|Art, Science, Economics
This essay morphed (cool, I'm in
with the under fives) out of the research Marc Lambert and I did for the
Edinburgh International Science Festival lectures. Rather than cack-handedly
present a précis of all ten lectures, I thought it more appropriate
to focus on one of the "emergent structures" of the lectures, a sub-text
that ran through all: the epistemological divisions within science. On
the one hand there were those whose work seemed to me more akin to the
artistic (i.e. assimilative, analogical and essentially--as opposed to peripherally--interdisciplinarian).
On the other, there were those whose work was firmly embedded in the laws
of (as Richard Dawkins terms it) 'hierarchical reductionism.'
This dialectic (examined in the
first part of this essay) is far more applicable to art and artists than
any naive description of science's gizmos and weirdness. Boy's toys may
be fun for some, but they are best fiddled with behind closed doors.
The distinction between a rationalist
determinism and libertarianism has underpinned economic debate for over
200 years now. One of the most curious aspects of the science/arts debate
over the last 20 years is how the most vociferous proponents of scientific,
hierarchical determinism have tended towards extreme conservative libertarianism
in economic areas (Matt Ridley being one of the best examples of this tendency).
Visual arts provision, and in particular in the public arts, would appear
to be an exact inversion of this tendency: state sponsored libertarianism.
In the second section, I argue that current practice would be improved
by a lessening of the current pseudo-competitive environment in which the
public arts function.
1. Beauty is the Beast
"Art does no longer serve any institutions;
it has become autonomous. I can not describe the new situation, since art
can not be described. It proves itself only in its performance. First of
all, I can feel that something is expected of art and of me, some sort
Gerhard Richter Interview in Noch
"So what is reflexivity?...Social
scientists have long been concerned that their discipline is markedly different
from natural science because the very act of observing economic and social
life changes what is being observed."
Will Hutton paraphrasing George
The State To Come
"...the hierarchical reductionist
believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units ...which
are explained in terms of smaller units ...which are ultimately explained
in terms of the smallest fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense
is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work."
Richard Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker
Hierarchical determinism is merely
a procedure. It is not, as Dawkins points out akin (in itself) to baby
eating or sin. As a procedure it is morally neutral. When applied appropriately
it has proven an invaluable tool for our understanding. It is however not
the only intellectual process, nor is it the summation of everything that
is intrinsically human. In discussing the interface between art and science
one needs to be aware of the pitfalls of such an approach. One needs to
be aware that whilst morally neutral in itself, the implications of hierarchical
determinism are political in the extreme.
In its end oriented, obsessive and
exclusive application of the truth, (the truth in this sense being the
method of observation as opposed to the observed) the mechanistic wing
of the science sect displays its limits. This approach, whilst providing
the logos necessary to cohere seemingly disparate phenomena and observed
magnetic phenomena), proves hopelessly inadequate when applied to self-reflexive
phenomena (things which "bite back": artists for example). John Barrow's
floundering (though honest) attempts to understand how visual art works
in terms of our inherited aesthetic preference for certain landscapes is
an eloquent testament to this. The determinism is exemplary: art ...artist
...artist's propensity for certain aesthetic judgements ...artist's evolutionary
lineage ...genetic basis for artist's production. This approach, of course,
explains nothing beyond a tautological elucidation of its own procedures.
As proof for his argument Barrow
examples only works showing traits of his argument. This kind of selectivity
of evidence would be a mere curio were it not symptomatic of the wider
problem in science's approach. By a generalisation of the particulars of
artistic production (in any way that is meaningfully scientific according
to Dawkin's rules of hierarchical reductionism) one fundamentally misses
the importance and veracity of any visual culture, composed as it is of
constantly shifting significance, both personally and historically.
It is this peculiarly "general"
nature of the determinist process, which both underpins the success of
science writing (it is easier to sell a commodity if the spin is generally
applicable), but has also proven the bête noir of determinism itself.
Whilst science is great at building planes, for example, it is singularly
incapable of understanding the particularities of the complex vortex mechanics
that enable it to fly. Art also relies on the particular: each and every
human has their own artistic inclinations and motivations and this is the
capitalist realist logic lying behind the quote of Gerhard Richter cited
earlier. On this level the form of science in question can be illuminating
if only to throw into perspective the deeply moral, political and economic
heurism of the artistic approach. In highlighting the difficulties of a
process which has led humanity so wildly astray in so many areas, one can
easily fall into the trap of a nihilistic rejectionism. The creative possibilities
of recognising a valid pluralistic counter-ideology are great and offer
a positive alternative to such nihilism, albeit one far more difficult
to sell to a public weaned on sound bite polemicism, and, whose idea of
anti-science stops at such inanities as the X-Files. Just to stay true
to my 'hypocritical oath,' here are a couple of polemic sound bites for
Two outcomes of determinism: mass
slaughter and great writing.
