Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Banality and Abstract Art and Scienticism and Pinker

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article by Kirk Varnedoe, a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. The article is a concise, but poignant definition of abstract/modern art and its purpose, role, and meaning(lessness). Part of what made this post so compelling for me was that Varnedoe does something in the article that works along with a general observation I have been trying to sort out. Varnedoe quite consciously defines a role of art that works contrary to the meaningfulness that humans innately ascribe to art, and in order to somehow reconcile his belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of art with this human imperative to make art meaningful Varnedoe resorts to a linguistic slight-of-hand in which he utilizes religious terminology and all of the connotations therein to fill his nihilistic aesthetic with the illusion of meaningful meaninglessness:
Abstraction has been less a search for the ultimately meaningful ... than a recurrent push for the temporarily meaningless: that is, things that are found not often in exotic realms but rather on the edges of banality, familiarity, and the man-made world. It is the production of forms of order that are not recognizable as order, but vehicles of feeling that appear utterly dumb. Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: You have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.

The only analogy that Varnedoe can find to explain the purposefulness he places in the act of "making" is the way one has faith, and although he specifically claims that he is not advocating a religious-like faith, he cannot expect either himself nor his audience to be able to divorce their understanding of "faith" from the connotations raised from the history of Judeo-Christian influence on religious thought. While he might desire to craft a system of art that operates outside of meaning and absolute value, on a fundamental level he lacks the very language to make such a claim. Sometime perhaps I'll expound on how I believe this principle is very useful in exploring much existential philosophy as well.

In a bit of utterly unrelated reading, Steven Pinker, the noted Harvard professor of psychology, has written an article on the recent Harvard Report of the Committee on General Education. In it, Pinker exposes his typical scientism, dismissing the language of the report which calls for the education of students on issues of the potential dangers of science (nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment) and ranting about the absurdity of putting "Reason and Faith" in the same sentence. Pinker argues that all issues of religion are not fit for the university and that giving religion importance in univeristies "is an American anachronism." At the heart of Pinker's diatribe is the belief that faith is useless to discovering truth on any level:
...the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.”
Notice how Pinker equivocates faith with pseudoscience, such an absurd and irrational comparison must either be blamed on dishonesty or a fundamental misunderstanding about the role and definition of faith or astrology.

I'm done.

No comments: