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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.




September 18, 2007, 1:46 PM

Excellent post! Good analyses & comparisons! You could go on and on with this.

The MacArthur Foundation wastes a lot of $$ on art stuff and hyped-up do-good projects.

It is interesting that the writing in each selection is stylistically the same, as if the same person wrote it, but of course one is mush and the other points to a clear-cut and inescapably beneficial result.

This is why the NY Times, for me, consists of the science section, the crossword puzzle, and, alas, the obituaries.

Notice also in the art description the equivalence set up between "good art" and "art that does a lot". I also hear this a lot when people talk about music, about "fusion" and "borrowing from a lot of cultures" and not being "narrow" and all the usual boundry-transgressing BS.



September 18, 2007, 3:31 PM

It may interest some of you to know that, at the university where I teach, the college of fine arts entering freshmen have the highest test scores of all the various colleges, including engineering.

I speculate the reason for this is that the arts attract idealistic people, and idealism and intelligence are closely associated. Hence, this "unexpected" result. I put that in quotes because it has been true ever since the college of fine arts was formed in 1972.



September 18, 2007, 4:03 PM

Catfish, do you think those numbers would hold up for incoming graduate students?



September 18, 2007, 4:12 PM

We have a correlation like that, too, so I understand, but it gets quickly diluted by students who can't hack biology and change to art to eat up the credits, and such like.

I doubt that it holds for grad students. The reasons and surrounding circumstances are so different. Some of my dumbest BFA majors end up going to some art diploma mill somewhere to get an MFA.



September 18, 2007, 4:47 PM

I don't know, Franklin. Our grad program has been mistreated in so many ways that I won't bother to recount them here. It would make an interesting paradox if, despite the mistreatment, the numbers held for it as well. I'll check around.



September 18, 2007, 5:00 PM

My own case is of interest. When I was a senior in HS they gave us a battery of tests. There was even a manual dexterity test, where they timed how many washers you could put on the end of a stick which, being an adolescent wise ass, I executed by tossing the washers in the air and skewering them as they fell toward the table. I would put a little spin on them so they didn't tumble end over end and had a grand time picking them out of mid air while my classmates simply stuffed as many of them on the stick as they could.

The guidance guy called me in later to discuss the results. He said I had the highest IQ in the school and, as high as that score was, there was one other score that was even higher, the ability to visualize in space. My only average score, in fact, was manual dexterity.

Did he suggest that I ought to look into art? No. He said that the tests meant I would do well in engineering. So I went off to college to be a chemical engineer. I don't think my manual dexterity score was the issue, either.



September 18, 2007, 7:31 PM

how you guys doing, thanks for the message about be able to dive -in any time.well I read what you guys wrote I agree with you guys comments. T he truth of the matter is that when it comes to art and anything else art is something that is like this high rush that runs thru your vains.No other thing out there gives you a natural high
like that.Anyway I finally got that book.-good stuff. This is more or less like a reference but that even better. So I be busy for a couple of days, just finished a pychology class online, that went well.and my next one is english. not too happy about that.oh well- lifes good.



September 18, 2007, 8:35 PM

Forgive my logorrhea, but programming is not the same as software development, any more than craft is the same as artistic endeavor.

Programming -- aka coding -- can be learned and transferred. Anyone with a logical mind can pursue it to one degree or another. One can go to school for it. One can read a book for it. One can learn about efficient algorithms and memory management, and like aeronautical engineering, its correlation to the real world allows people to test for success in relatively objective ways. When I tell people I'm a software developer, all sorts of folks from all walks of life tell me their stories from punch cards (a salesman) to Python (a biomedical researcher).

But oddly enough almost nobody has ever told me how they built a full application suite from end to end. Analysis shares few of the same characteristics as coding. There are published methodologies for software development, well-established design patterns for describing many real-world problems, and tricks of the trade, but ultimately a complex piece of end-user software needs more than this. It needs to be composed like a novel or symphony, first on paper, and then in code, aiming at a target as subjective and fickle as the wind, as the recently-deceased Maestro might have sung were he still with us today.

Analysis and coding are two different halves of software development, and analysts and coders are two different types of people. And there are far fewer of the former than the latter. Most coders will say things like, "just tell me what code to write and I'll write it." They can't or won't do the analysis. They just want to implement whatever was decided.

On the other hand analysts will say things like, "If you analyze the problem correctly, the code falls out." Coding to them can be taken for granted, not because it's easy, but because once the requirements are defined, the code can be tested objectively against them. You just keep coding until you get it to work, or you run out of money. Defining the requirements in the first place is the subjective part.

Are Apple's coders better than Microsoft's? Highly unlikely. Are they better than linux's? Perhaps even more unlikely. But look at the iPhone. Do you think a linux coder, if they worked at Apple, could have helped program that? Of course they could. It's not even a question. But could the open-source community ever have designed it? Never. No way. Not a snowball's chance in Hell.

