Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flyover on a Roll: Science and Art

All of a sudden, there are lots of fascinating posts appearing on Flyover, this one entitled "We have scientists on the arts, but where are the artists on science?" In this post, which starts with C. P. Snow's 1959 essay "The Two Cultures," which discussed the chasm opening between scientists and humanists, there is some talk about how artists have avoided discussing science, and cognitive science in particular. While I can point to a variety of plays such as Copenhagen that belie the argument, nevertheless the question is a good one. I'd just like to say that I wrote about neuroscience in my post, "On Dopamine, Proust, and New Plays," so I'm off the hook! Anyway, overall I think the question being raised is about a certain narrow focus to artists, a lack of interest in engaging in other areas of intellectual work.
   I'd like to bend that off to the left a bit by asking my artist-readers this: do you consider yourself as an artist to be an intellectual? In other words, do you feel as if artists should be part of the Great Conversation of the Western Intellectual Tradition that Mortimer Adler most prominently discussed? Philosopher Kenneth Burke wrote in his book The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“Where does the drama get its materials? From the "unending conversation" that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

Do you consider the arts part of that unending conversation? Do you consider yourself as an artist part of it? Is that conversation still ongoing, and is it relevant? And who are some of the speakers right now?
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Theater of Ideas said...

I friend alerted me to your post/you blog. I apologize, by the way--my blog has a similar name, unwittingly. In my defense, I have been using the term a Theater of Ideas for my theater company for years.

Anyway, I responded on Flyover, but I though I might as well repeat what I said here:

I have been investigating science, through the arts, for years, especially cognitive science. In fact, my theater company, Untitled Theater Co. #61 (which we term a Theater of Ideas) ran a theater festival on just that subject: the NEUROfest. We performed in New York, and most recently had a performance in Chicago as part of the AAN national meeting.

I also am the recipient of a Sloan Grant for my play about my grandfather, who discovered the Rh factor in blood (a play called Doctors Jane and Alexander). As you may know, the Sloan Foundation, through a few different theaters (Ensemble Studio Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, etc), has been handing out grants for people to write on the subject.

I plan a second NEUROfest at some point, and we have continued to present works on science, at my theater company--we produced a piece called Brains and Puppets in February (which addressed autism and synesthesia) and just produced a reading of the aforementioned Doctors Jane and Alexander, which we will be doing a full production of in May.

I am far from the only practitioner, though one of the few, I think, to make it one of my main focuses. But when creating the festival, I found a surprisingly large amount of work out there. you just have to look.

Art said...

From Plato's Apology, (which, interestingly enough, is the first book in Adler's Ten Year Reading Plan):

When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are.

Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them - thinking that they would teach me something.

Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.

So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

Alexis said...

There has actually been a huge increase in the number of theater artists tackling the sciences in recent years. I've written a couple of articles on the subject. One, 'Avoiding Explanation: Experimenting with Science in Theatre,' which focuses on the Sloan/EST program that has been around for many years now, can be read here

I've also got a number of links and things on my site relating to Science & Art crossover (sorry, some of the links need updating):

More and more it seems that scientists and artists are starting to realize the similar impulses and intuitions that drive their work. And artists absolutely have the potential to be intellectuals, just as scientists do. What I would caution against is taking it for granted that scientists are intellectuals.

Nick Keenan said...

Yeah, I really don't know where the idea that artists aren't engaging with science is coming from. As a sound designer, I can think of literally no show in the past four years that I have worked on where I didn't in some way take into account either brain chemistry, psychoacoustic effects, or be inspired or driven to work in some way by what I was learning from scientific fields. I am a humanist, to be sure, but for me that is entirely compatible with a drive for a scientific understanding of the universe.

Not to self-promote, but it's apropos... My theater company New Leaf made the choice to put on Toni Press-Coffman's play Touch this season largely because of how the play humanizes an astronomer and his research in very personal terms. Like, god, every piece of art, it explores one side of how an understanding of the universe can affect our lives in real ways, and one of the reasons I'm so in love with the play is that the exploration of science is ultimately liberating and empowering for the still flawed or at least complex human beings in the play.

Is the criticism here that artists aren't engaging as vocally as we could with science as a field? Or that certain scientific fields aren't being explored by artists as deeply as they could be? Or that we aren't talking about doing it while we do it?

Isn't the idea to bridge the gap between science and humanity in an organic way? My concern is that the really good work that mixes art and and an understanding of science - which is almost any kind of fine art or design work, really - marries the two into a cohesive whole, and only certain plays, like Copenhagen, find a whole in presenting the interplay between humanism and science as antagonistic forces. That puts "the arts" and "the sciences" into a contrast that is sometimes appropriate, but more often than not I see them as two sides of the same coin - an intellectual and emotional exploration of our universe.