The Unfortunate Case of Art, Science and Innovations

It’s been two years since Pearl closed, and I barely learned of it today (in 2016!) after deciding to check out their website to see what’s up. I had the pleasure of visiting their famous store in New York in my early 20′s and I was in awe of Pearl, their name really embodies this historical landmark’s essence. Pearl was not just any art supply store, they were an experience, a multi-store artistic journey into the heart of creating.

I am saddened by these already “old news”, and as an art education major on the borderline of finishing my studies, I can’t help but think on the broader implications of the slow disappearance of art in our communities. As highlighted in an article by Hannah Sentenac in Miami New Times, it is usually the art programs that get the ax in schools, when budget cuts are made. This is a symptom and I fear it is telling of the times we are about to enter, an over emphasis of the rational mind.

I can understand the investment into hard sciences: math, physics, technology & co are driving our society forward, but I cannot understand the lack of insight into the supporting pillar that is behind all technological innovations and breakthroughs – the creative mind.

Art is becoming a diminishing resource in schools, its educational benefits have been broadly misunderstood for too long now, Plato himself, thought to be one of the greatest philosophical minds, wrote of the importance of learning through creative means. His theory has been often misunderstood (at times even deliberately in the academic world) with grave consequences.

Herbert Read wrote his masterful book “Education through Art” in 1943, in which he discusses the implications of the Aristotelian emphasis in education since the middle ages and its limiting factors on our youth. The logical bias was adopted as a basis for educational practices: “– the thought process as conceived by the science of logic is regarded as giving to our whole method of acquiring knowledge, and, therefore, to our whole specifically human conception of the world –” (Read, 1943, p. 57).

He argues that the unbalanced favoring of logic as a basis for understanding the reality of our world (and therefore “the facts” reduced from observations) misconstrues the thought process that we teach to children in schools while their mental maturation progresses. The neglect of the creative principle reduces and simplifies the productive thinking process, which is closer to a creative one (artistic production) than previously understood: “It is not suggested that an integral mode of thought excludes logical thought in a tolerant world. But it is only too evident that a training directed exclusively to logical thought produces a type incapable of imaginative activity–” (Read, 1943, p. 68).

He also references Schiller and his famous letters “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” written in 1794 in the after math of the failed French Revolution as another supporter of Plato, and therefore his own thesis concluding that aesthetic education is fundamental in a balanced schooling system. Read unravels Plato’s concept of art and education, and how they have been dismissed due to a lack of understanding what he truly meant by them. The result is a call for an educational reform, where art and science need not be separated, but used methodologically in complimentary unison to nurture the needs of mental maturation of a child into a mature and balanced citizen of a society.

It should be a no brainer that a cookie cutter model for education, where children are taught to pass tests, is simply not enough anymore. We as a society deserve better. The youth deserves better from the people, who are supposed to be on their side, guiding them in this rich, colorful world of ours. How can we learn the ability to “see outside the box”, an acquired skill in the toolbox of creative thinking, when the educational system is designed to keep us right inside it?

Sure, every once in a while “an exceptional mind” may prevail despite the predicament that is imposed upon it, but every child and adult alike has the capacity to be like a creative genius, to think better, a belief I firmly hold, if only guided in how to expand their thinking further into the realm of creativity.

Read’s claims of aesthetic sensibility as a key ingredient in the thinking process was supported by the research conducted by the school of Gestalt psychology in his own time, and in today’s research, he finds his support in Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist and psychologist, whose focus is on creativity. She opens up about her research in an article titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain”, in which she concludes that: “For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied. In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.” (Andreasen, 2014).

Although much of her emphasis is on discovering links between creativity and mental illness (whether they exist and the possible nature of them), there are valuable notes she makes in her article, especially when mentioning a connection between nurture and becoming a creative genius, suggesting that the level of creativity an individual has may be affected through guidance. She also suggests that: “The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other. If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error.” (Andreasen, 2014). The rift between arts and science has persisted, I do see this as a grave mistake, and as Andreasen writes in her article, many of her study subjects (award winning artists and Nobel laureates) found the standard ways of learning wanting, even distracting.

“Education through Art” and “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” are must reads for professionals involved in the educational systems, but I do not place much faith in people holding the budget cuts ax. In Finland, this year, major cuts in education have been a polarizing subject of discussion in the public domain.

I am sorely disappointed in Finnish policymakers, calling for more “quality research” to lift Finland from its slumber and pointing the finger at universities: do more, do something, we need more innovation to create jobs. Yes, shit has been hitting the fan for nearly a decade now as far as economy goes in this small Nordic country, to put in a crude way.

But to demand for research results that can be commercialized speaks of a complete misunderstanding on how innovation happens, research is a long process that culminates in discoveries, which in turn can be engineered into practical applications. But this takes time, in some cases decades. And now you’re taking away funding to do this?

Take graphene for example. First recognized in the 19th century, theorized in 1947, isolated in 2004 (Bradley, 2014), and in 2016? Scientists are still dabbling around with it to see what kind of practical applications it may have – the promise it contains for future uses. It is the story of aluminum all over again and the long road it took before revolutionizing our society (or before it started making some serious profit).

So where does art fit in all of this you may ask? Excellent question. The appreciation of all things considered artistic may be at a decline, when job driven societies experience economic troubles, sacrifices must be made, and the steak has to be trimmed from excess fat, most likely the first layer to go is cultural projects. But consider this, innovation and creative thinking (future scientists leading and working on projects) starts at a grass root level, with children. Teach them the way of “creative geniuses” of which for example Herbert Read and Schiller dreamed of, and we will nurture a generation of fluid thinkers and doers, who will go where no man has gone before, and perhaps bring back awe-inspiring stories of what they have discovered in the process of building our future.

The first of May in Finland is a celebration of workers, and traditionally in Helsinki a statue “Havis Amanda” is capped by local university students. In 2016 ironically enough the central theme was art and it was the art students, who received the honor of placing the symbol of higher education on the statue’s temples, a white cap a student receives in Finland after finishing their high school studies.

The office of education took a major hit this year in Finland, a public outcry is warning of a “brain bleed”, the most talented and skilled may leave in search of more fertile grounds for doing research in hopes of receiving more understanding for what they’re doing. Workers in the field of culture and science are holding their breath in anticipation, extremely worried that the colors of our Finnish landscape once beautiful are slowly fading, and it is painful to watch as an advocate of arts and science. A saying goes that forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing, and the educational budget cut mess is truly reaching biblical proportions with nearly unforgivable ramifications for some.

 

References:

Read (1943). Education through Art. London: Faber and Faber

Andreasen (2014). Secrets of the Creative Brain. An online article. Referenced May 10th 2016: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

Bradley (2014). A Chemical History of Graphene. An online article. Referenced May 10th 2016: http://www.materialstoday.com/carbon/comment/chemical-history-of-graphene/

Sentenac (2014). Pearl Paint Art Supply Store Reacreated in Wynwood. An online article. Referenced May 10th 2016: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/arts/pearl-paint-art-supply-store-recreated-in-wynwood-6484957

Recommendation: “Terms and Conditions May Apply”. A Documentary on the Absence of Privacy.

I’m subscribed to a number of social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+… And probably a few more that I can’t even remember the names of. I’m not an avid poster, I may do one update a week, a few if the power of sharing really compels me, but I do use a good bit of time on following what fellow social networkers are up to on the aforementioned platforms; clicking, reading, sharing and liking.

I spend even more time on the powerhouse search engine (that doesn’t need to be named for everyone to know which one I’m talking about) typing in things like… healthy snacks, bodyweight workouts, parson russell terriers, stuff that’s pretty normal, stuff that anyone reading my search history would think this person is trying to get in shape, and possibly has a dog. And they would be correct.

Then there’s this I’ve typed in the search box: Wormholes, black holes, time travel, the Manhattan project, Nazis, aliens, abductions, cattle mutilations, shadow government, black ops… Need I go on? I hope whoever finds that, also sees the searches I’ve made for common sci-fi topics, writing and writing competitions. I write sci-fi. No one has diagnosed me as bat crazy yet, but my search history would undeniably suggest that.

One of those bat crazy searches landed a documentary on my lap titled “Terms and Conditions May Apply”, released in 2013. It highlights the absence of digital privacy and the surveillance conducted on average people, which in turn, results in profiling based on their digital behavior, and one may ask …so what? I got nothing to hide. Well, the documentary also paints the scenario depicted in the movie “Minority Report”, where people are arrested pre-emptively (and prosecuted) for crimes they did not commit yet, a society where a digital eye prevents its members from behaving in an undesired way. Worrisome. And it’s already happening as we learn through three different cases in the UK from recent years.

Here are a few quotes of interest from “Terms and Conditions May Apply”:

“The Patriot Act expanded the ability of the Federal Government to do surveillance in a lot of little ways. You don’t need a judge’s approval for instance to find out what websites someone visited, what search terms they typed into Google–“

 Declan McCullagh,CNET’s news.com Chief Political Correspondent

“There are companies you’ve never heard of, like Axiom, that claim to have about 1,500 points of data on the average American citizen, everything from, you know, whether you’re right or left handed, what kind of dog you have, what your sort of psychological outlook is, and all of that can be used to inform the decisions that businesses make about us as well.”

Eli Pariser, Author (“The Filter Bubble)

“According to the Department of Homeland Security reports Facebook has replaced almost every other CIA information gathering program since it was launched in 2004.”

A News clip in “Terms and Conditions May Apply”

“After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded so many people would willingly publicize where they live, their religious and political views, and advertise lists of all their friends, personal email addresses, phone numbers, hundreds of photos of themselves, and even status updates about what they were doing moment to moment– It is truly a dream come true for the CIA.”

Christopher Sartinsky, Deputy CIA Director

“It turns out that, in this environment, a digital environment, there’s a loophole to the Fourth Amendment, which is, if a third party collects a lot of this information, that government doesn’t have to go through those same hoops, it’s called the third party doctrine.”

John Palfrey, Professor of Law (Harvard Law School) on government acquiring private records through third parties such as Google and Facebook.

“Terms and Conditions May Apply” is a must watch for anyone living in the digital age and partaking actively in it. The illusion of the delete button fools a lot of cyber citizens, and this documentary served as a reminder that whatever happens on the internet, stays on the internet, and it’s guaranteed someone is following your digital footprints.

I also recommend the Apple agreements episode by South Park:

Born in 1984

George Orwell made year 1984 famous with his book that is similarly titled, and I can’t help but draw a connection between his story and the generation that was born around the 80’s and after. Orwell imagined a society in the late 40’s that would actualize itself in the lives of a whole generation in the world of today.

It is no surprise that the sales of “Nineteen Eighty-four” went up by 7,000 percent on Amazon, when the reaches of the mass surveillance programs came to public light, but I have to wonder, have our attitudes already been re-educated to accept what Orwell called Big Brother is watching you?

We have a show titled Big Brother, a celebration of 24/7 surveillance on ordinary people living under one roof, not to mention the growing number of other reality shows that follow their subjects around. Social media has given a platform to non-celebrities to get their piece of the exposure pie, every now and then lifting one of us ordinary people to the pedestal of skyrocketing public interest in who we are and what we do. There is a craving for wanting to be seen and heard.

Having been born in 1984, I remember seeing a lot of events on TV. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I was only five years old, and I wondered why people were hacking at a wall with sledgehammers and crying. Later, I understood the importance of what I had seen. Back then people had to physically climb over a wall, and eventually bring it down, to promote freedom of choice and not be patronized by their own government.

Even though I was in another country and very young to understand what was going on, the emotionally charged images on the screen affected me deeply, I have drawn from them in my own writing in You and Me and the Devil Makes Three:

“His eyes turned dark grey like the stone on the Berlin wall in 1989, the moment to pick up the sledgehammers had come about. Two worlds were about to collide and I could only stand aside like the East German government, watching people hack away at the wall.”

In my book I use the Berlin Wall to describe a moment in which my main character has to face the consequences of what she’s done, she can’t control the events anymore and like the day, when the gates of the Berlin wall stood open, she had to let the truth come to light, stand aside much like the East German government and let its people cross over.

In 1991 I recall watching Boris Yeltsin stand atop a tank in Moscow, giving a speech, again, too young to understand what was going on. Later the same year the giant of USSR was brought to its knees, an event that’s been described as a victory for freedom, democracy over totalitarianism.

Those same borders of the west and the east can be drawn onto a different map now, this time all digital. There are unseen walls and authorities governing information on the internet, eavesdropping on what’s being said and shared. Awareness of those invisible walls and systems in place is increasing, because there are people like Snowden and Assange, who take the sledgehammer and pound it to the wall so others can see it too.

The recent leaks on surveillance are not the last of their kind, I’m sure. I feel we are at a breaking point as a society, where change driven by the will of people doesn’t necessarily happen on the streets anymore as massive protests (of course it can do that, Arab Spring as a good recent example), but on an immaterial level that uses internet as one of its tools.

