Art Counts

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1727, Hovering, acrylic on paper, 2012

Q: You mentioned visions of the future given us by science fiction narratives. How do you see art fitting into that future, those narratives.

I ask this because you said that one aspect of those narratives will almost certainly happen, but I don’t see art much in those narratives.

They are all too often narratives of a future where there is little or no art, or if there is art, it is almost a trivial afterthought.

Granted a lot of them are there to show us a dystopian future possibility in the hope of heading it off. But even the positive futures depicted don’t seem to include anything like art as we know it today.

ReeL: Yes. We do have this considerable body of thinking about the future of the human race that has almost no place for anything we now call art.

It’s no secret that science fiction usually tells us more about ourselves in the present than the future.  Nevertheless, a lot of that sci-fi narrative is about a world where everything is divided into everything that counts, literally, a world where everything  is based on mathematics: technology, including weapons and fantastic modes of travel, medicine, architecture,, and anything having to do with engineering. Basically these are futures including anything based at some level on applied  mathematics. and physics, which is essentially the same thing as physics is now  entirely based on mathematics

Interestingly, most of  what the writers imagine is already possible, or feasible or imaginable within the mathematics that we already know today.  The exceptions are spectacular exceptions which have caught our attention precisely, in part, because our current mathematics says they are impossible. The great example being  faster-than-the-speed-of-light travel.  So it is almost always a future world where everything that counts counts, that is, everything based on mathematics counts.

And art, and much of what we today call “culture” doesn’t count, in that most of it has little or nothing to do with counting. Hence it doesn’t count. So what doesn’t have to do with counting doesn’t count. In other words what doesn’t count doesn’t count.

Interestingly the one exception, of which there are a lot of examples, in the arts in sci-fi narratives , is music. But music is the one art that clearly seems more intimately connected to mathematics, and has been since the Pythagoreans made all their fuss about the connection to intervals on a string and scales and notes in music to ratios.  So OK, again, that which can be shown to count counts.

But in a way, all art and culture count.

Q: how so?  I mean, I know they count; but not in the way you are saying things count, that is, by being based on mathematics.

ReeL:  Maybe mathematics isn’t the right basis to begin with.  That would require a book to explain, I’m afraid. But I firmly think that it may be necessary to have that explained in a clear and accessible way. How art counts, that is.

Q: So maybe you’ll have to write that book. Just kidding.

ReeL: No need to. You may be right. I’m serious.  We may be approaching a moment in time where we have to show why art counts, for a world  that only thinks things that count count.

On one level a lot of people can see why it has to be so even in those narratives. Otherwise you are talking about a future that no one would want to live in. After all, that’s one of the big points Proust finally makes: in the end it is art that makes life worth living.  It gets pretty thin after that.

Q: Otherwise you are just surviving.

ReeL: In the end maybe not even that. I’ve known several concentration camp survivors; two quite  closely.  Every single one of them has told me that at one point or another, art, or something on that level was crucial to their survival.  Just surviving isn’t enough, when you are really up against a survival situation.  You need something else.

Q: a lot of people, I think, would put the spiritual as that something else.  Or are you saying that art should have a spiritual basis?

[to be continued]

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