We have scientists on the arts, but where are the artists on science?
C.P. Snow, the novelist and chemist, once wrote about the two cultures: one being the scientists, the other being intellectuals, those who wrote for a wide audience in general-interest publications like Raritan and The New Criterion. He said there was too much of a divide between them. They didn’t know how to talk to each other. And this divide is what characterizes the life of the mind in the West.
In his view, the scientists were going to stay the same, that is, set on their course. So it was up to the intellectuals — the historians, novelists, poets, journalists, policy writers — to relate to the rest of the world what scientists were doing, why, and why it mattered. These would make up what he called The Third Culture.
That was in 1959. The idea never took off.
That’s partly due, I think, to the fact that traditional intellectuals, those who work in academe, especially English departments (where I spent some time way back when), turned inward. Pressured by academic standards like “publish or perish,” fueled by a huge expansion of the American and European university, and in thrall to intellectual orthodoxies originating from Continental Europe (Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Adorno, Habermas, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on), they increasingly talked to themselves and not to everyone else.
Meanwhile, scientists have made their way into territory that used to belong to Snow’s intellectuals. Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman, and Steven Pinker — these are just a few of the scientists, researchers, and doctors who have incredible careers but who also are terrific writers with a lot to say to everyone who is not as intimate, or even remotely versed, in their respective disciplines. They write and they write well. And sometimes they write about the arts, especially that intersection where the arts and the scientific fields of mind messily come together.
For instance, Oliver Sacks’ latest book is about music (Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain). There’s a group called the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. There are many journals dedicated to exploring this new and fertile terrain: PsyArt, The Arts and Psychotherapy, Empirical Studies of the Arts, and so on.
But you don’t see artists, or literary intellectuals for that matter, talking about science the way that scientists talk about the arts. You don’t see them trying to understand what they do given what we now know about the mind, about human behavior, about how we constitute our societies, about the universe.
And it’s not just scientists writing about the arts as scientists. For many years, they have also engaged in them. You have scientists who write novels (e.g., Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams). You have medical scholars and researchers writing poetry (a local example is MUSC’s literary journal, Humanitas).
Artists do reach out but not with equal volume, probity, and cultural impact. These exceptions so far undermine the rule. They are far from proving it.
Suzanne Anker, chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, co-curated a 2006 exhibit called Neuroculture: Visual Art and the Brain. And Adrienne Klein, co-director of the Science & the Arts Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, created a video installation called Mind’s Eye in 1998 that taps into the flow-chart nature of human thought.
How about more conversations like this one? SEED magazine this month asked Tom Wolfe, the novelist and journalist, to interview Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience. You can see a video of the discussion here.
Perhaps the most exciting event to characterize this cross-pollination was in Iceland in May. There, in what was called an “experiment marathon,” part of the Reykjavík Arts Festival, dozens of artists and scientists discussed topics “as diverse as sleep patterns, wind currents, and how we laugh, stepped to a small stage,” according to the Boston Globe.
Later, one artist, Halldór Úlfarsson, would describe the wider world of artistic abstractionists like this: “It’s a kind of think pot where stuff happens. And once in a while, out of that, something grows that people connect with better.”
What can be said about this on a local level? How can artists better understand their role in the psychological and cognitive experience of everyday people? If we are only beginning to understand the human mind, doesn’t it follow that artists, who have so much insight into the human mind, should be a part of that discussion? Wouldn’t artists have a lot to say to scientists of the brain and philosophers of the mind?
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