Mary Midgley recently told me of
a thing she witnessed at a science and theology conference in Oxford. An
eminent biologist delivered a speech in which he decried the teaching of
subjects which, as he saw, offered non-scientific "falsehoods". A kind
of scientific correctness. Certainly, whilst this is an extreme example,
there is a pervasive fundamentalism at the heart of the world's most influential
ideology: scientism. (If you want to get irrationally worried about this
inexplicable and seemingly amoral new sect, the Gulf War did happen, the
erasing of Basra and its people did happen, and it was an "achievement"
of science. Compared to the scientific fundamentalists, the various nationalists
and religionists are but pups in arms).
Since the mid-late 1970s science
has had more than its fair share of eloquent spokespeople. From Carl Sagan,
through Richard Feynmann, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawkings, Steven Jay
Gould, E.O. Wilson, etc. These were not the eccentric boffins of yore plying
their wares on the OU at 3 in the morning with Kipper ties. These were
multimillion copy selling authors, lean marketing dreams, on the cutting
edge both of science's ever advancing new dawn and of popular culture.
Such a marketing phenomenon has
not happened in art writing. Indeed, for reasons quoted previously, it
may prove impossible. The political fall-out from this however is that
art, such a potentially and essentially hopeful endeavour, may be forever
marginalised somewhere between pop-videoism and client led fascism.
Not wishing to play the role of
excuser for bad writers, there are real problems for anyone wishing to
"sell" art. Paradoxically, chief among the problems is art's great strength:
namely its particular nature. Whilst science writers can appear coherent
by applying general principles across the board, art writers have no such
luxury. The tendency, therefore, is to concoct general principles (to play
the science game. My own possible hypocrisy), or to get bogged down in
terminological semantic/pedantic arguments, pat historicising, or vain
attempts at neutral description. All these approaches may be (but rarely
are) interesting in themselves, but they miss the point. Art is analogical
and assimilative, concepts and arguments are drawn together (as opposed
to analysed or dissected). Art exists in dialogue only. This communicative
(discursive) principle has been largely ignored by art writers (scientists
and economists have however long been fascinated by it: David Bohm, Noam
Chomsky, Danah Zohar, Will Hutton to name but a few). Considering the central
role it plays at all levels of artistic production/dissemination such an
omission is surprising.
In the second section of this essay,
I wish to focus on the system within which, in Scotland at least, most
contemporary art is shown, namely the public gallery. The implications
I draw could equally be applied to science's equivalent to these spaces,
i.e. the research department.
2. Towards a Stakeholding Arts
"Mechanism stresses hierarchy. It
structures existence according to ever-descending units of analysis. Molecules
are more basic than neurones, atoms more basic than molecules. We structure
power and organisation in the same ladder of ascending and descending authority."
Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall The
"Mechanical methods and models of
simple causal explanations are increasingly inapplicable as we advance
to such complex phenomena. In particular, the crucial phenomena determining
the formation of many highly complex structures of human interaction, i.e.
economic values or prices, cannot be interpreted by simple causal or 'nomothetic'
theories, but require explanation in terms of the joint effects of a larger
number of distinct elements than we can ever hope individually to observe
Friedrich Hayek The Fatal Conceit
Public galleries are in a curious
position at the moment. Ostensibly they are publicly funded bodies whose
income is allocated by a quasi-governmental organisation, and who have
to unofficially compete for funding whilst officially keeping up the pretence
of autonomy. This means that all competition takes place well out of the
official channels: a cosy but none too dynamic situation. To further understand
the problems and implications of this a general overview from a neo-Keynsian
perspective proves illuminating. Firstly however, a word about nuthatches.
High in the Petite Kabyle Mountains
of northern Algeria, in pine forests that form the upper limit of the tree
zone, there lives a small and incredibly scarce bird: the Kabyle Nuthatch.
It was discovered in 1975 and is one of the rarer birds of the world. Taxonomically
it is very similar to the Corsican Nuthatch, varying only in the markings
of its cap. Both are examples of divergent evolution in closed gene systems.
Isolation is the key to their species status, it could also be the key
to their extinction in years hence. Isolates are constantly under threat
of extermination from environmental change. If gene pools are small, they
are also highly susceptible to genetic ossification, i.e. the entropic
propensity of any closed system: in this case a heterogeneous species.
