a lot of real money betting on nothing other than the changing tastes of speculators.
So if art is an open exchange of cultural ideas and propositions, with valuations that move up and down according to popular taste, then it is, in itself, the universal language through which we both enact and analyze the collective postulating you suggest.
But for art truly to rise to this linguistic function, then haircuts must be seen as being potentially as communicative and resonant as Handel. There must be an absolutely freemarket of evaluations and exchange. And this is a much too frightfully populist and anti-elitist assumption for many to make. The illusion of intrinsic value keeps many art collectors invested, and many cultural institutions in business.
The competing genes of Darwinian-style evolution are based in intrinsic value and systems of survival; the competing memes of cultural evolution, or art, are based in market value and systems of sharing and exchange. The former is science: life or death. The latter is art and culture: meta. Survival of the fittest gene vs. replication of the coolest meme.
From: Pamela McCorduck
I think my good friend Jaron just forgot himself when he made the distinction between "rational" art and - what? Irrational art? Most of the influential artists I've been able to think of have been highly rational about their art (from the Greeks through the Renaissance though Cezanne and even, maybe especially, Marcel Duchamp).
The issue of whether computer images can be art misunderstands what art is. The short answer is, of course computer images can be art: many of them are not, even among the ones that aspire to it, but there's nothing in the medium that prevents art happening, any more than stone prevents art from happening, or oils prevent art from happening.
Brian Eno made a provocative talk when he presented the Turner Prize in 1995, where he suggested that artists take a look at the way scientists answer the questions they raise, as compared to the way artists answer the questions they raise. (If this was in your interview, I'm sorry-a software crash interfered with my full reading of Brian's remarks). This is one of the chewiest topics I've come across in a long time, and is well worth thinking about.
From: Lee Smolin
About the interview with Brian Eno and its threads: I like very much the spirit of Eno's conversation, I like the questions he asks. Perhaps since there were several comments about he similarities and differences between science and art I could say something about that, as I have a number of close friends who are artists and this is something we sometimes talk about. Certainly there is the same fascination with the world and trying to understand and represent it. And certainly there is the leading role of aesthetics in our considerations. This comes from a similar way of working in which one is concerned with three kinds of things: the practical craft aspect, because most of your time is spent doing and you have to do it as well as you possibly can to create something worthwhile, the collective aspect that everything you do takes place as part of an on going conversation within a community and, third, the transcendental part: that when your work is good it brings you into contact with an aspect of the natural world that that work may help us to better perceive. And the neat thing is that when your work is good you are in touch with all three of these levels at once.
But having said this, I think not enough was said about the differences between science and art. First, there are the very different situations in which we work; I think it takes much more personal courage to be a good artist than a good scientist. Then, I can mention one interesting thing which was said by Saint Clair Cemin, a sculptor who is also a good friend, in an interview in a recent catalogue of his. Saint Clair noted that science and art are very different because science strives to move from the particular to the general, whereas art is primarily concerned with the unique. For example, if I can use him as an example, Saint Clair has made three fountains that I know of, in Reston, Virginia, Sweden and New York City.
While I can see easily that each was made by Saint Clair, each one is in fact very different from the other, as indeed each is different from every other fountain in the world. Probably no one except perhaps other people who make fountains would be very interested in a general theory of fountains. While each one may suggest other fountains, or sculptures, or ideas in philosophy or science, the value of each one is in exactly what it is -- a fountain. And to the extent that each one refers in some way to other things in the world, including other fountains, it does so as a unique thing.
By contrast, a result in theoretical physics is of interest usually when it is general. No one is very interested in a result that says that once someone found an atom with a discrete spectrum. The interest of Bohr is that every atom has a spectrum, which can be computed from general rules. No one -- except a few historians -- is even very interested in the particular calculation that Bohr did that first showed that atoms have discrete spectra, for it is of interest exactly because it has been redone over and over again in many different ways, most of them better than how Bohr did it.
It is true that there is some emphasis recently on the role of the unique in theoretical physics. This is partly because of our recent interests in uncovering general laws for complex systems, and complex systems are those where the particulars matter. It is also arising for a related reason which is that the relational notion of space and time embodied in general relativity -- that we are trying to incorporate in quantum theory-requires that each place and moment be unique if we are even to talk meaningfully about space and time. So this perhaps brings us just a little bit closer to appreciating the spirit with which art values the uniqueness of the world. But I don't think it really bridges this very real gap between art and science.
So why do we make art and science? I don't know, but it certainly feels like these are very basic human things to do, they must have very deep roots in what it means to be a human being. I doubt we will understand the answer until we know the details of the history of how culture, language and human beings simultaneously evolved. But it is anyway fun to guess, and my guess is that the fun we have guessing is both deeply rooted in us and part of the answer to the question.
