Time to share a little nugget of how my brain works: When anyone understands anything it usually looks like this, A->B->C…. Things follow one from the other in often well established patterns. That’s a good thing. But what artists (and creative folks in general) add to that is an ability to connect unfamiliar dots. Sometimes curiosity leads us to uncover hidden connections and even to invent new meanings. Sometimes A->K->578. You have to be willing to look at familiar things and ask yourself what other things can be learned from them. What else besides the same old same old are they connected to? Where have we assumed too much? Where are the established connections weaker than we imagine? What exactly are we taking for granted?
So I am always reading new things, not just to have new truths explained to me, but sometimes also to see where these insights unexpectedly lead me. If one new thing is true, how does its truth reflect on other established truths? Do they still fit together in the same comfortable ways? Or is that new insight enough to make me question some of the things I took for granted?
I’ve always been a dissenting voice in debates that assume ‘Art’ is some one thing, a sort of natural category, and that because of this objective quality some specific things are more art than others. These arguments are often used to say that things like pottery and jewelry are lesser forms of art if they are art at all. Its the centerpiece of the establishment’s war to divide out the ‘crafty’ things from the ‘real art’. In my mind this has always been a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art and of the role that the word ‘art’ plays.
So the other day I was wandering around in a new publication by some very smart folks talking about change in the sciences, and I couldn’t help but think of how it relates to the arts. As I so often do, my first thought was to run some of my speculation by others in the arts field, possibly get their feedback, and at least also direct their attention to issues they may be interested in. I wrote the following to one of the folks I sometimes exchange ideas with, and it seems worth sharing with you all as well. I am looking forward to any response he may have, but I am interested in ALL responses that look at the issues candidly. ‘A’ doesn’t just or always lead to ‘B’, so certain habits will sometimes need to be broken for new ways of thinking to bear fruit….
Here’s what I said:
Ahoy again Ian!
I know how tremendously busy you are, so I expect no real feed back. No worries on that score!
But from our shared interest in so many of these arts related themes I can only imagine that if I throw the right pitch you will knock something out of the park. It gives me confidence that I can bounce some ideas your way, and if they look interesting you might take a swing, if not there are countless balls that pass you by every day, though I’d bet not too many strikes….
So here I am with another tangent to something you’ve written, typically off the wall, but the strangeness of the dots I connect doesn’t always mean they should not be connected…..
I was just delving onto the latest Edge publication, This Idea Must Die, and I saw some wonderful parallels to issues in the arts field. Thankfully they posted each of the essays on their website, and perhaps even you’ve already read some of them. Its fascinating stuff, and this installment was focused around the idea that certain ideas in science have outlived their usefulness. The proposal was phrased thus:
“As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals.”
This would seem to have implications for ideas in the arts field as well, and perhaps even shed light on the nature of change in the arts field itself. But that was not why I was eager to throw you another pitch. Among the essays discussing options for retirement were three that held my particular interest. Two were concerned with how the idea of ‘culture’ is outdated for scientific purposes, and the third examines the default explanation why things like ‘culture’ even form the basis of scientific investigation. But culture wasn’t the spin I was interested in. Rather, the same exact cases could be made for the term ‘Art’. That seems like the sort of curve ball that would at least potentially appeal to you.
In your last blog post you mention that the definition of art in the surveys transitioned from more limited orthodoxy to the wider inclusiveness that proponents of participatory engagement find interesting. It simply seems that no one knows what we really mean by ‘art’ or that the ones who do admit to knowing disagree with everyone else who does. Is the idea of a specific thing called ‘art’ ready for retirement?
I’ll give you some of the arguments the authors used for dissecting ‘culture’. If you substitute ‘art’ and the art relevant attributes you can perhaps easily see why these essays fascinated me. Here are some of the quotes:
Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that does not mean that we can have a science of trees. Having some rough notion of ‘tree’ is useful for snakes that lurk and fall on their prey, for birds that build nests, for humans trying to escape from rabid dogs, and of course for landscape designers. But the notion is of no use to scientists. There is nothing much to find out, e.g. to explain growth, reproduction, evolution, that would apply to all and only those things human and snakes and birds think of as ‘trees’. Nothing much that would apply to both pines and oaks, to both baobabs and monstrous herbs like the banana tree.
Why do we think there is such a thing as culture? Like ‘tree’, it is a pretty convenient term. We use it to designate all sorts of things we feel need a general term, like the enormous amount of information that humans acquire from other humans, or the set of idiosyncratic concepts or norms we find in some human groups but not others. There is no evidence that either of these domains corresponds to a proper set of things that science could study and about which it could offer general hypotheses or describe mechanisms.
