The Fence Theory of Art Posted on April 28th
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!.Trackback URL