For the next sixty seconds… (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.) I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon. Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence. For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life. One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience. It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself. Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web. The ever-entangling internet of things.
I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop. My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day? Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen. “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.” But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update. I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple. This is a test. Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them. But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive. Oh, so it needs a reboot! (Don’t we all?) I give the command to restart. It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking. Force quit. “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks. “You might lose unsaved changes.” I need a technological evangelist, I guess.
All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity. Restart, login, start copying files. Time for work! Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation. Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software. Artists can talk to you and shake your hand. Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms. Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it. I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known. Anyone who uses a computer experiences it. Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time. The choice is yours. This is a test. For the next sixty years…
You can tell when the holiday season settles on the city. The commute home takes longer because developers simply can’t ignore a highway and the potential it has for shipping in the lucre. Highway 22 is built up in several spots—it’s kind of like a 20-mile long roadside mall between where the bus enters it and my exit. Holiday shoppers right after work clog this artery faster than fried eggs for breakfast every day. We crawl, penitent, wanting only to reach home. You get to know the regulars on the bus. You may not know their names, but their faces and personalities become clear enough. The man sitting across the row from me was someone I couldn’t recall having seen before. Lots of people, of course, go into New York occasionally. A stranger on the bus isn’t exactly rare.
Near my stop I slip into the empty seat next to the aisle to get ready to disembark. He looks over at me and asks if he can give me a bookmark he’s made. Worse than talking to strangers is taking candy from one. He encourages me by telling me he does it to promote his work, since he writes haikus and does paintings. I accept one and learn of the website unfoldingmind.com. He then asks what I’ve been reading. If you read my posts in order, you can see my last book was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. There’s a reason I don’t tell my fellow passengers about my literary choices. I say it is a book about an exorcism and he takes it in stride, asking if it was an actual case.
I had my own unfolding moment then. Not only was it the case that I could mention exorcism in casual conversation, but a man considerably younger than me knew what it was. Stop and think about that: prior to the movie and novel, The Exorcist, very few modern people even knew about the rite. Strangers on a bus, both artists in their own way, I like to think, knew what this was. I look at my bookmark, some original art with a haiku on it, and think of the many interesting people that make this bus their temporary domicile. Occasionally, amid the snoring phone-movie watchers, is another passenger using the long ride home to open his or her mind. The bookmark is now amid the artifacts of my personal museum. And my words, hardly poetry, are a tribute to those who practice the arts that make us human.
At work Christian Century is a magazine that sometimes lands on my desk. I suspect the book reviews are the main reason for this, but I like to skim the headlines to see what the more progressive, popular periodical has to say about the world. I always glimpse the news in brief section, and quite often the quotes of the week are poignant. This past week I read one from Paul Simon, who was speaking at Princeton University. The quote ran, “We are living in an anti-art age. The world is now a brutal place and obsessed with speed and wealth.” I found my head nodding as I read that sentiment. While I was a little too young to be aware of Paul Simon’s considerable contribution to popular music while it was happening (although I was old enough to appreciate Graceland when it came out), I nevertheless listened to Simon and Garfunkel during college and beyond, amazed at the depth and accuracy of Simon’s poetry. Here was a true artist.
What a difference half a century can make. I find myself not recognizing the world that I took for an assured thing as a child. Drawing back to get some perspective—which is something I think Paul Simon would appreciate—I think about the world without technology. Other species, for example. The behavior of, say, deer is the same today as it was when Europeans first invaded these shores. While deer still wander out onto roads in their natural quest for food, we race at them in heavy machines that leave them dead and twisted grotesquely at the roadside. Deer may not have the mental capacity to think, “hey, there’s fewer predators than there used to be,” but they are frequently brought into contact with a technology that is so nineteenth century, and the result is fatal. Where has the artistry gone? The deer remain the same.
I read a lot of older stuff. When I see the literature that was clearly published for its beauty of language and artistry, it brings a tear to my eye. We don’t publish work like that any more, unless it can make money. Everything has become a calculated capital venture. If you can’t make money off it, it’s not worth doing. When I was stressing out in college over exams, I would sometimes put on my old Simon and Garfunkel records and listen to the deep and complex lyrics to “Mrs. Robinson,” or “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” or “The Sound of Silence.” Despite the angst, this was a world that had a place for beauty for its own sake. It’s not just the music that’s changed since then, because I knew that I was listening to the words of a prophet. And prophets only appear when there’s trouble ahead.
Evolution has appeared as a threat to the Christian establishment ever since Charles Darwin worked out a mechanism by which it could work without God. In the western world, particularly in the United States, evolution has always been a religious issue; it seems that if we remove God from the development of humankind we remove him from the universe. The thing is, natural selection works on such an elegant scale that the scientific endeavor itself almost hinges on it. And still people believe. I flatter myself with thinking I’m a creative sort, and so Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution provided an intriguing consideration of how we might become creators in a world lacking a creator. Well, I shouldn’t be so crass; Dutton has no atheistic agenda—he is interested in exploring what natural function the human love of art might have. We do know that art appears well before civilization itself, and Dutton has a suspicion that natural selection’s lesser known sibling sexual selection might have an explanatory role. He isn’t willing to go all the way and say art is just a mating strategy, but art and love are no doubt bound closely together.
I read The Art Instinct wondering if there might be some collateral insight into the origin of religion. I wasn’t disappointed. Within the first ten pages religion entered the discussion and it never really left. Not that sexual selection evolved religion, but the traits of the religious often parallel those of the artist. As Dutton points out, some theorists almost equate religion and art. For me one of the main features of this thought experiment was the innate questioning of reductionism. While there is no doubt a stark beauty to the idea that an atomistic theory might explain every weird little thing that we do in the name of art and religion, real life just doesn’t feel that way. The reductionist will counter that emotions have evolved as well, and surely there is a measure of truth in that. Nevertheless there is too much that goes unexplained in this mechanistic worldview. Even Dutton occasionally uses the language of the soul.