Is the idea of culture really a Bad Thing? Yes, a belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups—what ought to be the domain of social sciences.
First, if you believe that there is such a thing as ‘culture’, you naturally tend to think that it is a special domain of reality with its own laws. But it turns out that you cannot find the unifying causal principles (because there aren’t any). So you marvel at the many-splendored variety and diversity of culture. But culture is splendidly diverse only because it is not a domain at all, just like there is a marvelous variety in the domain of white objects or in the domain of people younger than Socrates.
Third, if you believe in culture you end up believing in magic. You will say that some people behave in a particular way because of “Chinese culture” or “Muslim culture”. In other words you will be trying to explain material phenomena— representations and behaviors—in terms of a non-material entity, a statistical fact about similarity. But a similarity does not cause anything. What causes behaviors are mental states.
Some of us aim to contribute to a natural science of human beings as they interact and form groups. We have no need for that social scientific equivalent of phlogiston, the notion of culture.
(Pascal Boyer: https://edge.org/response-detail/25388)
Worst of all, the flow of discoveries and better theories through institutional choke points is clogged by ideas that are so muddled that they are—in Paul Dirac’s telling phrase—not even wrong. Two of the worst offenders are learning, and its partner in crime, culture, a pair of deeply established, infectiously misleading, yet (seemingly) self-evidently true theories.
What alternative to them could there be except an easily falsified, robotic genetic determinism?
Yet countless obviously true scientific beliefs have had to be discarded—a stationary earth, (absolute) space, the solidity of objects, no action at a distance, etc. Like these others, learning and culture seem so compelling because they map closely to automatic, built-in features of how our minds evolved to interpret the world (e.g., learning is a built-in concept in the theory of mind system). But learning and culture are not scientific explanations for anything. Instead, they are phenomena that themselves require explanation.
All “learning” operationally means is that something about the organism’s interaction with the environment caused a change in the information states of the brain, by mechanisms unexplained. All “culture” means is that some information states in one person’s brain somehow cause, by mechanisms unexplained, “similar” information states to be reconstructed in another’s brain. The assumption is that because supposed instances of “culture” (or equally, “learning”) are referred to with the same name, they are the same kind of thing. Instead, each masks an enormous array of thoroughly dissimilar things. Attempting to construct a science built around culture (or learning) as a unitary concept is as misguided as attempting to develop a robust science of white things (egg shells, clouds, O-type stars, Pat Boone, human scleras, bones, first generation MacBooks, dandelion sap, lilies…).
Consider buildings and the things that allow them to influence each other: roads, power lines, water lines, sewage lines, mail, roads, phone landlines, sound, wireless phone service, cable, insect vectors, cats, rodents, termites, dog to dog barking, fire spread, odors, line of sight communication with neighbors, cars and delivery trucks, trash service, door to door salesmen, heating oil delivery, and so on. A science whose core concept was building-to-building influence (“building-culture”) would be largely gibberish, just as our “science” of culture as person to person influence has turned out to be.(John Tooby: https://edge.org/response-detail/25343).
And this from Richard Dawkins detailing another misuse of labeling:
Paleontologists will argue passionately about whether a particular fossil is, say, Australopithecus or Homo.But any evolutionist knows there must have existed individuals who were exactly intermediate. It’s essentialist folly to insist on the necessity of shoehorning your fossil into one genus or the other. There never was an Australopithecus mother who gave birth to a Homo child, for every child ever born belonged to the same species as its mother. The whole system of labelling species with discontinuous names is geared to a time slice, the present, in which ancestors have been conveniently expunged from our awareness (and “ring species” tactfully ignored). If by some miracle every ancestor were preserved as a fossil, discontinuous naming would be impossible. Creationists are misguidedly fond of citing “gaps” as embarrassing for evolutionists, but gaps are a fortuitous boon for taxonomists who, with good reason, want to give species discrete names. Quarrelling about whether a fossil is “really” Australopithecus or Homo is like quarreling over whether George should be called “tall”. He’s five foot ten, doesn’t that tell you what you need to know?(Richard Dawkins: https://edge.org/response-detail/25366)
This seems like a pitch you’d possibly take a swing at, but if you decline I won’t take it personally. Its not only interest that prevents us from getting to all the projects we can otherwise act on. If you do know of other people who would be candidates to tackle this I’d be delighted if you passed it on to them, regardless of you taking a swing yourself or not. I talk about the Wittgensteinian notion of family resemblances as a proper response to essentialist propaganda when these issues crop up, and it was fascinating to hear these authors tease out other failings. At the very least folks in the sciences are talking about the limitations of our concepts. I just hope that folks in the arts field are not too far behind…….