Why art needs more scientists like Carl Djerassi — not just as patrons but for visceral understanding

'DO NOT DISTURB:  Cultural transmission in progress'

‘Do Not Disturb:
Cultural transmission in progress’

'Sun in the mist' Claude Monet, 1890

‘Sun in the mist’
Claude Monet, 1890

To know a thing by its parts is science, to feel it as a whole is art.

— Lewis Mumford (1895-1990 — American critic most admired for his commentary on architecture)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…

— Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

… and one more thought for the mill: ‘We don’t treat artists well in this country.’ That was Margot H. Knight – talking to post-Gutenberg about the gap that arts foundations like hers strain to fill in America. She directs the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, a retreat on a converted cattle ranch on six hundred-odd idyllic acres of rolling uplands looking onto the Pacific Ocean, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco.

In spite of her remark about the lack of respect for arts workers in the U.S., she had startling news. This was in her impression – from, she said, recent conversations — of an explosion in approaches to organisations like Djerassi for advice on turning farms, ranches, and other property in inspiring settings — some of them urban — into places for artists to make temporary or permanent homes. She considers the trend she perceives as a sign that many of her fellow-Americans are recognising, better late than never, how hard it can be for even outstanding artists to endure the struggle for time and money to make art. She predicts that the word eleemosynary – ‘meaning, the impulse to be generous, is one we’re going to be hearing a lot, soon, because of the huge transfer of wealth between generations that has begun.’

Why does this surprise us – even as an observation by just one alert cultural curator that we do not have time to compare with the impressions of others? No matter how clichéd mentions of starving scribblers or daubers in garrets are, there has always been a shortage of people willing to do more than throw them the odd crust – and nothing, not even the noise about Kickstarter and crowd-funding, has shown us any real evidence of a change. We would love to be mistaken.

We wish someone would study how attitudes to artists have been evolving. In a popular post here last summer, we suggested that audience jealousy of artists, of which we reproduced some hair-raising expressions, could explain why those in favour of destroying copyright protection apparently outnumber all of us anxious to defend artists’ right to eat – and why these opponents pretend as if the fight is all about preventing conglomerates in the music business from reaping obscene profits from selling millions of copies of the same CD.  The success of the anti-copyright campaigns is hard to reconcile with Margot Knight’s trend, unless there is a generation gap – with most anti-s belonging to the age-group after the one that might, or might not, contain growing numbers keen to focus their eleemosynary on artists.

Which of us know consciously how much human beings depend on art to get through life – that it is as indispensable as oxygen and calories?

Not many, in any generation, we suspect. It is still rare even for people with the wherewithal to acknowledge in tangible, practical ways, the extraordinary gift from, say, a musician, in the musical composition that ‘draws the sorrow out of you,’ as one sweet friend of this blog put it, the other day — or from a novelist, in the story or fictional character into which some of us made a habit of disappearing, imaginatively, in childhood, to survive or improve reality; or from a painter, in the alchemy capable of rendering joy on canvas with paint through a depiction of, say, light exalting a haystack, as Claude Monet could.

Carl Djerassi – born in Vienna in 1923, educated in the U. S., and still sprinting between continents at eighty-nine, lecturing and attending conferences – gave humanity chemical contraception in the form of ‘the pill,’ from whose manufacture he made a fortune. He proves how right C. P. Snow was to bewail an educational system in 1950s England that reflected a ‘two cultures’ divide in which workers at the literary coalface were seen as deeply incompatible with those in science – a prejudice that persists, especially in the Anglophone-Anglophile universe, to this day.

In his own life, Djerassi has demonstrated that operating in both spheres can be a perfectly natural switch between mental states (or neurocircuitry), and by no means as improbable as balletomane pigs dancing Swan Lake. He has published five novels, several short stories – and, with sculpture strewn across the grounds of his artists’ retreat, could hardly identify with the technologists complaining in the New York Times earlier this month about finding the arts community unwelcoming and intimidatingly clubby.

