Unpredictable Patterns #51: Artists, scientists and amateurs
On the amateur as key to a curious society, on moving from access to participation in knowledge and on how we use our breaks
Time off sometimes ends up feeling fleeting and even unfulfilling, because it passes without structure. What if you were to become an artist and scientist this year? Why do we hesitate in thinking of ourselves as such? This week’s note explores how these basic human activities have become cut off from our day-to-day experience, and what it means, and why we can and should reclaim our roles as artists and scientists.
Finding the artist
Are you an artist? What does this question mean to you? Do you find that answering it in the positive would be almost presumptuous, as if you were saying that you have a significant talent? Or that it would smack of the slightly ridiculous to say that you are an artist, even though you may be engaged in painting or music? Or do you simply see it as a question about one aspect of your life, and what you spend your time on? Do you think this question is materially different than if I had asked you if you are a runner?
Let’s compare the two: if I ask someone if they are a runner they will simply answer yes or no, based on if they are running - but if I ask if they are an artist, it almost seems as if they have to do something beyond engaging in an art to answer that question in the affirmative - right? Maybe the difference is this: a runner does not produce anything, while an artist produces a work of some kind. The runner can run badly and still note happily that they are running, but someone who is painting will pass harsh judgment on their own works and based on that judgment may simply just answer in the negative: they do not consider themselves an artist even if they engage in the arts.
It is almost as if there is an invisible threshold you have to pass for your art to qualify you as an artist, but if you are running then dragging your 50-year-old body over 3 km once a week qualifies you eminently — quality or quantity does not enter the equation.
Why is this?
The etymology suggests no such distinction - on the contrary, art and artist can be traced back to the idea of a practical skill (yes, like running) and the idea is that the artist has acquired some skill in their chosen art. The Greek root - artizein - means to prepare and fit together. The artist solves puzzles! This is a beautiful way of thinking about creativity - as a way to fit different elements together so that they express something new - or better solve a riddle of existence.
Further, the etymology suggests that the artificial stands in opposition to the natural, and that what is artifice is created by humans. In that sense we are necessarily artists.
So what is going on here?
One possible answer is that we judge the artist on economics and simply think that if you can live off your art, then you are an artist. This distinction between the professional (paid) artist and the amateur then becomes the dividing line. We do not call ourselves artists because we cannot making a living with our art. That would mean that many of the greatest artists in the history of the world were not artists either - they did not make a living off their works in the sense that they could sell them on a public market; many were commissioned to do works, or simply taken under the wing of some wealthy patron. Many died in poverty, but their works are beautiful pieces of art.
Another possibility is that we look at success in terms of public acclaim: if many people like a piece of art, then the author is an artist. That also seems weird, especially as we look at more narrow arts. And why would art be judged in the eye of the crowd?
A third possibility is the seriousness with which we engage in our art - there seems to be something distinguishing the person who spends 80 hours a week painting from the person that only does it during weekends and longer breaks - right? Well, maybe. But if the time we spend is the only criterion, then how much time do we require? And why do we think this then becomes art? This way of looking at art suggests that it is only art if we do it as a profession - and that, again, rings bizarre.
Finally, then, there is something around the consistency of the artistic project and the commitment: someone who produces art within a larger narrative, a project of some kind, and is engaged in a sustained artistic project is an artist - as compared to the dilettante who only dabs here and there and might produce an interesting work, but no oeuvre. I think there is some truth in this distinction - there is something that distinguishes the deeper and longer artistic project from the lighter engagement - but I do not think that it necessarily means that the lighter engagement cannot produce art.
And I think the artist project opens up more clearly once we allow ourselves to call ourselves artists and engage with the role and expectations that this will awaken in us. To become artistic we need to give ourselves the license to be artists, in a sense.
Originality, quality and quantity
What about originality? Does not a work of art have to be original for the author to be an artist? Not necessarily - we often confuse kinds of art with art, and tend to think that art needs to be ”good” or ”original” art to be art. That conflates two different kinds of judgment, however - one about the genus of the work and the other of the species. A work of art is still a work of art, even if it is poor in some respect.
Quality, generally, is also born out of quantity to some degree. If you want to produce good art, you have to produce a lot of work - and sometimes producing a lot of work, intentionally, helps finding the really good pieces in the space of creative possibilities.
David Bayles and Ted Orland report in their book Art and Fear about an ceramics teacher that even tried this out in an experiment:
“The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. At grading time, a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
You may disagree with this, but this perspective is worth exploring closely. Nature sketcher John Muir Laws puts it this way:
”What we have learned from neuroscience supports this approach to mastery of a skill. If you want to get better at something, do it a lot. As you practice a skill, you brain will lay down sets of neurons specific to this new activity. The more you do it the more this part of your brain physically grows. If you keep drawing, you keep getting better. It never stops. There is no masterpiece. Each drawing that you do is practice for the next. Here is the paradox. If you want to make pretty pictures, do not focus on pretty pictures. It is a numbers game. Just make a lot of pictures. The pretty ones will come on their own.”
Creativity is search, and the more you search through the space of creative possibilities, the more likely you are to find interesting things, or better: interesting ways of fitting things together.
