Friday, January 12, 2007

Reawakening the Philosopher in Me

I was reading Mano's blog and followed her link to Kottke, which I had never visited. Boy was I missing out. Today, they have a little link to Science Musings which asks the question:

Which of the following works would you choose to be lost, if only three could be saved: Michelangelo's Pieta, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Mozart's Don Giovanni, or Einstein's 1905 paper on relativity.

They say Einstein's 1905 paper on relativity because (and I'm really baselining here, their argument is more sophisticated) Einstein's discovery is scientific fact and therefore would have been discovered and articulated by someone eventually. Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Mozart are artistic geniuses who created works singularly to them - things that could not have been created by anyone else.

This really got me thinking, and seems to have woken up a part of my brain that has been snoozing away since I graduated college, more or less. Since no one I talk to on a daily basis gives a crap about my philosophical musings, I'm just going to post them here.

Anyway, the underlying assumption to the author's conclusion is that art is completely subjective and unique and science is completely objective. That there is a concrete truth out there in the universe, just waiting to be discovered. Couldn't art be a part of that truth? Or science require a unique creativity to discover what might be out there? I know other scientists at the time were working on similar theories, but maybe Einstein had a unique creativity that allowed him to see it. Maybe Shakespeare was tapping into psychological facts that were just out there, waiting to be expressed.

It's an interesting premise to consider. Michelangelo's Pieta is a breathtakingly beautiful recreation of Mary cradling her dead son. But it is a scene taken directly from the Bible. Who's to say that some other talented sculptor of the age couldn't have created the same thing? There are certainly numerous copies of Michelangelo's work all over the world (heck, a tiny David is in my bathroom right now. He's not quite the same, being about 1/100th the size of the original and, for reasons beyond to me, at some point he acquired a gauze diaper, but it is recognizably the David).

Similarly, Shakespeare's Hamlet is also based on facts that were already out there at the time he wrote it. The first known version of Hamlet's story was written in the 13th century. And, though Mozart's version is considered the best, Don Giovanni is one of many operas based on the life of Don Juan.

So, it would actually seem that of the four options, Einstein's work is actually the only one not based on previously published information.

Chet Raymo at Science Musings concludes that because any scientist could have discovered relativity (or group of scientists, and the discovery could be any landmark one - penicillin, DNA etc), the world can do with the loss of any one scientist. But art is the result of one individual mind and could not possibly be conceived and executed by more than one person. So, we can do without Einstein, but not without Shakespeare, Mozart or Michelangelo. While I agree that the world would be a sad place had those men not lived, he's shifted the argument here in a way that I can't support. The question was about which work could be lost, not which creator of that work.

I think I disagree with the core of his argument, too, that only scientific discoveries are objectively out there, in the world, just waiting to be grabbed, and artistic creations are formed whole-cloth out of one unique mind. There are (and I hesitate to use the word, but.. I can't think of another) universal themes that have been utilised and reworked repeatedly throughout history. Works of art share inspirations - from past works of art, the Bible, and life. People, regardless of race, religion, or nationality connect on certain levels that transcend those differences. Couldn't art be out there, objectively speaking, just waiting to inspire someone?

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