Monday, May 18, 2009

The Two Cultures, and some data on the public's response   posted by agnostic @ 5/18/2009 03:04:00 PM

SEED has a set of short video responses to the question "Are we beyond the Two Cultures?", a reference to the split between the arts & humanities types and the science types. Steven Pinker discusses several ways in which the arts can benefit from working with the sciences, such as gaining a better understanding of human attention, visual processing, and so on. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker argues that one reason that 20th C. art and architecture have been such huge flops is Modernism's denial of a basic human nature, both in terms of how the mind works and what things push our pleasure buttons. But aside from what has been going on in academia and the art gallery world, where does the art-consuming public stand on bridging the Two Cultures?

If we are to believe Tom Wolfe's account in From Bauhaus to Our House, in the first several decades after WWII, most of the elite considered it cool to sit in (or at least display) furniture that embodied the Modernist aesthetic. He emphasizes that Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair was particularly sought after. So, some decades later, how much does the public value Modernist design as compared to design whose forms are derived more from nature?

(The latter forms appeal to what E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia," or our native apprecation for natural forms. This idea goes back at least to the mid-19th C., when the British architect Owen Jones wrote The Grammar of Ornament, available online in full and in color. It sought to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences by investigating the general laws of aesthetics in ornamentation, and especially by pointing to the central role that nature-based forms play.)

Searching's home & garden section for Modernist keywords "Barcelona chair" gives 957 results (other searches for this item give fewer hits), "Mies" gives 435, "Corbusier" gives 284, and "Eames" (who is much more palatable) gives 1,258. Contrast this with Art Nouveau keywords: "Tiffany lamp" alone gives 10,381, while the broader "Tiffany -breakfast" (to remove Breakfast at Tiffany's memerobilia) gives 16,565 hits. Price differences don't seem to account for this, since the objects from both styles are moderately expensive.

The same order-of-magnitude difference shows up for searches of's home & garden section too. "Tiffany lamp" gives 2,003 results, while "Barcelona chair" and "Mies" each give about 40, "Corbusier" gives 303, and the less-insane "Eames" gives 466.

Finally, searching gives 147 hits for "Tiffany" (Studios) and 191 for "Gaudi," compared to only 22 for "Eames," 38 for "Corbusier," and 16 for "Mies."

So, as far as the art-buying public is concerned, most people seem to belong to the Third Culture already. It's only arts academics, critics, and others in the business of art who insist on a sharp divide between the arts & humanities and the sciences. After all, they have their territory to defend from the ever-encroaching sciences, whereas outsiders are disinterested.

I found something similar when I looked at the under- and over-valuations of composers and of painters as well: most of the art-buying public values mid-late 19th C. music and painting, mostly ignoring the Modernists.

When the elite art world abandoned its interest in the sciences, more or less as a fashion statement, it doomed itself to silliness and obscurity. Science types already read a lot outside of their main area, so we don't have terribly far left to go. However, arts & humanities types flaunt their ignorance of the sciences -- unlike Alberti or Owen Jones -- so that the burden of "closing the gap" falls more on them.

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