It took Apple's creativity to design and specify that device. Once they formulated the requirements correctly, the code fell right out. Again, not to minimize the skills involved in coding, or even in manufacturing, but only to demonstrate the supreme importance of setting the right target first. Apple had its Newton 15 years ago too. It was probably coded and manufactured just as well as the iPhone, but the target just wasn't true.

The world is not an objective place. Richard Rorty said truth is what other people let you get away with. Pockets of objectivity slap us in the face from time to time, but even aeronautical engineering is subject to probability at the end of the day. An airplane does not simply fly or not. It merely fails to crash, with a certain estimated probability. One can objectively say, "this plane flew," but one can never objectively say, "this plane can again fly." Of course the risk can be minimized to a point where it is sufficiently indistinguishable from zero, but in general the world will never be an objective place. I've found the best strategy is to make peace with this idea and move along.



September 18, 2007, 8:47 PM

No MFA for Hovig, I'll bet.
No MEng for me, you can be sure.



September 18, 2007, 8:59 PM

A glance back at your last paragraph, Hovig, gives me a slurpee-head squint - doesn't probability belong in one of those objective pockets?



September 18, 2007, 9:16 PM

Truth and probablility and useful information and all the rest are not mutually exclusive. Why exalt the notion of "truth" Why does everyone have a problem with this?



September 19, 2007, 8:03 AM

Ahab, I admit my last paragraph was weak. I guess I don't have a very good command of discussing subjective concepts. No MFA for me. Maybe I'm having a hard time distinguishing objectivity from certainty. Maybe I'm thinking that certainty is a necessary pre-requisite for objectivity, and I'm mixing up the two. Maybe objectivity only differs from subjectivity in degree, not kind. Objectivity would be a perfect comparison to a perfect reference, whereas subjectivity is imperfect in one or both ways.

Opie, I thought the main arguments about pomotalk were that it fails to take truth seriously, and inappropriately declares the death of objectivity.



September 19, 2007, 8:18 AM

Hovig, the problem with "pomotalk" is that it places way too much importance on talk.



September 19, 2007, 8:30 AM

I think there's something wrong with the subjective/objective split in the first place. Our internal representations are subject to physiology and neurochemistry and thus objective on some level; probably even psychology has predictable and causal qualities. On the other hand, there are no external observers. As Opie put it once, we're just the part of the world that walks around thinking about it.

The universe is likely a highly orderly place about which we have skewed and partial data. Truth isn't subjective or relative, it's just difficult to complete. That this is probably to be our lot in perpetuity doesn't mean we shouldn't try to close the gap.



September 19, 2007, 9:35 AM

It was late and I phrased that carelessly, Hovig. What was bugging me is that all these heavy-duty academics run around making a big deal that there is no "truth" because everything is "relative" when in fact truth is not now nor ever has been anything but a utilitarian concept which does not easily adapt to absolute conditions anyway.

In an effort to introduce stability to socialized human life there have been (and are) all sorts of attempts to declare "absolute truth" of one sort or another but modern thinking has long ago more or less discounted these things. Even scientists - especially where things are "hot", like particle physics or astronomy or human origins - expect current knowledge to radically change regularly.

So it seems to me that the whole truth/relativism thing is simple a pragmatic matter and pretty useless as a philosophical topic.



September 19, 2007, 10:11 AM

This is the "weapons-grade" stuff I come here to read.

I'm constantly baffled at how much art's only metric seems to be the hot air puffed around it. I joked to the team of archeologists I rent studio space from (who, though making guesses about lots of things, go as far as they can to reduce that) that my best skill form art school is being able to bs about anything.

I think someone mentioned this on another thread, but certain words should be banned for 50 years form art writng. Transgress, boundary, interrogate, challenge. Whenever I see those words I cover my nose because I kno the crap is coming.



September 19, 2007, 10:54 AM

You got it, WWC.

Art attracts hot air because it attracts people who are full of hot air. They can't get away with it elsewhere, as per Franklin's excellent example above.

Also, explore, embrace, impact, levels, concerns, address, privileged, passion, dialogue, strategies, transformative, interdisciplinary, multicultural, unique, unparalleled, module, outreach, approach, significant and dozens of others, many of them perfectly good words but beaten to death through misuse by the cultural illiterati. I ban them from my art-writing class - "If you write 'explore' you better be in a jungle" - but I can't plug it up beyond that. We need fines & imprisonment.

There's nothing wrong with making guesses. Making guesses is how we get through life.
All you have to do, when writing about it, is say "I guess ..." or "I think...". This establishes that you are not sure, which ie perfectly legitimate.



September 19, 2007, 11:32 AM

Yes on guesses. Some days it seems like all the work I do is guesses. I meant to say they make their work as rigorous as they can, even with the inevitable interpretation. It would be funny to read some future archeologist's description of a Hirst or whatever compared with the contemporary puffery about it.



September 19, 2007, 11:51 AM

"...It certainly must be the skull of a very important person, a king perhaps, or even one considered to be a god. Back then, before carbon synthesis made diamonds as common as rocks, they were extremely valuable..."



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