Finding the scientist
Here is another question: are you a scientist? The way we think about being an artist and a scientist are surprisingly similar - we are reluctant to think that we could even be scientists without attending many, many years of university. At best, the idea of the citizen scientist (is there such a thing as the citizen artist?) is an ideal we hope to achieve with crowd-sourced science projects - but very few of those participating in crowd-science would comfortably call themselves scientists.
Science has become a separate domain, much as art has - and one result of this is that fewer and fewer people feel any connection to these two fields. Art and science is something other people engage in. They have become jobs rather than pursuits.
This is catastrophic for our society. A society in which arts and science are no longer shared human projects in which we all can participate will stagnate, and become less and less capable to deal with the complexity of our challenges. The professionalization of both science and art is not the challenge, in itself, but if it means the death of the amateur, we find ourselves in deep trouble. We should be able to build for the collaboration between the two.
Amateurs are key to a curious culture. If we confine the arts, science and creativity to narrowly defined professions we will fail as a culture. In our information age the amateur has more means to develop a deep but not professional interest in any art or science out there, but at the same time we find a growing skepticism against the amateur’s ability to contribute - often denouncing amateurs as dilettantes. This makes no sense.
Now, part of this is because of the high degree of specialization and the accumulation of knowledge that we have in different fields. Someone dabbling in physics today is unlikely to make a significant contribution to the latest quantum physics theories - so whole domains of science seem increasingly closed off.
Yet, listening to amateurs even in fields like this seems to be an interesting idea, and the brilliant physicist Sabine Hossenfelder even opened a consultancy for amateur physicists that want to test or develop their theories. Sure, she says that she has learned nothing new - but she also believes that she is advancing science communication by doing this, and this raises an interesting question: how did these fields becomes so closed off to amateurs?
One answer is complexity - the field of quantum physics is hard even for professional physicians - but there is another reason too: organization. We have organized research in ways that does not include the amateur anymore. There are too few interfaces for those that want to engage in physics.
This is not true for all natural sciences.
Astronomy is different, and here amateurs can make significant contributions - both in crowd-sourced science projects and in their own observations. Amateur astronomers can help in observing new phenomena, and in the last couple of years have made some significant observations.
The same is likely to be true of other observational sciences. In the field of biology and ecology, amateurs are likely to be invaluable - and if we were serious about citizen science we would build broad platforms for them to contribute.
When we move from natural sciences to sociology, anthropology and economics the amateur scientist should also be welcomed with open arms — but there is very little citizen economics or sociology going on.
There is a curious asymmetry here. The amateur has more opportunity to learn a field than ever before with the many e-education platforms out there, but the opportunities for them to contribute as they advance are still very limited.
Amateur interfaces to science are still rare. And the same holds true for art.
What is your project?
Imagine a world where everyone had an artistic and a scientific project they pursued. Where an upcoming break form work was welcomed not just as a time to recharge and relax, but as some time to engage in art and science. Does it sound weird? Dystopian or utopian? Why? What is it that makes us think that art and science is different from playing a sport or running?
There is a broader question here about information policy. A lot of the focus in our policy discussion have been about access to knowledge - not participation in creating it. Yet, the means of producing science and art have never been as distributed and accessible as they are now. We see this in the blogosphere and on social media where everyone is their own media house, more or less.
If we can be media houses, why can we not be scientists and artists as well?
There are concrete policy measures here as well - and in science policy we should really start looking at participation as a key criterion. The idea that sciences should ”communicate” is paternalistic and contributes to the rift between society and science, cordoning off science as a special domain that occasionally should talk down to us ordinary citizens. That cannot be right, and it does not set a helpful example for people growing up.
Sharing and including more citizens in science is also the best way to ensure that we build up an immune system against pseudoscience and disinformation.
So, if you chose to pursue an artistic or scientific project this break - what would it be? Here are a few possibilities.
Write a set of ten poems that capture the last two years in the pandemic.
Author a short story about one of your ancestors.
Compose a small piece of music on your favorite instrument to capture what you hope 2022 will be like.
Write an essay on something you think was really undervalued in the last year.
Document and photograph (or sketch) nature where you are and keep a daily journal of nature observations.
Find at least 10 kinds of plant around where you are and document them, identify them and understand if they are usually found in your area (or is there presence evidence of some change?)
Buy a telescope and watch the stars.
Paint a landscape or emotion.
Write a simulation of an interesting problem in Python.
Sculpt a small statue of an ancient god, forgotten or real.
I am sure you can come up many more (and better ideas). And I suspect that if you do this you will enjoy your break more. The reason for this is that I think we have a basic need for curiosity, creativity and learning - and this is what makes us all scientists and artists, and not just in a loosey-goosey way, but in the very real way that this is a part of what it is to be human.
To close, I also feel the need to address one nagging thought that came up writing this: I do not think that everyone participating in science or art in any way diminishes the work of the people who do this professionally. The argument for the amateur is not an argument against the professional. It is an argument for the importance of what the professional is doing - in both art and science - and an argument for the value in the amateur’s work in addition to the work of the professional. Arguing for broad participation is not saying that all things are created equal - it is saying that in order for us to find more interesting works and facts we should all collaborate.
Thank you for reading and enjoy the break!