Sublimity remains a noble state. The feeling that we have standing before a painting that yanks our very consciousness into itself, or when a symphony sweeps us to places we can’t begin to articulate, or a poet distills in a handful of words what an entire lifetime has taught us—these experiences certainly don’t feel like electrons racing through a gray matter racetrack. Even stepping out the door on some autumn mornings can bring the essence of life into a single, compact moment when nature’s art transcends the human capacity for understanding. Science, at such times, is the farthest thing from our minds. Or at least mine. Perhaps it’s a personal defect. As Dutton notes in his Afterword, his thesis has raised the ire of reductionists and the religious alike. To me that sounds like he’s probably headed in the right direction. Religion may not be art, but art is life. Reducing life to a series of earning opportunities in a godless marketplace may make me believe in Hell yet.
Usually I resist mentioning books I’m reading on this blog until I have finished them. It is probably because of some misplaced Protestant guilt at taking a small measure of undeserved satisfaction at claiming an achievement that I haven’t legitimately earned. Or maybe it is my innate fear that the author will say, on page 200, “by the way, everything before this is wrong.” In any case, sometimes I forget the important initial stages of a grand argument by the time I reach the final chapters, neglecting any ideas that may have arisen along the way. I just started Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets. I read her Gothicka earlier this summer, and couldn’t wait to get started on Puppets. Besides, when was the last time I saw an academic book with a back-cover sound-byte by Neil Gaiman?
The idea that is so compelling in The Secret Life of Puppets is that in the modern era religion and art have reversed roles. That is to say, people tend to turn to literature (and movies or other media) to discover a sense of transcendence—previously the bailiwick of religion. Religion has transformed into the receptacle of literary imagination instead of remaining the inspiration for it. New Religious Movements grow out of fictional sources—consider Scientology or Jediism or the religions growing from Avatar. But the connection runs to even more profound depths. Quoting a screenwriter she met, Nelson points out that horror movies are often the only genre of film in which God comes naturally into the conversation. Elsewhere God-talk feels high-handed.
Religion has become a kind of fiction while fiction writers preserve the prerogatives of the divine. We suffer from repressing our intuitive way of knowing. Perhaps it is only logical that I select an example from science fiction here. Since the late ’60’s the figure of Mr. Spock has stood sentinel over the neurosis of the flawlessly logical. Just one glimpse and we know this is not homo sapiens sapiens’ behavior. We think with both halves of our divided brains. Scientists sometimes commit the oh so human fallacy of supposing evolution is robbing us of passion. Falling in love would be a lot less enjoyable if it made sense. No, we have not outlived our need for the gods. I think Neil Gaiman would back me up on that.
Providence is not always as assured as the divine aid its name suggests. Rhode Island’s capital, like most cities, hosts significant dualities—people who have more than an abundance and those who struggle to get by. There are also those who don’t. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, artists have created WaterFire—an organic sculpture bringing together the pre-Socratic four elements, but focusing on the two encompassed in its name. Great braziers are dot the middle of Providence’s rivers and WaterFire is a new performance art that suggests a religious underpinning. On Saturday, during Brown University’s commencement exercises, WaterFire was performed. Watching fire erupting in the iron braziers as the fire dancer twirled flaming sphere in intricate and dangerous patterns, I felt a primal sense of awe. Indeed, the fire dancer’s motions would be classified as religious by anthropologists in an unfamiliar context.
Religion is generally a response to that which we cannot control. Conscious beings like to think they have some measure of control over their destinies—indeed, people behave that way constantly. It doesn’t take much, however, to demonstrate that our sphere of control is actually miniscule and tenuous. Religions assure us that some cosmic older sibling (whether deity or force or principle) is on our side, watching our backs. Ceremonies propitiate any angry being and bring us back into the graces of elements beyond our control. Is this not the very meaning of the name Providence?
Watching the blazing bonfires tracing the contours of the river, lit by a dancer in time to moving music, WaterFire felt like more than simple performance. Fire is a powerful element, necessary and dangerous to our existence. Water too is crucial, but threatens to overwhelm us as our planet is mostly covered in it. Earth and air often seem the more comfortable elements, often inert and unconsidered. We never confront fire or water in the natural world without giving pause to consider their significance. Whether it is crossing a river or opening an umbrella, water forces itself onto our consciousness. Fire even more so. WaterFire taps into something vital and may just be the real divine guidance that Providence requires at this time.
Few people would deny that religion and art share a common heritage. Some of the earliest human art was religiously motivated (I would contend that cave paintings and Paleolithic figurines were religious objects), and much of the contemporary art scene derives its inspiration from religious motifs and constructs. Not all art is religious, however, and not all religions are friendly toward art. Nevertheless, there is a tangible connection.
This weekend was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for a New Jersey March. This led us to take our visiting family to Grounds for Sculpture, one of New Jersey’s often overlooked treasures. Built on the remains of the old State Fair grounds in Hamilton, this park houses an impressive array of outdoor sculpture that is contemplative, innovative, puckishly funny, and even a little weird. It reflects the human experience. My family and I have been there multiple times, appreciating the sculpture from new angles, discovering new pieces, and seeing it all through the eyes of others.
Taste in art is highly personal and individualistic. Just like religious sensibilities. Both art and religion seek to make the human soul accessible to others through profound expression. Several of the sculptures in this unique garden bear biblical titles or suggestions, but they may be enjoyed as secular pieces of expression as well. Here is where art is superior to religion: it does not insist on any single way of expressing the truth. Sometimes, it seems, art may actually attain what religion only aspires toward.