From: Pamela McCorduck
A COMMENT ON ENO
This is less a reply to Brian Eno than an endorsement of nearly every word he says. Brian and I have found ourselves drawn to some of the same issues in science: we are both fascinated by complex adaptive systems, and we both wonder how that language can be adapted to understand art ¤ or in Brian's case, all of culture.
When I first went to the Santa Fe Institute and discovered complex adaptive systems, I'd just published a book, Aaron's Code, about an intelligent computer program called Aaron that makes drawings (and now paintings) autonomously. Now I would call Aaron a complex adaptive system. I was devastated to realize that if I'd had the vocabulary that complex adaptive systems offers me, I'd have had a much better way of describing Aaron and why it's important.
Brian says culture can be dangerous. Here's an example. Last week I gave a talk at the Chicago Art Institute about the tension between conserving indigenous artistic traditions (in particular, the Indian and Hispanic traditions of the southwestern United States) and permitting them to go where they will in a kind of Darwinian struggle. The tension arises because both these traditions are in danger of being swamped by the dominant culture, yet each represents a way of knowing, of being in the world, that is different from what we in the dominant culture know, and surely has value for that alone. It may have other values besides. Thus gatekeepers and custodians arise who want to preserve them by shoving both traditions into an artistic deep-freeze, effectively killing them as sure as if they were swamped.
You can immediately see the parallels between preserving cultural diversity and preserving biodiversity, and this is what I wanted to wrestle with. The language I used at the Art Institute was scientific, not art-crit, which I keep failing to understand.
Brian and I had already exchanged email about the parallels between art and an economy, something we'd come to independently. I saw the parallels all right, especially in terms of confidence, as he speaks about in this interview, but I fretted about con-men in art. Brian lifted a burden by reminding me that con-men, who operate in an economy by abusing people's confidence, probably exist in art too ¤ but it's okay, because the value of art finally is the value we confer upon it, which returns the responsibility to us as individuals to sort out the valuable from the not valuable.
I wanted to make some comments regarding the recent feature on Brian Eno and the reactions to it posted on the website at Third Culture.
I read the comments on Eno's talk with great interest. In a way I find it heartening that when scientists wander from their field of specialisation, they are as likely to talk turkey as the rest of us. (No doubt some readers will think the following a good example of the principle working in reverse!) In fact, it is very surprising that Eno's talk elicited such a positive reaction from scientists, given that the essence of what he argues opposes the established methodologies and priorities of modern scientific practice itself. How else are we to interpret the phrase:
It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning...
other than as a challenge to scientific objectivity and procedure? -- as Stuart Hameroff notes. But it doesn't make much sense, then, to analyse art from the Planck scale, and it's uncertain as to what the catch-all phrase "we confer value through our conscious experience" actually means. How we confer value, and all the social implications tangled up with that ¤ now that's where art comes in to comment. One of the main points that art makes in this field is that particular forms of knowledge are generated by particular strategies. (To steal a phrase from McLuhan "The medium is the message") Rushkoff's economics is a case in point: an example of dubious procedure in assessing value, driven by a tidy (one might almost say "beautiful," therefore) capitalist theory/metaphor. It is a universal, a total theory, so of course it must be right... That there could actually be such a thing as a "universal language of art" is a painful enough thought, but then to find out that this is actually science...!!
So when Eno talks about science, art and history in the light of "new cultural thinking," he is being misinterpreted on a number of levels; the implications of what he is saying aren't being picked up. He rehearses what is the standard post modernist position, an approach which has dominated artistic theory and practice for a long time now, and which I think offers a thorough critique of the simplistic notion that science = knowledge, or at least the only legitimate form of "usable" knowledge applied to the world. In art we might trace the beginnings of post modernism back to Duchamp, and of course it enshrines both subjectivism and relativism. In critical theory, we might trace it back to Adorno and Horkheimer, who wrote in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" : "to the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion..." Such "sophistication" reduces the multiplicity of forms or types of things found in nature to one quantifying method. By contrast, post-modern thinking eschews the hegemonies of fundamental law in favour of a more mobile and occasional concept of worth, and insists on the plurality of values, experience and things. Imagine if scientific experiment were conducted in this way!
The differences in approach embodied in the two attitudes are enormous. Duchamp famously said (in between games of chess) that the spectator completes the work of art. The subjective process whereby the art is thus also "created" by the spectator has an interesting relation to the study of epistemology and the observer/participant problem. (This is where procedure and method crop up again). It is a conceptual process which belongs to the realm of ideas, language and mental and visual sensation. This is not platonism. An idea is a brain event, but it is also expressed ¤ thus having a discrete symbolic/linguistic or representational existence, depending on the context. As such it is dialectical to the "gross materiality" of a science which strips back to primary and secondary qualities in search of essence and law.
