The Artist as Strange Attractor (Keynote Speech)

SAC Multicultural Conference 2014 Poster

SAC Multicultural Conference 2014 Poster

Multicultural Arts Conference

Keynote Speech

San Antonio College, April 24, 2014

I would like to talk to you today about the importance of the fine arts and humanities to the progress of science and technology and why encouraging the mastery of these disciplines should be a national priority for policy makers.   First, I would like to address the widely held misperception that fine arts and humanities are impractical, tertiary or somehow superfluous to our strength as a society and economic health as a nation.  Then I would like to look at the historic and evolving role of arts in the progress of science and technology.  Finally, I would like to propose a new nonlinear paradigm for considering the fallacies of current metrics for evaluating the essential contributions of the fine arts and humanities as catalytic agents to scientific progress.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math

We have all seen those statistics coming up in our Facebook feeds, you know the ones…those doomsday figures demonstrating that no loving parent in their right mind should let their children study fine arts or humanities lest their scion be condemned to a life of eternal debt burden and a career of underemployment and poverty.  Is anybody actually surprised by these figures?  The linear conclusions drawn seem self-evident enough.  After all, most civilians at some point in their lives encounter a variety of professionals.  We all eventually need to call an information technology specialist, a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a plumber or someone from the service industries.  But how many ordinary folks, regardless of socioeconomic class, can honestly say that someone in their family actually pays a mortgage or feeds their children by creating paintings, composing music or writing novels?  How many people have in the course of their daily lives had to commission the services of an artist, a sociologist or an art historian?  For most people in our society, artists are out of sight and out of mind.  They are a mysterious class of people we know exist in the shadows, garrets and garages and then become of aware of only when they become famous.  Otherwise we either presume they don’t exist or that they live on the social and economic margins of society.  To be fair, artists have some culpability in promoting that myth.

Many commercial artists flourish in our economy.

Many commercial artists flourish in our economy.

The reality is a more dynamic and hyper-complex picture than linear extrapolation of select statistics would indicate.  Hundreds of thousands of commercial artists are employed in this country in the advertising, marketing and entertainment industries alone.  These industries in turn contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy.  Hundreds of thousands more are employed in art and science museums around the country and most of these are positions that offer a respectable middle class wage and benefits.  Tens of thousands more are employed by universities, although many of these are horribly exploited adjuncts that are indeed undervalued and underpaid.  There are tens of thousands of art galleries across the country employing staff and providing a livelihood for their owners.  Thousands more art professionals are employed at auction houses that are offering remarkable returns to their shareholders as Bluechip art prices have shot through the stratosphere and, for the first time in history, the artists fortunate enough to be collected by the economic elite are now routinely seeing six, seven and even eight figures for a single work in their own lifetimes.

As for the non-elite fine artists, there are tens of thousands of painters and sculptors in this economy who are selling work and executing commissions in the $2,000-$40,000 range and making a respectable living doing it.  There are indeed countless others who are struggling to find markets for their talents.  But this is not so much because they chose the wrong course of education but because the fine art business model is essentially a 19th century entrepreneurial craftsman model.  The current state of arts education does little to prepare students to become independent business operators in the 21st century.  One must also realize that in this country, success as an entrepreneur in any field requires heroic tenacity and that the typical American entrepreneur will fail at their first fourteen ventures before they finally succeed.  Given the often entrepreneurial nature of a fine arts career, it is not surprising that there would be risk involved but not necessarily substantially more risk than many other entrepreneurial endeavors.

Can you get employed with an Arts Education?

Can you get employed with an Arts Education?

It has become a cliche to blame unemployment and poor economic performance on people choosing presumably non-lucrative majors to study at the university. It is a conveniently self-serving canard for politicians of all stripes to drag out as an instrument to rationalize their own failures of economic policy. The arts and humanities are routinely bipartisanly misrepresented as a waste of resources as the state has for years directed educational policy to focus on science, technlogy, engineering and math. Be suspicious of politicians, of either party, who disparage the study of history since it is those who are ignorant of history who are most likely to repeat its mistakes. Be suspicious of policy makers who devalue liberal and fine arts education in favor of vocational training aimed at producing a society comprised entirely of unquestioning worker drones and technocrats at the service of an elite class of plutocrats.  It might do us well to recall this admonition from John Adams:

