Quantifying the Arts and Other Foibles Of Our Modern Age

"If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."

Louis Armstrong

More than 40,000 years ago, preliterate Neanderthals whose lives were one long, harsh, struggle for survival still took time to perform the irrational and impractical act of painting on cave walls, decorating utilitarian objects and creating figurines. Their need for art was arguably, vastly less than ours, but still essential to them. During World War I, trench soldiers in the midst of some of the most depraved circumstances imaginable, still felt the compulsion to create art from shell casings, cartridge clips and damaged wooden propeller blades. Surely, if all they needed was diversion they could have just played cards or masturbated. Approximately 6000 drawings and poems were found hidden beneath beds and floorboards and behind walls of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the aftermath of World War II, created amidst suffering and chaos by the more than 15,000 children to pass through the camp on their way to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Art is fundamental to our humanity. The entire course of human events and experience serve as its justification.

Nevertheless, there is a preoccupation in the media today with legitimizing the arts by scientific or quasi-scientific means. Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jane Austin was a Game Theorist. What next, James Joyce, Monkey Trainer? Regularly, books and articles are being published which are trying to either merge the arts and sciences or to justify the arts using science.

It is a self-defeating approach.

Art is aesthetic and experiential. If you look behind the curtain, you destroy the magic. During the golden age of Hollywood, people didn't know how special effects were created, didn’t know who was getting paid what, or what the key grip and the best boy did. The wide availability of that information has reshaped the contemporary audience, giving them a misplaced sense of understanding due to a rudimentary, academic knowledge of the craft of film-making. In much the same way, reducing Jane Austin’s work to an algorithm may prove a legitimate scientific exercise, but may also render her books unreadable. Envision the graphs or pie charts we might create to plot the value of a Van Gogh against a Picasso, or Beethoven against Mozart.

The arts naturally and inherently exist as a counterpoint to science. Shifting art to the scientific side of the spectrum tears the soul out of it, and may even, inadvertently, serve as a justification for disregarding it as irrelevant. That is not to say that art can’t be scientific, nor is it to say science cannot be creative.  It is to say that you can’t square a circle.

I like to think of the art and sciences working on humanity similarly to the way Spock and McCoy worked on Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series. Spock, the science officer, was the logician, McCoy, the ship’s doctor, was the emotional humanitarian. Captain Kirk, between the two, would weigh and balance their perspectives to find the optimal solution to any problem. Let’s acknowledge that Art and Science balance one another in their contributions to our well-being and optimal solutions. 

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