And it’s important to protect the integrity of that tool. For now it’s been relatively safe to state your opinion online and share information, but there are places, where it isn’t quite so, and where information is not readily available on certain topics.

Orwell told a tale of a totalitarian society almost 65 years ago and it has become quite the reality for my generation, and we contribute to it somewhat on daily basis for example by using social media, watching shows like Big Brother, we are becoming more desensitized to being watched and being followed. It’s almost as if our inner Winston Smiths are being awakened, where in the end, after all the struggle against the Big Brother, we end up professing our love to it.

Perceiving reality in a house of mirrors

What you perceive on a daily basis builds the foundation for your reality, right?

And those perceptions are pretty important while deciding what your next move is, whether it’s looking left and right and once more left before crossing the street, or choosing between the latest and possibly most hyped movies you wanna see at the theater. Depending on what you see and take away from it, you could get hit by a car or regret spending money on a movie ticket. (Or not.)

But what if some of those perceptions were already rigged to begin with? 

For example, ever heard of Luxottica? Neither had I until I saw the 60 Minutes special on this Italian company that makes eye glasses for a lot of big name brands like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Versace and the list goes on. The criticism was aimed at their apparent domination over manufacturing and distribution of eye wear world wide, the consumers think they are purchasing something uniquely crafted for them by a high fashion house, when in fact it’s one company lurking behind the veil of different brand names that’s making and even designing the eye glasses for the fashion houses. In short, the main argument presented by 60 Minutes was: So what are you wearing again? Most likely Luxottica. Perceived variety of choices.

It’s not like it’s a secret, but they’re not exactly advertising it either. And that’s how we enter the world of making impressions, effects that are produced on somebody. It’s fair to assume that most people are quite savvy about how different companies persuade the consumer on their side by using advertisements, highlighting various properties of their product to generate a certain perception of it to get people to buy it. Advertising is an easy example as it is pretty much in everybody’s face, and everybody knows what the main goal of companies that produce goods is: to sell.

But what about the other things they want us to buy? Like information.

The media coverage on the case of Edward Snowden is an interesting one. The conversation seems to be about how much damage the American did to the government and whether he is a traitor or not. How many mainstream news outlets are talking about the core issue? The state of the 4th amendment in the US today and how Americans feel about the surveillance programs at work. According to a poll by TIME over half of Americans think Snowden did a good thing by informing his fellow citizens of the surveillance programs, but the conversation seems to be revolving around everything else, such as what his girlfriend posted on YouTube, or whether we should call him a whistleblower at all. Talk about quibbling.

What do you do, when you need issues out of limelight and forgotten, because you can’t change the opinions on them in your favor? You change the conversation. And that’s what’s happening to Snowden here, all the irrelevant sideshows are headlining now, the main show is being left in the dark.

The most important tool for anybody living in a 21st century world with too much information being bumped at them is discernment, the ability to judge well. Going past our initial perceptions of things around us is vital to making wise decisions. A story that appeals to our emotions may sway our opinion one way or another, but when we turn the critical thinking on, does the story make any valid statements, or do they collapse under scrutiny?

While reading a story, one may ask questions such as …What supporting evidence is there to back up the arguments made? Does the story bring up opposing arguments and how does it treat them? How does the story arrange different facts to a logical conclusion, are they facts or are they suppositions, something that has not been verified by data? And that’s just scratching the surface, but the basic idea is to exercise the force of logic before signing yours truly under something that has been treated by a spin doctor. To put it dramatically.

Deciphering what really happened in a world that is powered by impressions, some justified and some less so, can be like a house of mirrors. Depending on where you get your news from, the same story might have a different spin on it determined by the outlet’s bias they’re pushing, whether it’s liberal, conservative or corporate etc… And I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing having different viewpoints (obviously not), but oversimplification of issues leads to unawareness, and unawareness leads to uninformed decisions, which may work only to a small percentage’s favor whether it’s about a policy change or trusting a medicine’s safety.

My question is, what are we so afraid of? Is confronting the core of issues and having genuine conversations about them really that bad? I would like to think that we the public can handle talking about the big boy and big girl issues in a fair way without being given information that is filtered or watered down.

So next time you’re reading about breaking news or watching the events as they fold, ask yourself, what are they serving their Kool-Aid with?