Monday, June 16, 2008

What Do Scientists Want (from art)?

From my favorite science blog, Sean Carroll on Hidden Structures. Almost touchingly naive... but gets to the heart of how we talk about judgement in art and literature, what it's possible to say, and what it's not--is there hope of finding a common language?

When it comes to art (considered broadly, so as to include literature and various kinds of performance, not to mention a good bottle of wine) I am a radical subjectivist. If you like it, great; if you don’t, that’s your prerogative. There is no such thing as being “right” or “wrong” in one’s opinion about a work of art; what’s important is the relationship between the work and the person experiencing it.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that one’s attitude toward a work of art can be radically changed by outside information or experiences. You might come to understand it better, or conversely you might be overexposed to it and just get bored.

Scientists, in particular, love it when they discover that some boring old art thing that they had previously perceived as undifferentiated and uninteresting actually possesses some hidden structure. If you were ever caught in the unfortunate situation of teaching an art- or film-appreciation class to scientists, the right strategy would be to reveal, insofar as possible, the underlying theories by which the work in question is constructed. And if you think there are no such theories, you’re just not looking hard enough.

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1 comment:

  1. I do teach film studies to business and econ students! But even less statistically oriented students generally are not able to be consciously aware of what they are looking at on the wide screen. I spend a whole semmester encouraging them to become consciously aware of what they are seeing. The problem seems to be centered with a large quantity of non-verbal communication that movies, in particular, and much of life in general, call on us to process in usual (virtually unconscious) ways.

    I think we do have a common language and I think it is the visual context with which we understand the wide variety of (from common to complex) things we see and interact with during our lives. Our minds are incredibly good at structures and they amuse us greatly in a sort of ‘connect the dot’ sense of a challenge or game.

    Within that context we are beginning to talk about criticism because a poor movie or poem, on that level, is one that disappoints us. This is all because we have been busy from the start of it figuring out its potential structure and where we think it should or could go. If the author goes beyond our conception a little bit and pleasantly surprises us, we think it is because this is such an interesting and cleaver peace of work.

    If you have a mime working for change in a park or mall somewhere nearby, go and enjoy some wordless amusement based on structures. I highly recommend it as a great experience to try to process consciously. Perhaps this is the place between prose and poetry from whence those art forms originate?