Living Long and Prospering: Artscience Sounds Nice, But It’s Totally Lame

Artscience Sounds Nice, But It’s Totally Lame

It’s funny how easy it’s become — not that I assume it was ever too difficult — to separate the word “art” from the traditions, meanings and general contexts within which it’s operated in modern society, not to mention human history as a whole. Not only because we’ve been forced to judge the monetary value and legal standing of intellectual property with the onset of digital culture and media sharing, but because it seems as if the things we create now — whether it’s in artistic setting or not — are judged more heavily than ever based on how they will or won’t make our lives better or easier, or more fun.

In a world of social networks, in which access to information has replaced the general need to seek out that same information, everything must have a practical purpose, however idle that purpose may be. There’s less time to dream for the sake of dreaming, because that seems worthless; we’re often pressured to turn creative thoughts — humorous memes, innovative communication strategies, gallery exhibits — into digitally shareable marketing tools, strategies to connect people in search of some greater end.

So it makes sense that some of us would now introduce theories of art that are artistically valueless, in order to seek tangible goals — ends that serve the betterment of whatever we consider to be reality.

I mention these thoughts because, this week, I was reading Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation by David Edwards, who is a Harvard professor, small-time novelist and self-described “artscientist.” The book, published in 2008, is a manifesto of sorts, albeit a poorly constructed one, which seeks to inform today’s thinkers of the benefits of removing the disciplinary boundaries between the arts and sciences. Edwards does this by sharing anecdotes and proposing ways to blend these two areas of thought in academia, cultural institutions and commercial industries. In doing so, he makes many assumptions, cuts many intellectual corners and speaks very confidently.

What I took away for the book was a massive irony that was the really the keystone of his entire thought process: the apparent idea that one could take greater strides to incorporate art into the innovative potential of mankind, while also completely removing art from the elements and environments of spontaneity that have allowed it to survive in its own right for millenia.

I say this because Edwards’ artscientists all seem to be straightforward academics, whether they work for universities, museums, corporations or humanitarian groups. His subjects, regardless of how they use art, are to him worthy of the title because their creative impulses to invent products or formulas, or win Nobel Prizes. I’m simplifying the book when I say this, but not by much.

And there’s really nothing wrong with what he’s saying, although the way he goes about saying it is hardly compelling. The thing that gets me is the fact that it’s so easy to unwittingly shit all over contemporary art while claiming to espouse it.

To make one of his points, and in order to prove the value of his thoughts, Edwards writes: “Artscience designs may lead to new intellectual property.” This intellectual property would come out of a specifically designed laboratory for artscience, which would be structured in order to facilitate the so-called creativity of artscience.

“Most of all,” he writes, “an artscience laboratory give the power back to the creators who gave us power in the first place.”

This made me think of another book I’d read relatively recently — one that I think provides some competent and nicely-timed answers to questions of whether Edward’s theories are worth pursuing from artistic standpoint. It was the 2010 book Reality Hunger, by David Shields, which basically helped to remind everyone that, from the artistic standpoint I’m speaking of, everything Edwards writes in Artscience is to some degree both dumb and hopelessly dated.

Reality Hunger took a cue from sampling techniques — the cutting and pasting of already-created material, commonly used by producers of electronic music — to force us to confront the weird transitions through which is literature is going right now. There’s only so much contemporary fiction can do to provide us with meaningful interpretations of contemporary, he explained, but a reevaluation of our presentation of fiction and non-fiction might serve to help bring us more closely in touch with the roots and development of the art form.

No matter how much you might disagree with the guy when he says that he’s bored by Jonathan Franzen novels, there’s this underlying genuineness that does the important job of reaffirming the bond between the word “art” and the whole idea of passionately responding to changes in human culture — not in passionately providing useful products and services, but in allowing art to exist in its own right, to breathe, to continue to tell the stories that have, quite literally, allowed humanity to keep surviving and evolving.

This is the basic difference between Reality Hunger and Artscience; it’s why one responds to the other so effectively, and it’s also why this conversation is worth having. Art and creative thinking have always been co-opted in various ways by those seeking commercially tangible results, but now that we’re at an period of time in which human connectivity has reached such a high level, such a singular point of transition,  it seems clear that artistic thought must, more than ever before, defend itself from the mundane.

I’m thinking about Instagram. I’m thinking about mashups that are made into mindless dance music. I’m thinking about, in Edwards’ case, artists doing 9 to 5 office shifts in a laboratory.

In the end, all I know is what Duke once said: “If it sounds good, it is good.” A half-century later — and with the ability to access everything, and market everything, and sell everything — those words might not be enough for some people anymore. And that’s kind of lame.

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