Tuesday, October 28, 2014

[Yasmin_discussions] Achilles and Wolverine: feasts for the dogs and birds.

Dear Stephen,

What Einstein meant in saying "God does not play dice" is that there is no need for such notions as supernatural explanation and supernatural intervention in the universe. He meant much the same by his aphorism, "The Lord is subtle, but He is not malicious."

It's difficult to think of many things that manage to make a jump from one context to another without some kind of state change. Clement Greenberg's essay on kitsch describe one aspect of this problem. But he'd also have criticised much of the art-science enterprise as overly academic in comparison with his vision of avant-garde art as a purist enterprise uncontaminated by institutions.

It seems nearly impossible for something as remote from popular culture as art-science to serve any instrumental goals if the purpose of that instrumental use is to influence the larger population. In his posthumous book, Fractured Times, the late Eric Hobsbawm offers many examples of how different forms of culture underwent change as they made — or failed to make — the leap across the boundaries of social groups, nations, and cultures.

When I went to bed last night, I thought I'd fairly well said everything I had to say a few days back, so I did not respond to the interesting comments of Roger Malina and Danny Butt. Your added note today drew me back in. It got me to thinking on a slightly divergent question — the question is not whether art-science can be instrumental in social change, but whether this is even possible.

Based on the evidence of history, I think it highly unlikely that art-science can serve instrumental goals in a larger public context. Times have changed too much. It was possible for art to be instrumental in earlier cultures when art retold stories that were woven into the fabric of contemporary culture. When all members of a culture knew a specific myth, legend, or Bible narrative, they understood what they saw or heard as the representation — RE-presentation — of one or another well-known aspect of their world.

We think of The Iliad as a classic, and for us, it is one of the well-springs of Western literature. To the ancient Greeks, The Iliad was more like an action movie. The heroes, heroines, and their stories were something like the endless cycle of X-Men movies. Achilles was their Wolverine, a figure of dramatic complexity distinguished by towering rage and invincible fighting skills.

"Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds …"

But there is more to it than this. Everyone knew the stories, and loved to hear them told again, sung by the aiodos (bard) who brought them to life. This was a living tradition, though most scholars did not believe that anyone could memorise and sing a lengthy epic such as The Iliad until Milman Parry demonstrated through field work in the Balkans that a culture of sung epics could preserve and transmit such works. This is also visible in the tradition of those who memorise and chant the Koran.

Popular culture is what a people know, and it is a culture in the anthropological sense because it forms the framework of their being in the world. I can't imagine art-science making a dent in the beliefs or views of the Pentecostals and evangelicals that Robert Duvall brings to the screen in his 1997 film, The Apostle. What makes it such an interesting movie is the depth of cultural understanding with which Duvall portrays this world — even using real evangelicals to play roles depicting themselves and their culture. The world is filled with cultures, and people are embedded in them. It's difficult to see the role that critical thinking can play in the life of someone who takes the Bible as literal truth, even as formal truth. During one of those occasional debates on declaring English as the official, sole language of the United States, one Bible Belt politician argued in favour of English on the basis that English is the language of the Bible: "If the English language is good enough for Jesus," he said, "it's good enough for me."

Art is a way of knowing, but that statement can't be expanded to the statement that "art is a form of scholarship." There are many ways of knowing. Scholarship, science, and research are subsets of the many ways of knowing. Cultures are ways of knowing. Artisan craft traditions are ways of knowing — cooking, sports, martial arts, carpentry. We don't describe a master chef as a culinary scholar. A great chef is a master — a chef de cuisine. Picasso was not a scholar and he did no research. "Others seek," he said of himself, "I find."

Art-science is an odd phenomenon. Is art-science a nascent art movement with the programmatic goals that a word like "movement" implies, or is it a group of people in a loose context trying to move something new forward. I find myself wondering from time to time about the proportions of research, scholarship, and artistry that ought to go into the making of art-science. But on further reflection, I am convinced that art-science should not be instrumental.

Russian Constructivists wanted to change the world. They failed. The Pop Artists did not want to change the world, but rather to reflect it. They succeeded. Both groups did well as artists — neither group did much to change the cultures in which the lives of most people are embedded. To instrumentalise art-science won't change the world around us. It will merely deflect us from the free exploration that makes art-science interesting.


Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Elsevier in Cooperation with Tongji University Press | Launching in 2015

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia ||| Adjunct Professor | School of Creative Arts | James Cook University | Townsville, Australia ||| Visiting Professor | UTS Business School | University of Technology Sydney University | Sydney, Australia

Email ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com | Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I http://tjdi.tongji.edu.cn


On 2014Oct29, at 06:44, Stephen Nowlin <stephen.nowlin@artcenter.edu> wrote:


> I am not an academic scholar (although I do think, as Roger cited in his reference to the landmark Exploratorium conference, that 'art is a way of knowing' can be expanded to 'art is a form of scholarship'). So my ability to contribute to the strictly academic perspective on the subject is limited other than to say I agree: it makes sense to allow that the workings of the cosmos could be different than what is currently implied (or dogmatized) by that which we already know about it.


> As I've mentioned before, I think the word 'supernatural' cannot be retrofitted or reinvented to apply to a sophisticated concept of the limits of knowledge. It's baggage is too great, and to the extent that the academic community continues to appease as legitimate an otherwise fine concept (open-mindedness) in the vicinity of a corrupt concept (supernatural) that, inevitably, leaks into popular culture without the protective nuance of academic context (as the perennially damaging "God doesn't play dice with the universe" is a stereotypical example), it does injury to the cause of critical thinking and to the possibility that world culture (the unwashed non-academic masses) may someday evolve into a force that views evidence-based science as a better basis for informed social and personal behavior than it does the hocus-pocus of the disproportionately influential but prosaic form of 'supernatural.' I think art-science has a role to play in this, and especially the writing about art-science — which will ultimately amplify its practice, as is the case with all nascent art movements, with a history of meaning.
> Instrumentalization? I don't think so -- no more than one could claim the flattening of illusionistic space by the Russian Constructivists or the exaltation of the ordinary by Pop Art were less than aesthetic achievements because their resonance was in social change.


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