 “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy,geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

America’s recent obsession with technological careers has in no small part been due to the economic impact of the information technology boom of the 1980’s and ’90’s.  With the advent of personal computing and the Internet, vast fortunes were quickly produced out of thin air creating an economic infusion that masked the underlying weakness of many other segments of the economy. As good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector evaporated and low paying service industry jobs replaced them, technology came to be seen as the economic panacea that was going to float all boats. Many of the innovators in the field were in fact college drop outs and, for many people, this confirmed their skepticism of the necessity of a university education. But lest we forget, if not for a man named Steve Jobs, a person whose relatively unique vision at the time was that computers might be useful to everyone, especially artists and creative personalities, computers would still be the size of refrigerators and the sole province of pocket protector wearing technicians. It was Jobs’ humanities education and appreciation of artists that afforded him the vision that changed the world.

Steve Jobs, 1977

Steve Jobs, 1977

The geek culture of the ’80’s and ’90’s that produced the unprecedented wave of innovation and prosperity was not a product of technocratic society and corporate culture. At the time, it was geeks running with artists and musicians outside the mainstream that produced a hybrid culture born of the fertile cross pollination between arts and technology. Geeks weren’t being driven to innovate by corporate incentives but were motivated to create innovations for much the same reasons as artists. As evidence of this, witness the rapid development of innovative shareware and even open source UNIX programming that underlies most of current information technology and utterly baffled corporate technology leaders of the time. Why would someone author a new and useful software product only to give it away? The establishment was flabbergasted. Just look at how geeks of the period dressed, they derived their fashion sense from Seattle’s grunge music scene, not the corporate world that most utterly disdained. This is why so many innovators struck out on their own to form a new generation of companies that didn’t require their employees to submit to the cultural hegemony of the corporate sphere.

I know these things to be a fact because in 1994 I quit my job at an art museum to form a start up Internet company and one of the first Internet cafes on the planet. We built POP Internet switches for dial up ISP’s and produced hundreds of the first websites in the world, including one of the first museum websites back when the Metropolitan Museum of Art naively believed that to post art images online would evaporate their copy-right revenues and discourage audiences from visiting their galleries. How many people would be surprised to discover that the San Antonio Museum of Art had over 600 images from its collection online, complete with copious didactic copy and virtual exhibits at a time when most employees at MoMA didn’t even have an Internet connection?

TX-2 Machine at MIT (1969)

In the beginning there was ARPANET (1969)

What drove me to make this career move was when I saw my wife upload one of the first images to ever be posted in HTML back a couple of years after ARPA net was opened to universities and before the potential of the first commercial Internet service provider was even a gleam in a greedy entrepreneurs eye, let alone an ATT and Time Warner monopoly. I’ll never forget the epiphany of seeing that two color logo on a grey screen downloading torturously slowly over a 14.4 modem and thinking to myself, “Eureka! Virtual Museums!” I immediately turned to my wife and said, “can we make this thing go faster?” From that point on we were off to the races. When the university, then dominated by corporate cultural myopia, took down the university’s only web server to give the server computer to a vice-president’s secretary to use as a word processor, we saw that plutocrats were not going to initially appreciate the potential of the technology and it would be years before degreed computer scientists, then writing in Fortran or COBAL, and their stodgy university administrators would posses the vision of this new technology’s revolutionary potential.

Did I mention that my wife, the groundbreaking programmer and ultimately software engineer, had majored in anthropology and English, or that she was perusing an MFA in creative writing as a poet at the time she had been hired by the university to be a technical writer for users of the university’s mainframe computer? It was evident to her that the majority of academics were never going to develop the technical skills to effectively utilize the mainframe computer no matter how many manuals she authored. But she appreciated that the new HTML technology could revolutionize access to computing for scholars in the arts and humanities and it was this realization that drove her to create information products for people who didn’t own a pocket protector or speak binar.

