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The Fence Theory of Art Posted on April 28th

Royal Art Lodge–Artropolis NEXT artist

 A few posts ago, I wrote about art and science, specifically Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust was a Neuroscientist and his article “The Future of Science…is art?”  Since then, I’ve kept up with reading Lehrer’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, and the other week he wrote a post making the claim that creating art was just as difficult and serious-minded as scientific research, and therefore the discoveries made by art merit equal respect. Art is hard, Lehrer claims, because artists are “passionately interested in reality…”  That is, accuracy.

Basically, Lehrer (like many theorists who seek to blend art and science) is making the point that both artists and researchers are focused on same goal: to add to the store of human knowledge. But after reading Lehrer’s post and thinking about it a bit more, I believe art and science have even less in common than I indicated in my Art Science Phenomenon post. Art and science have different ideas of what knowledge is, and behind both art and science are contradictory assumptions about what can be known, and the value of knowing itself. Additionally, what is considered progress in art and science is nearly opposite: while science moves forward to more accurate truths by building on certain theories and shucking others, the “progress” of art (if you could call it that) involves simply inventing news ways interact with the unknown.

When I first started thinking about this, I drew a diagram depicting something like a climbing vine with offshoots to the right and left. The main trunk of the vine grows upward from some of the offshoots, while others end within themselves. This represents the progress of science–generally moving upward in knowledge by growing from solid ideas and leaving the inaccurate ones behind. Theories that do not end up being useful for the progress of science die, apart from than the afterlife crackpots might give them (I.e. stuff like this). In general, the progress of science has no room for its own folly. A discounted theory has no value, other than to show how much progress has been made (mankind used to be so foolish! We thought mice were born of grain! ha!) This model of progress is directly in conflict with art.

The progress of art best matches this image: a long fence or barrier, with activity and construction running the length of it, the point of which is to try to get over or through. The fence represents the unknown, I.e. the most enduring mysteries of existence (death, meaning of life, etc.) If art progresses, it progresses outward and not upward. Art walks the fenceline of the unknown, and each artist marks out a section of fence to try and break down. If there is any progress, it is in the growing knowledge of the unknown, revealed by each artist moving a bit further down its length as they look for a weak spot or way through. Progress might also be in the sheer variety and ingenuity of the attempts–some might try to dig under (would this be black humor?) and some try to launch themselves over (transcendentalism?) and some simply try to bore straight through (realism?). This model of progress values the attempt to understand the world, not the success of that attempt. Unlike science, there is no such thing as true dead end in art. Art succeeds by presenting a compelling way of confronting the unknown, rather than by adding to the known.P.S. Stay tuned for Artropolis Chicago 2008 coverage!.

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Some Responses to “The Fence Theory of Art” :

  1. Nice post. As you say, art does not discover anything new (or old) and so does not add to “knowledge”. It confronts its own issues, literally, confronts itself - that’s my take on your fence metaphor. It is very interesting to think that art confronts the “unknown” (as you suggest) when it confronts itself, because that would mean that it does not know much, if anything, about itself. I think that is the case and why every attempt to explain or understand art fails. Art itself can’t do it, so why do “thinkers” expect to do it. Why do “thinkers” try to predict the future of art when art does not have any clue about its future. Art may be like a dog, almost totally immersed in its present. And art having “no dead end” flows directly from that.

    Again, very nice post.

    Commented catfish on April 28th, 2008.
  2. I’m pretty much with you over Lehrer in this. I agree with him that artists (can be) rigorous, hard-working, and concerned with reality, but that doesn’t make the understanding they may be after the same as what science seeks. Perhaps a fundamental aspect of the difference involves communication via language, something you touched on in your earlier post. Science relies on very clear understanding and consensus, while artists are often interested in just those things that cannot be so easily communicated (especially, for visual artists, via language) and may well not be agreed on. For that reason, I’m not too happy with your fence metaphor; after all, it’s quite clear where a fence is. The boundaries of artistic knowledge are more like a fog bank: you really don’t know when you’ve crossed them. And it takes considerable determination to keep walking and not get lost.

    Commented Steve Durbin on May 18th, 2008.
  3. Wonderful site. I’ve never thought that art and science were separate entities that were so much in need of differentiation. At their most powerful. both art and science reveal nature. They provide insights and perspectives on both tangible and less tangible phenomenon that do indeed add to human knowledge. Einstein, Darwin, Watson, Hubble, to name a few, not only created hypotheses that could be subject to objective scientific verification, they changed our understanding of the nature of human existence and our role in the universe. Some great art also creates hypotheses–observations about humanity, realism, alienation, sexuality, culture, etc.– that are also subject to scientific verification, though it often dwells on subjects that are extremely difficult to quantify and isolate (like Einstein postulating on the nature of time and space). While art may not be the tool to prove or disprove a theory, science is not alone in its ability to generate hypotheses. And while science can provide a methodology for proof, it can be woefully inadequate in revealing that those truths about nature that are meaningful to most people. Art and science jump the fence all the time–generating data, a knowledge of a perception or a perspective–that can be used and retrieved any time, by both artists and scientists. The “scientific method” may not be art, but both scientists and artists (not all) work to uncover important truths about nature. Both art and science are progressive, accumulative efforts, building upon the facts, theories, insights and perspectives of previous human thought.

    Commented tomrunsalot on May 24th, 2008.
  4. Brian Eno has some interesting ideas on the relation of arts and sciences. See his interview at Edge, especially the second page:

    Commented Steve Durbin on May 25th, 2008.
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