A Pound of Music

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Religion, Science

How do you solve a problem like Stephen Pinker?

Ross Douthat notes the curious convergence: that “the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods,” which were, according to Pinker, “explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable,” lead inexorably to the economoral worldview to which Pinker has–surely a coincidence–already subscribed. Fuck Theory, meanwhile, notices that Pinker seems unfamiliar with the philosophers he name drops to open his essay. (By the way, Pinker also mangles Bergson’s élan vital, elsewhere and otherwise in the essay, if only in passing.) FT might be too kind. He damns our scientician for having failed to read the primary sources, but the real knock is that Pinker could have avoided a lot of these basic errors just by reading Will Durant. He could have read Wikipedia! Is there anything as unforgivably lazy in this great age of the internet as a man incapable of feigning authority over a couple thousand words?

Look, I’m a materialist. I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m an atheist. I believe that the mind is an emergent phenomena of the brain. You might say that I constitute the natural constituency for Pinker’s argument, which is what makes its obtuseness and inadequacy so annoying. It gets everything backward. He says, for example, that science wipes away “the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces [and] undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” No word on what testable hypotheses prohibit second degree murder or which codicil of evolutionary psychology demands that we not remove the mattress tags, but let’s allow the point. It is true, after all, that the sorts of bureaucratic rationalization that led to more modern systems of trial and punishment are kissin’ cousins with Pinker’s over-broadly defined science. Nevertheless, we end up in a bizarre territory wherein morality is defined by utility but the “science” behind it is a transcendent ideology:

Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.

The implication of this complaint, and the essential thesis of the article, is that science, whatever that is, uniquely among all human disciplines and endeavors, is not subject to utilitarian analysis, is not merely a mathematical function, a delta of positive change to “human flourishing.”

In fact, I agree. I think it would be a shame to look at the advancement of scientific knowledge, the immense growth of our species’ physical insight into the world and the universe, as a merely additive process whose sole measure is the number of new patents, cures, and minutes of extended battery life. Yes, there will surely be some practical outcome of learning that dolphins give each other names, but there is something essentially miraculous in simply knowing it to be true. And this is why I find Pinker’s claim so utterly bizarre, as if science must stake out a monopoly on the extraordinary, all our other transcendent experiences subsumed to its totalitarian scope. Pardon me, but isn’t that just weird? Religion claims to give life meaning, but by proving the Biblical creation myth false, science, gives life meaning. Replacing one false, totalizing claim with another is an odd way to run a debate team, if you know what I’m saying.

But then, this is where Pinker really wanders down a dusty path:

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Slow down there, Percy Bysshe! Okay, I agree that pictures of the Earth from its own satellite are pretty fucking lovely, but what is, and from whence comes, sublime beauty? What does it mean to “mean” to be human? When you say, “our place in nature,” I presume you mean something more than our position on the food chain and our direct impact on global climatic systems. Cognitive neuroscience may lay claim to the question of how and why our particular subset of upright mammals perceives beauty as it does, but clearly we’re talking about something more than a reducible pleasure response to a Fibonacci-derived golden ration. Why do we find the Hubble deep field beautiful? Why, actually, do we artificially color it to make it beautiful? And what is “beautiful”?

These are lines of inquiry that real scientists (as opposed to commercial popularizers) and scholars of the humanities and artists and authors think about with much greater depth and subtlety than you’d suspect reading this crackpot essay, which prefers to lob vague accusations of disastrous postmodernism at the humanities as if it were an essay in Commentary in 1985. I mean, if Pinker reveals himself as something less than a scholar of philosophy at the beginning, he shows himself as an even worse art critic later on. Cheering for a new, scientific art like a bizarro Soviet, he actually says:

The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.

This is the rough equivalent of James Turrell demanding that chemists to avail themselves of the unknown discipline of gas chromatography. Yo, Pinky, it’s Robert Smithson calling from 1970. He’d like to sell you a large, earthwork time machine. Artists have long embraced science and technology in their work and their practice. Has Pinker ever heard of Steve Kurtz? Does he know about collectives like Informationlab? Is he aware that the Oberlin Conservatory established the Technology in Music and Related Arts program in 1967? Does he read science fiction? Shit, I mean, has he heard of a little-known avant-garde filmmaker named James Cameron? Physician, heal thyself.

