28 February 2017

ART IS NOT DATA

This is an excerpt from my Lecture Heavenly Outlook.



Opinions about art are diverse, strongly held and contradictive. Facing such conflict, many hoist a flag of surrender and say that art is just a matter of personal taste. Some even fly that flag triumphantly. They heatedly argue that art is not a thing worth arguing; they insist that nothing about art is objectively true except its objective lack of objective truthfulness.

This idea is not entirely new; de gustibus non est disputandum has been uttered for centuries, although I suspect that it has only recently been understood in an absolute sense. I see an error at the start of this line of reasoning: the assumption that in order for a thing to be real (and not just a product of the mind), it must be quantifiable. This is the perhaps the most popular error of modern thinking. At the end of this line of reasoning is a colorless, mechanical view of reality. The Catholic philosopher and physicist Wolfgang Smith described it well:
We are told that [the physical universe] consists of space, time and matter, or of space-time and energy, or perhaps of something else still more abstruse and even less imaginable; but in any case we are told in unequivocal terms what it excludes: as all of us have learnt, the physical universe is said to exclude just about everything which from the ordinary human point of view makes up the world.... What is being bifurcated or cut asunder are the so-called primary and secondary qualities: the things that can be described in mathematical terms, and those that cannot. Logically speaking, the bifurcation postulate is tantamount to the identification of the so-called physical universe (the world as conceived by the physicist) with the real world per se, through the device of relegating all else (all that does not fit this conception) to an ontological limbo, situated outside the world of objectively existent things.... Let it be said at once that this reduction of the world to the categories of physics is not a scientific discovery (as many believe), but a metaphysical assumption that has been built into the theory from the outset.
New technology impresses this way of thinking even more deeply. Computers have it built into their every function, for they actually cannot heed anything unless it is reduced to a number. And technology imparts its bias to its users. To a man with a hammer, the adage goes, everything looks like a nail; to a man with a computer, everything looks like a datum.

The modern mind has acquired the habit of quantifying, sorting and ranking things that are not inherently numerical: beauty, intelligence, friendship, originality, love. This is, to the modern mind, the only way to prove that they are real. Art is recalcitrant to numerical description; hurrah, I say, for art. The criterion of the modern mind does not need to be met; it needs to be dismissed.

My first advice to anyone who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is not to treat art like data. Do not rate it with stars; do not make top-ten lists. Real appreciation is gotten by paying serious attention to a work of art, just looking at it for a very long time. It is in the looking that communication through art happens.

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Works quoted or referenced:

Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (San Raphael CA: Sophia Perennis, 2008).

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Vantage Books, 1992).

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