Sunday, October 19, 2014

[Yasmin_discussions] Why does art-science matter?

Yesterday on National Public Radio I heard talk of an atheist church movement called Sunday Assembly — a gathering to share fellowship in the spirit of humanitarian existence, to hep the disadvantaged, to welcome all types. It sounded a lot like conventional church, but refreshingly sans-supernatural. But what of the social reality that provides such an enterprise its uniqueness? What of the immense body of institutions on the other side of the equation, that embody and perpetuate the supernatural as the guiding force of the cosmos?

In a forum like Yasmin it makes sense to approach the subject under discussion from an academic and philosophical prospective, to speak of the supernatural in terms of the limits of science and the knowable. In those terms the postings have been welcomed, thoughtful and productive. But my struggle is that a debate over the limits of science, the theories and principles of indeterminacy, etc., will likely never reach the vast swaths of population whose existence is defined by a much more prosaic notion of the supernatural. For that majority, the supernatural is conceived as intervening surreptitiously and constantly, undetected by science and with an agenda, in all the minute affairs of the material and immaterial. The specifics of that intervention include virtually all causality throughout the universe and miraculous daily contradictions with known science, as well as the magical micro-management of the intellectual processes and emotional sensations of every living one of a particular primate species on planet Earth — and to that majority, this all makes perfect sense. This concept of the supernatural lacks only the belief in a geocentric solar system to distinguish it from virtually the same majority beliefs of a millennia ago. It is stunning.

Science is not very good at proselytizing — and can be forgiven, since that's not its bailiwick. In fact science is really very bad at it, and perhaps shudders some at its insiders who have broken through — the Sam Harris's and Richard Dawkin's. But proselytizing, in its laundered, metaphorical way, IS the bailiwick of art. And now art, in a rather remarkable spontaneous combustion over the last several years, has gone public in its partnership with science.

There was a time, not too long ago really, when art had a much cozier-than-now relationship with religion, and it was through art that the supernatural was provided a convincing appearance — a veracity in pictorial space that bled into real space and persuaded generation after generation that the cosmos was indeed administered by magic. Now art pairs with science, and so other than the novelty of these two seemingly disparate domains coming together, and the production of pretty lab pictures, I wonder what art-science can do that is original in order to, as it were, atone for its history of helping spread the meme of a universe saturated in the supernatural? What can art-science do to more proactively include in its inventory of critical meanings the awareness of a reality that is both sublime and non-supernatural, that will reach that massive audience in a way that science, by itself, cannot? In a hundred-fifty year lineage of moments when art has mattered paradigmatically, why or how will art-science matter?


Stephen Nowlin
Vice President
Director, Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery
Art Center College of Design
1700 Lida Street
Pasadena, CA 91103

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