Mandelbrot patterns are infinitely fine as you look closer and closer, and they indicate order in the presence of chaos. (credit: Gilberto Santa Rosa)

Mandelbrot patterns are infinitely fine as you look closer and closer, and they indicate order in the presence of chaos. (credit: Gilberto Santa Rosa)

The symbiosis between art and science, unfortunately, is not commonly perceived by the general public which is why politicians, institutional administrators, corporate executives and other policy makers are obtuse about the essential nature of this cultural cross pollination. For anyone familiar with recent literature in science, a few terms seem to be coming at us from all directions, from astrophysics to neuroscience, from nanotechnology to autoimmune research, from molecular chemistry to sociology, from economics to meteorology, from artificial intelligence to computer generated animation… we keep hearing about “hyper complexity, nonlinearity, derivative equations, chaos phenomenon, fractals and strange attractors.”  It seems that for the epistemology of contemporary science, linearity is widely understood to no longer be sufficient.  To understand almost anything, including the significance of the fine arts and humanities to the progress of science and technology and the role of art in the wider economy and society, we must first recognize that these are intrinsically hyper-complex phenomena and simple linear models like, “study art=earn $X” are not only insufficient, but are utterly misleading and result in ill-informed policies with catastrophic unintended consequences.

In a recent article published in the Huffington Post, entitled, “Our Brains on Art,” sociologist, Dr. Patricia Leavy shares some interesting new information about the relationship between art and science.  She describes:

“Arts-based research as an emergent paradigm whereby researchers across the disciplines adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research projects.  ….. While most people know on some level that the arts can reach and move us in unique ways, there is actually science behind this….. there is a growing body of scholarship on the relationship between neuroscience and literature, often referred to as literary neuroscience. …The preliminary results of this work have been revealing. Phillips and her colleagues found that the whole brain appears to be transformed as people engage in close readings of fiction. Moreover, there appear to be global activations across a number of different regions of the brain, including some unexpected areas such as those that are involved in movement and touch. …. Gregory Berns (2013) led a team of researchers in a study published in Brain Connectivity that suggests there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel….There is an emerging field called neuroaesthetics that considers how our brains make sense of visual art. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel (2012) explains that visual art activates many distinct and at times conflicting emotional signals in the brain which in turn causes deep memories…..  For example, there is a growing relationship between art therapy and neuroscience. Many in the field now suggest that both hemispheres of the brain are involved in art making and are necessary for artistic expression….  There is clinical research on drawing as well. A study by Rebecca Chamberlain and colleagues in the journal NeuroImage (2014) debunks right-brain and left-brain thinking to argue that those with visual artistic talent or who identify as visual artists have increased amounts of grey and white matter on both sides of the brain….. So whether we are consuming art or involved in art-making ourselves, art impacts us in profound ways not previously understood. There are serious implications for how we might teach, learn, conduct and share research most effectively. These are primary drivers of the arts-based research movement.”

It is not just from reading scientific literature, and certainly not simply from reading the Huffington Post, that I know these things to be true.  I can testify to them from personal experience in the field.

Sebastián with "Quantics" sculpture.

Sebastián with “Quantics” sculpture.

In the last year I personally made several trips to the electron microscopy lab at UTSA where I conferred with physicists and nano-technologists working on esoteric materials engineering. I was there because I was working with the world renowned Mexican sculptor, Sebastian, to mount an exhibit of his recent sculptures from a series entitled “Quantics” that is currently on exhibit in McAllen, Texas. Sebastian had sought out his lifelong friend Dr. Miguel Yacaman, a physicist, to consult with him on the shapes of subatomic geometries that he intended to use as sources for his sculptures.  It seemed like a very intriguing idea to me for an artist to make gigantic recreations of nano-structures in nature that would simultaneously be geometric abstractions and representational sculptures. While it was clear to me what Sebastian saw as relevant in the work of Dr. Yacaman, I was less clear on why this illustrious physicist was making his expensive lab so available to this artist. When I asked Dr. Yacaman about this, his answer was intriguing. He said that the mathematicians and physicists on his team were in a quandary and that Sebastian’s inductive reasoning and intuitive understanding of geometric potentials was offering much needed new insights for his scientists that enabled them to tackle conceptual problems from a fresh perspective.