Such a situation makes the "sufferer" far more likely to succumb to an
inherited disorder. Mutations of this sort multiply rapidly through a small
population. The effects can be devastating. In human group dynamics, whether
on a personal or economic level, factionalism can have just as destructively
an ossifying effect.
Economically, of course, factionalism
cuts two ways. In a competitive environment it can be beneficially motivational.
However, in sectors reliant on the nurturing of creative endeavour, the
effect will be similar to that of isolation for a species: potentially
catastrophic. And herein lies the problem with the current quango led pseudo-community
public art system. The problem is one of emphasis at the funding level.
Instead of engendering a "malicious/competitive" climate, the funders should
be no less than demanding the creation and maintenance of an open community
policy in the arts, where stress is laid firmly on the interdisciplinary
and the inter-organisational. Only by doing so will the arts move away
from the 1980s, in which they have remained, along with much of British
"industry". The key to such an approach is that of social sanction and
motivation, a principle which can only succeed if built upon bonds of trust
within a community. A digression is important here to set this in a wider
In the past, and in certain cutting
edge industries today, similar interests have built up around each other.
London is a working embodiment of this principle. The City, Fleet Street,
Soho, Westminster, all are areas designated (by the invisible hand of the
old market) to a particular "industry". This does not happen by magic.
Business is conducted by people. People talk, that's how business works
at its best: mouth to mouth. Businesses are built on related businesses.
Such networks prove more efficient if they are proximate. In the 1980s
this simple logic, under pressure for fast dividend return, was rejected.
However, what was gained in short term "competitiveness" has been more
than matched by what has been lost, namely the communication infrastructures,
the social and commercial accessibility of related industries and businesses,
and possibly more importantly, the workforce security.
Of course proximate industries are
not the only ones where the vitality of interaction is an essential prerequisite
to success. Within any given sector, the possibilities are there for communities
(i.e. groupings of companies sharing information for the common good of
all) to arise. The public arts and the research sciences are two such "communities".
In loosely affiliated interest groups
there are two forms of motivating and regulating principles: competition
and social sanction. The first as explained earlier, is reliant on division,
distinction, leading to a disintegration of services (or an increase in
choice depending on your personal inclinations in spin-phrasing). More
importantly, it is reliant on a separatist view: us and them. For the second
to work, separatism is anathema, bonds of trust must be created and built
on. Both organisational principles have their place. Competition motivates
industry and retail in ways that the old collectivist principles simply
couldn't. In publicly funded organisations and in research, however, social
sanction is more appropriate: competition is far too brutal in "its" treatment
of failures. People must be provided the space to fail in: this is the
key to innovation. "Fail again, fail better" as Beckett would say.
Where there is no share pressure
(e.g. in the publicly funded cultural industries), the creation and maintenance
of the underpinning of bonds of trust should be a priority. Once instigated,
those in their communities of production should explicitly utilise the
benefits offered, by talking and working together. Without such crossover,
communities are rent asunder as surely as if they had been bulldozed. And
that brings us neatly back to the cultural debate and to nuthatches, a
long digression but necessary.
The arts "community" in Scotland,
and this applies to Britain as a whole, because of the peculiar "fictive
free-market" within which it operates, seems to exhibit many of the features
of the nuthatches: namely, small isolated groups of mutually antagonistic
factions. Interesting in themselves, but with so little contact between
them that any innovation in one is seen as a threat by the others. There
is no cross-pollination of ideas, no serious "joint initiatives". Pride
and puerility keep the factions apart. If the potential of all is to be
realised, a little humility must be exercised by all. No single faction
or individual has in its grasp the panacea, the way towards a cultural
utopia. We learn from each other or we cease to learn. The factionalism
in cultural quarters is, to an extent, inevitable if left unchecked. The
public funding bodies have in the past been far too lax at regulating their
market. The result is, as an outsider, obvious: far too many individuals
seem to be crassly following the narrow dictates of their own career paths,
heedless to the needs of artists and public alike. They appear not to care
whether they hold a stake in Scotland's future cultural development. If,
as Pavel Buchler intimated in Variant 2, (Vol. 2) such development does
look bleak, the primary reason will be because it is in the hands of people
unwilling to talk without bitching, or to act without back stabbing. It
would indeed be an unnecessary shame; what a waste of a valuable asset.
High in the Kabyle Mountains of
northern Algeria is a dwindling population of reasons why the individuals
who live by factionalism should have a rethink.