Michael Blowhard hits a very important nail on the head with this:
In fact, art and science have little in common. However much science is influenced by such factors as personality and culture, it’s empirically based; it’s testable. The powder goes ka-boom when a match is touched to it or it doesn’t. Actual progress is made; disputes between rival views are finally adjudicated. If you understand the science of today, you basically understand all of science. (And let’s set aside for the moment the kind of babble about “uncertainty” and “chaos” that art intellectuals love to indulge in. As far as I can tell, they’ve got no better a grasp on the scientific meaning of those terms than I do.)
In art, none of this is the case. Testable? Well, the success of “Star Wars” certainly demonstrated something about what movie audiences were ready for in the mid-’70s, but “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” has probably meant more to actual filmmakers. A lost weirdo painter (Henry Darger) is discovered and causes a sensation; a previously unknown art tradition (Tuva singing, for instance) gains notice. A prominent artist – Longfellow, for instance – is forgotten.
In the field of art, all this is normal. In science, it wouldn’t be. A great discovery remains a great discovery; and no one’s reviving the theory of phlogiston.
There were various comments afterwards trying to say that science is more like art than people think. But people (and Michael) are right and these commenters are wrong. Science is all about communal progress. Art is all about individual responses. Scientific theories compete according to which of them, in the collective opinion of the scientific community, constitutes the most progress. That science progresses, in the words of one of these commenters, “one funeral at a time” just means that scientists can be stubborn idiots, not that science is a matter of subjective individual whim. Truth, in the end, is a communal matter. The truth is what you and I and everybody else who is paying attention have, in the end, to agree about. Artistic excellence on the other hand …
One commenter even suggested that Michael Blowhard ought to read more Feyerabend. This comment is my nomination for the silliest and most potentially disastrous blog comment of the year 2002. Michael Blowhard’s brain is an important blogosphere resource, but although I’ve never met him I sense that he’s the sort of person who would read Feyerabend, just because some twat anti-philosopher of anti-science had suggested this on Blowhards. Michael might emerge from the experience mentally unscathed, but the downside risk doesn’t bear thinking about.
The importance of all this, as Michael himself explains very well, is that if you do accept that art “progresses”, then you immediately install a “taste mafia” in power who are there to tell you where art is just now, and where it’s been, and where it’s going. After all, if art is like science, that means we all must all defer to the art scientists, doesn’t it? And a vertical third finger to that. Or maybe the second finger also, Agincourt longbowman style.
Tomorrow I hope to be meeting with my Little Man who will be installing my Cullture Blog for me. So far the operation has resembled the sad time about ten years ago or so when I tried to install a shower. While this worked, it had the two standard British shower settings: Far Too Hot and Far Too Cold. Then it stopped altogether. I do hope that my Culture Blog grief is all happening now, and that soon it will start and then just get better and better the way a British shower never would.
The Blowhards have both inspired me and relaxed me about this project. They have inspired me by their very existence, and they have relaxed me by doing a proper culture blog so properly that I don’t have to worry about doing that myself and can just have some fun with my one, as and when I feel inclined.