His ease in it is partly because he reacted to a family tragedy in the late 1970s by setting off on a quest to understand the lives of artists, and their realm. His daughter Pamela Djerassi, a painter and poet, died by suicide in 1978, and the Artists-in-Residence scheme is a memorial dedicated to her.

Reflecting on artists and scientists, Gustave Flaubert wrote, in an 1852 letter to his lover, Louise Colet, that ‘[t]he time for beauty is over … The more Art develops, the more scientific it will be, just as science will become more artistic. Separated in their early stages, the two will become one again when both reach their culmination.’

Flaubert could be wrong, but something important about the split has altered. In the England of C. P. Snow’s day, scientists were the underdogs. When British cultural influence was at its zenith, Britain was mostly run by clever people educated in the humanities.

Today’s heroes are rich American technologists and scientists, and one counter-complaint in the NYT article we mentioned – ‘Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech?’ – came from an art expert asking, ‘If these are our next Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, … our wealthy American elite, why aren’t they supporting culture?’

A social media entrepreneur confessed that he would never mention collecting art to his fellow-technologists, who are ‘all so business-minded.’

Other techies fumed about being treated as nouveaux-riches trying to buy their way into acquiring reputations for taste and discrimination – and were appalled to encounter galleries selling works of art to people offering smaller sums of money than they had.

We know people like these technologists, even likeable ones, and their behaviour is consistent with the shift in social status that – to our alarm, and on both sides of the Atlantic — has led nearly all the highly-educated children of post-Gutenberg’s friends into careers in some branch of finance. We have begun to think of ‘quants’ as people who see themselves as being at the top of the social pyramid – not using the word exclusively in the sense in which it was coined in 1979, to mean ‘an expert at analysing and managing quantitative data,’ (Merriam-Webster) but also covering those most attracted to work whose value is easily quantifiable in numbers preceded by currency symbols.

That would leave out most artists and writers, as well as … well, mothers, or people including men who now do the essential, life-sustaining ‘home-making’ that only women once did.

If what we think of as art today is to have a future, any quants who care might look to Djerassi as a model for supporting its continuation — as he has had the intelligence and good luck to also prove himself a super-quant. A recent study confirmed the power of ‘monkey-see-monkey-do cultural shifts’ – certainly for Vervet monkeys. A Swiss primatologist commenting on it in the NYT said,

[I]f you define culture as socially transmitted knowledge, skills and information, it turns out that we see some of that in animals …

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5 thoughts on “Why art needs more scientists like Carl Djerassi — not just as patrons but for visceral understanding

  1. “… those in favour of destroying copyright protection apparently outnumber all of us anxious to defend artists’ right to eat …” — this is a false dichotomy.

    Further, it seems quite clear that copyright laws do not lead causally to a world rich in art. Contemporary artists are restricted by past works in regards to what expressions they may form. Human art is all about mixing and interpreting impressions and perceptions of the outside world, so all-encompassing copyright disables creativity or at least expression of it.

    ‘If these are our next Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, … our wealthy American elite, why aren’t they supporting culture?’
    Art is part of culture, but culture is certainly not confined to art. It makes me wonder if ‘Art adviser’ (her title) just means marketer.

    I think artists who are willing to connect with their audiences and weave the audience’s demands into their works will make a better living than those who don’t in the future. Or perhaps in the future, there won’t be full-time artists and instead all art would be created by people earning a living in other professions. Most people in rich countries work far more than they need to in order to lead a comfortable life, and I feel safe to say that most could probably (disregarding cultural and other barriers) cut down on working time to have more time both for enjoying art and creating art.

  2. Hello 5th, it’s good to have you back.

    … Why is it a false dichotomy?

    Further, it seems quite clear that copyright laws do not lead causally to a world rich in art.

    How would you prove that? … Nowhere have I said that there is clear-cut cause and effect, but how are you so sure that there isn’t?

