Saturday, December 31, 2016

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] serious discussion of STEAM

Dear Yasminers,

I agree with Glenn's observation that great Euro-ethnic art of previous centuries has reflected a sympathetic dialogue between medium and creator, and that's the path I pursued originally when following my father's footsteps as an oil painter. Yet it's a luxury I had to abandon once I turned to new media, because there simply is no single medium for a given piece. A video installation by Pipilotti Rist or Nam June Paik changes its monitors, decks, and even video standards when it travels from Chicago to Hamburg to Seoul. Internet artists get used to having their art look different in Firefox versus IE, on Mac versus Windows, on a 4k screens or an iPad. I once conducted a study to see how many times a typical computer-based installation changed over a year and a half, and the answer was 22. [1]

Art can still depend on material properties [2], but the work is neither an experience wedded to particular atoms nor is it a platonic concept transferred from the artist to the viewer through the vehicle of the work. Rather, in the age of variable media, an artwork consists of the successive triangulation of its various material substrates with experiences it has produced in viewers over time.

This is not due to a preoccupation with the new and shiny, but a fundamental dynamic of keeping art alive—one that has prehistorical roots in the earliest artmaking. [3] I see this as an advantage rather than limitation. For example, the variable media approach requires artists to adopt a fluidity of practice closer to that of scientists, because it values ongoing investigation rather than unchanging products hung on the wall or set on a pedestal.

Speaking of ongoing investigations versus unchanging products, I don't think we'll get very far in the attempt to establish similarities between art and science by scrutinizing their end products. With a couple of exceptions, every science textbook I've seen presents established theories in a manner without any resemblance to how they were actually discovered. Science proceeds not by tidy summaries or efficient deductions, but by puzzlement (Einstein), distraction (Archimedes), irreverence (Feinman), recalcitrance (Avogadro), accident (Fleming), and serendipity (Penzias and Wilson).

In particular, as much as we might prefer our science free of metaphors and analogies, they have played an important role in the history of mathematical and scientific discoveries. [4] Kekule discovered the benzene ring after a dream about atoms dancing. Math is full of homologies: exponentiation is to multiplication as multiplication is to addition.

It shouldn't come as a surprise if the unruly mindset that is a precondition for many scientific discoveries also helps artists do their thing. Psychologist Irvin Child correlated students' aesthetic judgment--as determined by a preference for artworks appraised to be stronger by experts--with their performance on certain personality tests. [5] Some of the strongest correlations were independence of judgment, tolerance of complexity, and appreciation of disorientation.

Child measured independence of judgment by sitting the subject in a room surrounded by peers who secretly work for the researchers, then showing a slide of one short line segment next to a second, slightly longer one. When asked to identify the longer one, each of the "plants" in the room deliberately lie and say the first is longer. Subjects who disagree openly with their peers get high marks for independence of judgment, while those who ignore the visual evidence in favor of peer pressure are judged conformists.

Child evaluated tolerance of disorientation by asking his subjects to don glasses that turned the world upside-down. While many subjects react with dismay and can't wait to pull them off, those with high aesthetic judgment respond with delight at this disorienting view of the world, and run off to explore their surroundings.

Ironically, the current state of STEM education in the US seems almost deliberately designed to eradicate independence of thought and appreciation of disorientation. Teaching to the test leaves no time for open-ended conceptual or experimental exploration. Students are evaluated based on whether they know the "right answers," rather than whether they can ask good questions.

If anything, our schools favor the "planning ability" and "conscientiousness" that Denis Dutton claims are evolutionarily programmed into our sense of beauty. To me, Dutton's conclusions about what makes great art sound even more uninformed than his skepticism about climate change. [6] I think our science education also suffers from an overemphasis on buttoned-down criteria like his. While memorizing the organelles of a cell or the isotopes of carbon is useful for being a scientist, it is no preparation for the mental activity taking place in those moments whereby the field of science is advanced, and in many cases likely indeed to discourage kids who might otherwise bring a creative mindset to the field.

So if we accept that STEAM creativity is nourished by the unruly attitudes Child identified, how would we change education to nourish the mental process needed for both art and science?

Cheers from snowy Maine.


[1] "Death by Wall Label,"

[2] Rosalind Krauss was onto something in using the term "post-medium" to denote medium specificity that couldn't be reduced to atoms. But I believe the later term "post-media" (and even worse, "post-Internet") is little more than a reactionary justification for falling back to a materialistic art market.

[3] See "Unreliable Archivists" in my book with Richard Rinehart, Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (

[4] If you want to detach a particular literary device from science, I recommend metonymy ("This splinter of the cross was near Christ so must have healing properties").

[5] For a related study involving questionnaires rather than live experiments, see Irvin L. Child and Rosaline S. Schwartz, "Personality and the Appreciation of Art," Art Education (National Art Education Association), Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1967), pp. 33-35,

[6] For a scathing refutation of Dutton's formula for what makes a great landscape painting, see Komar + Melamid's "The Most Wanted Paintings,"
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