Arts News: July 2008 Archives

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?
July 30, 2008 7:45 AM | | Comments (7)
So does your mom, according to this study by Statistics Canada, which surveyed how nearly 10,000 Canadians aged 15 and over spend their leisure time. Your mom's level of education has more impact on you and your siblings than your father's level of education. In general, the more money you make and the more education you have, the more things you do culturally. But the type of job you have -- say one, like journalism, that doesn't pay all that much, relatively speaking, but immerses you in people, organizations, and culture -- also has an impact on your cultural menu. The report found that:
... someone working in management, business, finance or administration was 8.8 per cent more likely to attend a theatrical performance than someone unemployed or in a job related to primary industry or manufacturing. Those whose parents had advanced education, such as a university degree, were much more likely than those whose parents with lower education to attend most cultural activities. Mom's education had more of an impact than did dad's schooling, according to the report. For those in a romantic relationship, their partner's education had an even greater effect than their mother's schooling on their likelihood of participating in cultural activities. But factor in a kid or two and the time they spent going out declined, the study found.
This news is pretty much intuitive, but I find a few things interesting. One is that the survey looks at people ages 15 and older, providing some insight, however oblique, into the behavior patterns of youth culture. Another is that the report lends credence to the growing theory that the arts need to target more precisely young professionals, those with advanced degrees and gainful employment but who have not settled down to raise a family. There are so many different ways of making money from dating -- It's Just Lunch, for instance -- it seems arts organizations have a lot to look into. The Canadian survey also brings up a subject that's hard to bring up among the high earning and highly educated people that are the subject of this survey -- the role that mothers play in the acculturation of their children. Used to be that a child's cultural education started at home. Now, since the 1970s, the beginning of the current social structure of two people bringing home incomes to meet the demands that used to be met by one income, a child's cultural education is more likely to begin at school. This is a shift that should get more discussion among those of us involved in the arts and those of us observing those involved in the arts. Problem is, the role of women remains politically charged, what with the ascendancy, since the Reagan Administration, of the pernicious "family values" orthodoxy. It would be difficult to have a mature conversation about it.
July 30, 2008 7:12 AM | | Comments (1)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Arts News category from July 2008.

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