    In other fields, even idealistic ones, people whose ability to earn a living has been damaged are getting out. … Consider doctors:

    A U.S. shortage of 35,000 to 40,000 primary care physicians by 2025 was predicted at last week’s American Medical Association annual meeting. […] Of the 12,000 respondents, 49 percent said they’d consider leaving medicine. […] And if that many physicians stopped practicing, that could be devastating to the health care industry. […] With lower reimbursement from insurance companies and the cost of malpractice insurance skyrocketing, these health professionals say it’s not worth running a practice and are changing careers. http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/11/17/primary.care.doctors.study/

    Respect and admiration for their ability to save lives is not enough for doctors. Strangely enough, they expect to be paid — and paid for wanting to work on their terms, not those laid down by insurance companies.

    Why shouldn’t artists, whose work makes life worth living, also be spared anxiety over food and shelter?

    You say:

    Human art is all about mixing and interpreting impressions and perceptions of the outside world, so all-encompassing copyright disables creativity or at least expression of it.

    It seems strange for someone working outside the arts to be so keen to redefine it — to justify not paying for works of art. … What if we were to redefine medicine to say that doctors are just workers lifting ideas about healing people from scientific research done at universities, findings heavily subsidised by us taxpayers? … In other words, freeloading information with life-and-death importance in the public domain to stuff their own pockets? Or, as jealous lawyers I’ve known are apt to put it, so that they can play golf on Wednesdays and Fridays?

    And speaking of lawyers, I’ve been reading about a steep drop in law school enrollment reflecting deep pay cuts in that profession.

    I think artists who are willing to connect with their audiences and weave the audience’s demands into their works will make a better living than those who don’t in the future.

    DEMANDS ??? … ahem. I’d love to see the swift clip on the ear that would have earned someone from, say, Picasso. … As taste follows artistic innovation, aren’t you asking the tail to wag the dog? Artists like Picasso reshape what we perceive as moving, engaging, beautiful, constructively disturbing (or not) … and so on. Audiences ranted and raged about the ugliness they perceived in Beethoven’s symphonies — until the public ear was retrained. … Who isn’t grateful that old Ludwig turned his back on them and kept writing down the compositions he heard in his own head — the sounds of _future_ taste?

    Or perhaps in the future, there won’t be full-time artists and instead all art would be created by people earning a living in other professions.

    Would you want to be treated for brain cancer by someone practicing medicine on the side — or in tandem with some other occupation? … If not, what makes you think you know enough about artistic creation to be so sure that immersion and absolute dedication aren’t equally essential to giving us great music, painting, drama …?

    Now of course I’m not just replying to you, there, but everyone on your side of the copyright debate.

  3. First of all, thanks for your answer and sorry for making some poorly chosen/backed up statements in my last comment. I hope my reply makes some sense although it’s become a bit too long and unruly. My reply is focussing on copyright, although the support of and attitude against artists is probably a more urgent problem as discussed in your post. I think different kinds of patronage (especially distributed patronage, which doesn’t require a single wealthy person or organization) is one good way of supporting artists, but as noted a big hurdle is public attitudes.

    About the false dichotomy, I meant that the two groups you mentioned are not mutually exclusive, it’s possible to belong to both groups at the same time. Copyright reformers are sometimes portrayed as hateful of artists, but I don’t think the political movements agitating for reform was born from a wish to spite artists.

    Further, it seems quite clear that copyright laws do not lead causally to a world rich in art.

    How would you prove that? … Nowhere have I said that there is clear-cut cause and effect, but how are you so sure that there isn’t?

    You’re right and my assertion was a bit silly since the statement is complex and hard to prove either way (and even define properly — a world rich in art would of course mean different things to different people). We could probably agree on a much weaker statement — that art (unspecified) does not need copyright law in order to exist, since various forms of art has existed since long before the dawn of copyright. We could of course discuss and compare the value of for example prehistoric art to the great art you mentioned, but I suspect I wouldn’t be able to make any reasonable argument about that. Just to make it clear, I do have appreciation of artists as well as art, and having been playing (or perhaps ‘trying’ would be more accurate — I never aimed at becoming professional or anything like it, it was only one hobby among others) the 5th and others (La campanella by Liszt is still a favourite though, with its awesome difficulty for an amateur) on my own piano, I think I have a decent sense and appreciation of the artistry of pianists and composers.