Hitler? I Coulda Killer Her!

Art, Culture, Media

A recent battle in the art world illustrates the point. The billionaire Ronald Perelman is suing the multimillionaire art dealer Larry Gagosian on the grounds, among others, that Gagosian overvalued an unfinished sculpture of Popeye (yes, the Sailor Man) by Jeff Koons. Perelman purchased this item for $4 million.

In parallel to the David of Michelangelo, I will refer to the disputed work as the Popeye. A judge will eventually decide what the Popeye is really worth. My own view is that it is worth precisely what its component materials are worth, or perhaps a bit less, due to the costs that would be incurred in hauling it away and melting it down or crushing it. If called as an expert witness, I will testify to that effect.

Crispin Sartwell

One of my pleasures over the past couple of months has been the universe confirming my aesthetic choices as a novelist by allowing near-facsimiles of a couple of my book’s more extravagant jokes to pop up in real life. So, for instance, there’s a little bit about legalizing bigfoot hunting in Pittsburgh; lo and behold, my editor sends me a link to a real-life bigfoot season on Long Island. Elsewhere in the narrative, we briefly meet a performance artist who “reenacts the aesthetics of atrocity” by dressing up like a Leni Riefenstahl extra—basically a caricature cribbed shamelessly from the real-life Eastern European collective, NSK. Ladies and gentlemen: Charles Krafft.

If not in the top tier of international art scammers, Krafft nevertheless had a national reputation, got museum shows, sold works for tens of thousands of dollars. His work was never any good; even presumed to be commentary, it was the sort of crap that you can find in any hipster gallery on any First Friday gallery crawl in any gentrifying neighborhood from Bushwick to Bloomfield and back again. Well-regarded shit is the reserve currency of the global art market, and just about anything with a hint of ironic appropriation and meta-artistic commentary will eventually find its way into a well-regarded biennial. The art world is the Sokal Affair diluted to an eighth-grade reading level and repeated ad infinitum, except that the pranksters believe their own essays.

Krafft, it seems, never made much effort to conceal his fetish for Aryanism, but it wasn’t until earlier this month when a reporter for The Stranger published a short investigation that anyone with a well-regarded degree from a decent college bothered to notice:

When I wrote to Krafft back in May, letting him know that a reader had asked whether he was a Holocaust denier, I added, “I suppose you don’t have to answer that, but I guess I’d like to know.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the rumor, but I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews—i.e., that there might not be so much difference between Krafft’s swastikas and Hitler’s. After all, that could mean this self-taught, former Skagit Valley hippie artist was using the guise of art and irony to smuggle far-right symbols into museums, galleries, collectors’ homes, and upscale decor shops like Far4 on First Avenue.

“I found it impossible to imagine that the swastikas on Krafft’s work might reflect genuine spite toward Jews.” I think this is the fine-arts version of that serial killer story in which the neighbors all recall what a nice boy he was, how polite, although he was, come to think of it, awfully quiet and came and went at really odd hours.

To the credit of both The Stranger’s Jen Graves and The New Yorker’s Rachel Arons, neither takes the easy route of calling Krafft a fraud as a way of exonerating themselves and their colleagues for past plaudits. Unfortunately, they can’t quite disavow any ill-considered praise for this third-rate ceramic hobbyist either. Arons:

Perhaps Krafft’s obsession with Holocaust conspiracy theory is costing him his creativity; that would be karmically interesting. But his work that contains contradictions—a “salad of symbols” too freewheeling to parse. That work is worth continuing to examine, even if we are disgusted by Krafft’s current personal beliefs and unsure exactly to what extent, or for how long, they have been informing his work. It should always be difficult to look at art about Nazis. Now that looking at Krafft’s art is even more difficult, we shouldn’t look away.

Looking at Krafft’s work was never difficult, unless, in an effort to contort your own natural aesthetic reaction (“this guy makes shitty trinkets covered in swastikas; uh, oooookay”) to the received opinions of an art establishment to which you want to belong (“ironically appropriating the symbology of fascism in a metacommentary on the nature of nostalgia in our conceptualizing of past atrocity blah blah blah”), you had to take your own brain to the bar, feed it one too many drinks, and then convince it to do something it wasn’t really comfortable with.

It’s true, we shouldn’t look away from Krafft’s art because it’s “even more difficult”. We should look away because it’s lousy art.