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 …