    “Why shouldn’t artists, whose work makes life worth living, also be spared anxiety over food and shelter?”

    I do think artists should be spared anxiety over food and shelter, but I don’t think copyright is (or should be) at the core of the problem.

    “It seems strange for someone working outside the arts to be so keen to redefine it — to justify not paying for works of art.”

    I am not trying to justify not paying for art, and I hope that this assumption about people advocating copyright law reform is wrong in general. I do think artists deserve to earn a living, just like anybody else, but I don’t think copyright (or at least not the way it’s formed today) is the key to that. Or seen from another perspective, if copyright was the most important thing in giving artists a fair living, surely now would be about the best time so far in history for an artist to eke out a living? With works copyrighted for lifetime plus 70 years (in the US), that should be plenty. I don’t have any statistics on general living standards for contemporary (non-famous) artists, but I get the feeling that it’s not too easy for most artists today (I think you agree about that).
    I’m sorry for (appearing to) redefine art, my wording was too sweeping and perhaps ignorant too. I just meant to express that anything a human being creates has influences from the outside world (unless the person in question has no functioning perceptory senses). It’s (well, probably) impossible to figure out with exact precision what influences someone had when uttering a sentence or drawing a symbol, but there must be influences. In deciding whether a work is original or not, fair use or not etcetera, there must always be an arbitrary judgement made as to the degree of originality. People can agree or disagree on the judgements, but it will always be a matter of opinion.

    “DEMANDS ??? … ahem. I’d love to see the swift clip on the ear that would have earned someone from, say, Picasso. … As taste follows artistic innovation, aren’t you asking the tail to wag the dog? Artists like Picasso reshape what we perceive as moving, engaging, beautiful, constructively disturbing (or not) … and so on. Audiences ranted and raged about the ugliness they perceived in Beethoven’s symphonies — until the public ear was retrained. … Who isn’t grateful that old Ludwig turned his back on them and kept writing down the compositions he heard in his own head — the sounds of _future_ taste?”

    It might not be a great idea, I admit, but isn’t demands what the artist’s of today make a living from, too? Isn’t that one of the premises of copyright — creating an incentive to create what is or will be demanded so that the creators can earn money from it? An entirely unpopular artist won’t continue creating works forever if he/she can’t make a living, so it should be reasonable to believe that the ones who create works sufficiently demanded will tend to continue longer than those who can’t make money off their works.

    “Would you want to be treated for brain cancer by someone practicing medicine on the side — or in tandem with some other occupation? … If not, what makes you think you know enough about artistic creation to be so sure that immersion and absolute dedication aren’t equally essential to giving us great music, painting, drama …?”

    I added (or tried to add) another comment (but it seems the upload or connection failed) just after the first one, saying that this is probably unlikely and not desirable. Perhaps great music etc would still be produced if there were no full-time musicians, but I don’t know about that.

  4. The conversation has become a bit of a beast — feel free to respond to what you consider the most important aspects and ignore the rest, perhaps it’ll be easier to manage the discussion that way.

  5. An enlightening, beast, 5th — because of some of your explanations of your position.

    I can’t reply in detail for the same reason I have been so slow to return — with apologies. I sometimes need to ignore the blog, to meet deadlines.

    Scanning the NYT site a few hours ago, I found someone else underlining the hopelessness of artists working from instructions issued by the audience. This is Steven Soderbergh, who made his name directing that excellent film, Sex, Lies and Videotape:

    “Cinema is a specificity of vision,” he said. “It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”

    […]

    With a mixture of pessimism, resignation and good humor, Mr. Soderbergh surveyed a landscape at once crowded and bleak, as filmmakers struggle to remain true to their vocations and find a home for their work.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/books/soderbergh-explores-a-new-medium.html?pagewanted=all

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