Art and intelligence, or lack thereof
Post #1056 • September 18, 2007, 1:15 PM • 19 Comments
Commenter Vitruvius, at David Thompson's fine blog:
The problems with modern western universities, in particular, are due to the crazy notion some people have had, over the last few decades, that since university graduates traditionally tended to be more productive and successful, everyone should be a university graduate.
This has had two negative effects. Firstly, the intellectual quality of the average student has gone down. It is now the case that a BA is worth no more than a high-school diploma once was. When I did my masters it was considered optional and maybe even a bit indulgent for an engineer. Now, when hiring engineers, we are much more likely to consider a masters to be a significant advantage.
Secondly, we couldn't just throw the new portion of less intelligent students into the parts of the university that actually work, like science, medicine and engineering, because they aren't smart enough. It's all well and good to educate the kids to the best of their ability, but having incompetent doctors and falling bridges is much less than optimal.
Even the departments of English and sociology were overflowing, so we created new departments in fields like race, class, and gender "studies" to house the under-performing. Since these departments are full of, relatively speaking, losers, they have become as we now know them: the angry studies departments. ...
Until we see to it that the faux-studies departments that are the source of all the loser anger and Marxist rage on campus are denigrated to the point that they become ex-departments, we will not be receiving the value from our universities that we should.
This comment lent needed form to an inchoate suspicion of mine. I have tended to subscribe to a multiple intelligence model that holds, by implication, that artistic (correlated to spatial) intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence differ in kind, not degree. Of course, this flatters my primary skill set. But the more I look into computer programming, economics, or damn near anything, the evidence seems to contradict it.
I have already lamented the fact that art writing can borrow ideas from math so half-assedly and still find its way into allegedly serious journals. Today I'll go further and say that artistic intelligence and scientific intelligence vary both in kind and degree.
The MacArthur Foundation profiles fellow Shahzia Sikander thusly:
Shahzia Sikander is an artist whose visually striking, resonant works merge the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary forms and styles. Her art ranges from intimate watercolors to mural-scale wall paintings and multi-layered paper installations, from intricate photographs to bold juxtapositions of painting and digital animation. Trained as a miniaturist at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, Sikander recasts the conventions of this centuries-old tradition and challenges notions about the division of art and craft. While traversing cultural, geographic, and psychological boundaries and combining seemingly disparate formal elements, she skillfully expresses a respect for the distinctiveness of the cultures she explores. The results are painstakingly detailed drawings and vibrantly hued paintings that reveal themselves over time and reflect profoundly on the relationship between the present and the past and the richness of multicultural identities. In other projects, Sikander experiments with digital media to uproot the unity of her own miniatures and reposition their fragments with graceful movements of camera-work. This artist’s constant rethinking of media and visual sources makes her work a fluid, elaborately rendered commentary on diasporic experiences and our ever-changing world.
It offers this summary of the work of Claire Tomlin:
Claire Tomlin is an aviation engineer who focuses on developing methods for analyzing hybrid control systems and applying these results to practical problems. Hybrid systems consist of interacting discrete and continuous elements, such as in power plants where there are a series of open or closed valves (discrete) and varying water temperatures or pressures (continuous). Much of Tomlin's research concentrates on aeronautical applications of hybrid systems research, particularly aircraft flight control and air traffic conflict resolution. As the number of variables increases and their interactions become more complex, it becomes ever more difficult to guarantee that systems will always be within safe limits. Tomlin has developed practical algorithms for determining when unsafe conditions may arise, and for establishing feedback control laws for a hybrid system guaranteed to remain within a safe subset of all reachable states. This result holds broad applications for other hybrid systems such as military operations, business strategies, and power grid control. Tomlin is also extending her research to issues of autonomous multi-vehicle control and control theory of differentiation and development in biological tissues.
Does aeronautics employ clichés on the order of challenges notions, multicultural identities, diasporic experiences, or our ever-changing world? I would suspect not, for reasons hinted at by Vitruvius above: aeronautical engineering is hard, doing it wrong could get someone killed, and people incapable of it go into less demanding professions. Ironically, I find the Tomlin bio much easier to understand than the one on Sikander, which I can fight my way through only because of repeated exposure to the jargon. Tomlin's specialty uses terminology that will make your eyes water, but its correlation to the real world makes it possible for a copy editor at the MacArthur Foundation to render it in plain English. Not so for Sikander's field, in which the jargon exists to flatter itself.
If people insist on admiring art for its extrinsic qualities, we ought to insist equally that those qualities hold up, first on their own terms, and second in comparison to all creative productions. If someone sees "challeng[ing] notions about the division of art and craft" as important, let's identify who harbors such notions, what form those notions take, what it means to challenge them, and whether doing so results in a set of improved notions. Then, assuming against evidence here that we can do any of the above, let's compare the putative challenge in the artwork to, say, The Unknown Craftsman by Yanagi and Leach. Which offers the more thorough and moving exploration of the topic? We may yet find some particular trait worth valuing in the Sikander, but let's go and find it, not presume its existence. Claims for art's utility must bear scrutiny and stressors, and comparison to truly useful pursuits in its supposed achievements. Let's put its statements about this or that up against similar ones in other arts and ask which ones present themselves the best.
It comes to this: One, visual art has functionality (traversing cultural boundaries, etc.) that goes beyond the visual (just as Tomlin's work has functionality beyond aeronautics), and therefore merits comparison to other art forms and other human pursuits in general, and furthermore means that we can fairly compare Sikander's and Tomlin's intelligence. Or two, visual art exists because we want it to, for our visual delectation, and is otherwise useless, and therefore does not merit comparison to other arts or human pursuits, and furthermore voids a comparison of the two women's intelligence because we are talking about different activities in kind. The description of Sikander's work above tries to have it both ways, which necessitates content-free jargon and results in the mere semblance of utility. Clearly, it's one or the other.