The science of the future is… art?

Philosopher Santiago Zabala has a piece out today in Al Jazeera about the saving power of art. Globalization, he claims, has wrought an era where the aesthetic calling is not l’art pour l’art – art for art’s sake, or what I would call art for the sake of aesthetics – but rather l’art pour l’existence humaine. In other words, aesthetics has been philosophically transformed into not only the experience of our tastes and sentiments, but also the claims these experiences make about our existential situations.

“[R]adical changes brought about in the advent of global society mean that the artist today must respond to a wider public than in the past, one that is concerned with the same global issues that affect the artist… [W]e have now entered the era of “existential claims”, where we, the viewers, are the ones called to respond.”

The task of contemporary art, then, lies in appealing to our lived experience in such a way that stirs the passions and marks a call to action to engage both our own and our collective existence/s and transform it/them into more humane existences. Zabala emphasizes that the distinction lies between art as a “point of arrival” for an aesthetic experience, like the pleasure of viewing a beautiful sculpture, and art as a “point of departure to change the world.”

I offer, as an instance of this, Bret Victor’s re-working of a scientific article on the topic of network theory. The article is rendered in the style of sequential art – most notably the medium of comic books and graphic novels. He did the same for a drawing by artist Tom Oreb, which is well worth reading/viewing.

Victor’s interdisciplinary, artistic rendering of the research presented not only facilitates a different kind of engagement and understanding of the material, but also calls attention to his work as a point of departure for re-examining and re-thinking the copyright/intellectual property (IP) framework in which this research was published. @Cameron Neylon immediately raised the question via Twitter if this constituted copyright violation, a question that, for him, points to the need for open access measures in scholarly publishing. My take was that Victor’s project also constituted an innovative way of questioning the copyright/IP framework (whether he intended this or not). I would call his project original and innovative, and yet copyright law might flag it as ‘wrongdoing’. Who is right? Is there an absolute right/wrong in such a situation?

Victor’s art is engaging the existential situation in which scholars find themselves: entrenched under the aegis of the scholarly publishing industry and the corresponding copyright/IP legal framework. Another argument for Open Access, definitely; if we (academics and those affiliated with research and scholarship) are committed to furthering interdisciplinary study specifically, and creative work generally, then it becomes a requirement for us to also consider the ways in which current publishing standards, organization frameworks, and integral processes or institutions such as peer review are helping or – more likely – hindering the kind of exploration and experimentation that results in successful creative work.

After exploring Victor’s bio page, my proposition in this regard is that authentically interdisciplinary or innovative efforts cannot happen without cultivating creative, incisive, and broadly-educated people. This is the classic theme of Greek philosophy: the question of how and whether one’s society flourishes – and, therefore, the individuals within in – always comes back to education.

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