MIGUEL YACAMAN Professor and Department Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Professor and Department Chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Dr. Yacaman was adamantly opposed to the political preoccupation with STEM curricula and was concerned that the too narrowly trained young scientists coming into his department did not possess the wider range of intellectual skills required to conceive innovation. Dr. Yacaman thought this a sufficient crisis such that he was networking with many of his scientific colleagues to form a coalition to advocate for the reintegration of arts and humanities, or STEAM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), into the educational system. It was Dr. Yacaman’s hypothesis that until business and political leaders were lobbied by the science community, these policy makers would continue to deploy government mandated misguided approaches that were counterproductive to integrated education and, in essence, represented a strategic national threat to the health of future technological innovation in this country.

Charles F. Winans

Artist Charles F. Winans

When I opened my Internet cafe back in the mid-’90’s, one day a scruffy looking artist who resembled a cross between Gandalf and Punchinello came in to see what we were up to. This artist was named Charles Francis Winans and he had been a mercurial but catalytic figure in the birth of the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. He had been the person who suggested that Ken Kesey get a bus. Charles had been influential behind the scenes in Rock ‘n’ Roll culture and had designed posters for many of the bands playing the Filmore. He had also been a compatriot of Charles Crum and these two outsider artists would revolutionize the world of underground comics. Charles Francis Winans was the inspiration for Crum’s ubiquitous Mr. Natural character. But Uncle Charlie, as we called him, had interests that were broad, his insights deep and he was fascinated by innovators in all walks of life and they tended to be fascinated by him as well.

One of Charles’ associates in the early 1960’s was a prominent physicist who was employed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator lab. One day this scientist was frustrated while trying to get information down his primitively limited bandwidth on one of the first computer networks ever created and the prototype for what was going to evolve into the Internet. Charles, who was no programmer but was an innovative problem solver, suggested that the physicist cut up his bulk information into smaller pieces and then use a simple code to reassemble the pieces at their destination. Sabersky tried this, it worked and, voila, packet switching was born! I confess that I was skeptical about this narrative when Charles first shared it with me and then one day in 1995, out of the blue I received an email from this scientist, a fellow with whom I was not personally acquainted. His old friend heard that Charles Winans could be reached through my coffee house and wanted to reestablish contact with him. I took the opportunity to ask the man about these historic events and he confirmed Winan’s narrative and added that Charles was not likely to ever let him live it down. While he might confess to getting a little help privately, he refuses to admit publicly that a hippie artist Had a more nimble mind and consequently, more inventive ideas than a Stanford Don.  Such emminent scientists probably still have giant egos (and can afford lawyers to claim heresay).


1960’s counter culture protested and won aluminum recycling initiative.

One day Winans was walking by the corporate headquarters of Kaiser Aluminum. Outside was a group of raucous hippies protesting the corporate giant’s role in contributing to the pollution of the planet. At the time, aluminum cans and their pull tabs seemed to be on the way to covering the surface of the Earth. Charles sympathized with the hippies’ agenda but understood that the executives upstairs were looking down through their windows utterly baffled and annoyed by the chaotic events taking place bellow. In typical Punchinello fashion, Uncle Charlie got an out of the box idea that involved creating a very special box. Charles loaded up a foot locker with hippy paraphernalia and ephemera. He then decorated the box in psychedelic fashion and sent it up to the Kaiser Aluminum headquarters addressed to the CEO. When the executives opened the footlocker, spilling out along with all the psychedelic contents was a note from Charles saying that if the CEO wanted to understand what was going on outside his offices that he should agree to spend several uninterrupted days with Winans at a Malibu beach house where Charles would explain to him what was so upsetting the counter culture about Kaisers business practices. Intrigued, the corporate executive took Uncle Charlie up on his offer.

Over the course of that week, Winans persuaded the CEO of the environmental necessity and economic viability of recycling aluminum. The executive protested that it would be cost prohibitive for Kaiser to employ legions of people to collect all the discarded metal. But Charles knew from his association with broke recycling hippies, who were gathering returnable soda bottles to supplement their lack of income, that people would of their own volition gather up the discarded cans and, if paid a reasonable price per pound, collect the aluminum and deliver it to the recycling plant. This prospect had never occurred to the CEO or to any of the other allegedly “smartest guys in the room” at Kaiser. Charles demonstrated to the executive that recycling aluminum was cheaper than mining and refining new ore and that there was negligible costs associated with having it returned to the manufacturer for recycling. The Kaiser CEO saw the wisdom of this argument and took the bait. Soon ALCOA and other Kaiser competitors followed suit and, from that point on, the economic viability of recycling was not generally questioned. The next time you are taking out your recycling segregated from your trash for pick up, remember that it was the catalytic function of what many considered a flaky artist that is responsible for a profitable new industry and a healthier planet.