In strictly scientific terms this may be an acceptable procedure, but the problems start when we touch upon issues -- such as the nature of consciousness, for example -- which have social implications. It is important to assert therefore, that the definition of consciousness cannot simply be left to science. There are other factors in what we understand as the construction of knowledge and truth to consider. For instance: to argue like Steven Pinker and others that "the mind is a system of organs of computability," and that computability explains consciousness, is to draw an analogy. (That is, it has as much to do with language as anything else. As Arthur C. Danto puts it, "in some senses neurophilosophy is a programme of linguistic reform.") This analogy arises from experiment and observation, but also from the particular set of situations and society Steven Pinker finds himself in. Thus to understand why science develops as it does, as Thomas Kuhn put it, one needs also to understand "the manner in which a particular set of shared values interacts with the particular experiences shared by a community of specialists to ensure that most members of the group will ultimately find one set of arguments rather than another decisive." Pursued in this vein, Eno's new cultural thinking offers an implicit critique of the deterministic or one-track methodologies adopted in the scientific approach to the question of knowledge definition.
Even so, as John Brockman noted, the dialogue between science and art is becoming increasingly fertile. Indeed, its hard to find an artist these days whose work does not make some reference to the issues at stake. A mutual admiration and fascination cross-pollinates. But this does not mean -- as some might think -- that art can be co-opted to science, that it has been explained by science, or that it should adopt scientific protocols. For example: mathematical strategies can yield interesting art, as in computers, fractals and so on, but to limit oneself to such formal procedures is hardly ambitious. Art is also done with the body as well as with the brain, but wherever it occurs it is always gesture, expression. Even conceptual art is gesture in the mind of the spectator, which is why it has close affinities with Zen Haiku and the notion of satori.
But isn't there a deeper level which links the two disciplines? In this respect it is "curious" that Jason Lanier should argue that curiosity is irrational -- for example Voltaire, who wrote a lot on the subject certainly disagreed, and it seems obvious to me at least that curiosity confers enormous evolutionary advantages (and may even be linked to the Baldwin effect). But Voltaire, philosopher and social observer that he was, was also able to pinpoint the comic downside to this, our incurable virtue/vice, the curiosity-killed-the-cat. He writes (as quoted by Joseph Kosuth in his installation "The Ethical Space of Cabinets" in the Bodleian Library):
The traveller was stirred with pity for the little human race... "tell me, I pray, how you employ yourselves". "We dissect flies," answered the philosopher, "we measure lines, we gather mathematical data. We agree on the two or three points we understand, and we argue about the two or three thousand we do not"... (Micromegas).
In any case, falling in love with quasars (or with Eno for that matter) may feel irrational, but its there for a very good and productive reason. Curiosity is basic to the process of investigation and it is this obsession which unites artists and scientists. Einstein once said: "I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious."
But we shouldn't take everything at face value. Einstein also said: "After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well." Here Einstein is talking about intuition, imagination and concept, the "leap" of understanding which results in discovery. As a general statement about some aspects of creative thinking it rings true, but as a comment on the true relation between science and art it is misleading. It leads us to ignore the distinction between theory making and evidence testing in science, and the empirical value structure implicit in the critical and absolute relation between the two. That is, it ignores art as practice and science as practice.
By contrast, it seems to me that where art and science differ most greatly is precisely in the question of aesthetics. After all, the history of art is a progression of form multiplication whereas the history of science -- as in "mathesis universalis" -- is one of form reduction. Example: in a recent talk on quantum physics Fay Dowker (from Imperial college, London), characterised a certain quantum model as "ugly". When asked as to what constituted a beautiful or elegant theory, she indicated that it had to do with neatness, symmetry and efficiency. These are hardly universal criteria by which to judge art or to form an aesthetic.
Lastly, there's the question of politics. The American artist Mark Dion puts it this way: "It wasn't until I began reading a lot of nature writing and scientific journalism that I stumbled onto S J Gould, who opened up a huge window for me. Here was someone applying the same critical criterion implicit in the art I wanted to make -- which can loosely be described as Foucaultian -- to problems in the reception of evolutionary biology. It became very clear to me that nature is one of the most sophisticated arenas for the production of ideology. Once I realised that, the walls between my two worlds (art and science) dissolved." The increasing engagement that artists have with science arises both out of an admiration for its discoveries and technical proficiency, and out of the philosophical, social and political necessity to contest the meanings and uses of the knowledge science generates. In fact such an engagement had been predicted by Wordsworth two hundred years ago:
If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science... he will be by his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.
As for art, there are I think huge difficulties in subjecting it to scientific analysis. Perhaps Robert Musil put it best: "For us, art is that which we find under this name: something which simply is, and which doesn't need to conform to laws in order to exist; a complicated social product."
MARC LAMBERT is the programmer of events and conferences at The Fruitmarket Gallery, one of Britain's best-known contemporary art spaces.
| Home | About Edge| Features | Edge Editions | Press | Reality Club | Third Culture | Digerati | Edge:Feed | Edge Search |
| Top |