Art Works Blog

A New Culture: Integrated Metaphoric Life?

Washington, DC

Self-Portrait by Hopkinsii via Flickr

In our final blog post on the recent NEA/National Science Foundation conference, Dr. Christopher Comer looks at why it is important to promote interaction between the arts and sciences. Comer?s current research concerns the design and evolution of visual and mechanosensory brain circuits, which has implications for such things as designing neural prosthetic devices and building biologically based robots. During the summers, Comer leads an interdisciplinary program in Ireland called Brain, Mind, and the Artistic Imagination.

The recent NEA-NSF conference, SymBIOtic ART and Science, was sparked to life by discussions I had with Ellen McCulloch-Lovell (president of Marlboro College) about what one can do to break down barriers between the "two cultures" of C.P. Snow---science on one hand, and the arts or humanities on the other. The 50th anniversary of Snow?s lecture occurred recently, and many commentators indicated that the gulf of misunderstanding between the culture of science and that of the (literary) arts is as great as ever. One could debate the truth of that assertion, but why bother? We were already talking across the supposed barrier (Ellen has worked for the arts, and I am a neuroscientist) and with encouragement from a savvy science administrator (thanks, Judy) something useful has come from the discussions.

The conference was energizing because of the enthusiasm of the participants. I am convinced that there are at least three reasons why we need a "new culture" that promotes interactions between the sciences and the arts.

First, the life sciences are beginning to provide meaningful ways to approach "problems" that have long interested artists and humanists. For example, humans came to be human through an evolutionary process in which culture has (and continues to) interact with genetics (Laland, et al., Nature Reviews Genetics 11:137, February 2010), and imagination may be the ?flip side? of the imperfect, but creative, memory formation and storage processes in the brain (Schacter and Addis, Nature 445:27, 2007). So imagination and culture are now more nearly shared topics for art and science.

Second, the arts provide valuable tools and broadening perspectives to the life sciences. Two examples: as our dance colleagues showed us, embodied knowledge reaches some of us who otherwise would not be easily reached by mere logic (this is my interpretation of powerful comments made by Liz Lerman at the conference); and artists can embolden scientists toward unapologetic self reflection (or as one participant at the conference put it, "you don't have to lead a non-metaphoric life").

Third, there is no time to waste. Given the multiple environmental threats to the integrity of our planet, we must link artistic vision to scientific creativity as fast as possible. We heard several fine stories of the perils and possibilities of artists and scientists working together on pressing social issues (thank you Mel and Steve, Nalini and Fred, Janine). There also was wise talk at the conference about the need to "re-enchant" the story of our relationship to nature, and of how knowledge is acquired.

It seems likely that a new culture is already in the process of being born. One indicator of this is that folks at NEA and NSF did not need to have arms twisted when we proposed the conference. They had heard numerous calls lately for dialogue between the arts and the sciences, and they understood (thank you, Joan and Joanne). Another indicator is that during the course of planning for the meeting, we were contacted by numerous individuals who had heard about it and asked to be involved. I have all of the names on a list, but I stopped counting after we crossed 100. The urge for new interactions, a spirit of new culture, is in the air.

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