Lest one mistakenly believe that these are isolated anecdotes, consider the history of scientific progress.  It is commonly believed that scientific progress is incremental and torturously slow plodding methodical work.  But the greatest achievements in science are rarely the result of incrementalism.  The history of science turns on the relatively sudden and, generally unanticipated, shifting of fundamental paradigms.  What is it that causes certain individuals in the scientific fields to have epiphanies that elude their theoretically equally brilliant and hard working colleagues?  The answer is:  their association with humanists, philosophers, writers, musicians and artists. The greatest scientific minds are remarkably often also artists, musicians and writers themselves.

Ray Kurzweil - Director of Engineering at Google

Ray Kurzweil – Director of Engineering at Google

Silas Weir Mitchell (1824-1914), one of the founders of American neurology, was also a fiction writer who published an astonishing nineteen novels, seven poetry books, and many short stories.  Ray Kurzweil is an American author, scientist, inventor, futurist, and is a director of engineering at Google. Aside from futurology, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments.   His interest in music enabled him to revolutionize the electronic keyboard and change the course of popular music forever.  It also made him a fortune that enabled Kurzweil to be able to afford to engage in a plethora of technological innovative pursuits that continue to change the world in fundamental ways and now continue to make Google stockholders a good deal of money themselves.

Had Isaac Newton not been fascinated with the writings of the Scandinavian mystic Swedenborg, Newton would not likely have ever set out on the course of action that led him to develop calculus.  Without calculus, where would modern technology be?  Why was a patent clerk named Albert Einstein able to conceive of the theory of general relativity when these ideas had eluded the most illustrious physicists of his generation?  At the time, Einstein was spending a lot his time in the company of the Nobel prize winning syncretic philosopher Rapinidrat Tagore whose ideas derived from Indian monism were impacting Einsteins thinking on relativity.

"From the Earth to the Moon" novel by Jules Verne, 1865.

“From the Earth to the Moon” novel by Jules Verne, 1865.

Science fiction authors, ie. “artists,” like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick would provide inspiration for thousands of engineers, astronomers and technologists to create everything from smart phones to satellites, robots to prosthetics, and submarines to radio telescopes. Artists and creative thinkers of all types are essential catalysts to scientific progress and technological development.

A “strange attractor” is defined as “an equation or fractal set representing a complex pattern of behavior in a chaotic system. ” Artists function as strange attractors in this hyper-complex chaotic phenomenon of scientific advancement.  Like other strange attractors, calculating their event horizons and the likelihood that any single artist is going to be at just the right place at just the right time can be incredibly difficult to predict.  But what we do know is that in the absence of their essential catalytic function, the greatest leaps in science will not likely take place.

When policy makers are deploying their medieval linear models and considering cutting fine arts education in favor of allegedly more pragmatic disciplines, they should remember that those so-called ‘practical’ pursuits would be mired in the muck of incrementalism if not for the role of artists.  A society and economy with fewer artists is not simply a less decorous, less entertaining but a more practical place.  In point of fact, fewer artists will constitute retarding technological progress, cutting off the lifeblood to innovation and hobbling the greatest generator of economic prosperity in the contemporary economy.   Devaluing and defunding arts education is not only bad policy, it is bad economics and bad science as well.

The next time you encounter one of these well-intended, but shortsighted philistines, remind them that the world isn’t flat, that algebra isn’t the highest form of math, that nuclear reactions release immense amounts of energy, that we no longer communicate by carrier pigeon, that the universe cannot be characterized as a linear phenomenon and that ultimately we can thank artists for the fact that we know these things to be true.  Remind them that the Internet and personal computers were not brought to us by stodgy incrementalists at IBM, but rather were brought to us by quirky bohemians who would not have been hired by American corporations of the period.

If these worshipers of mammon, who believe earned income revenue to be the epitome of all metrics, still think that an arts education may not be the surest route to prosperity for the artist, remind them that if not for the oft time invisible, or at least translucent, contributions of artists, that these policy makers and corporate leaders would be sitting on considerably shorter stacks of Benjamins in their own portfolios.