On "The Demon-Haunted World" & Art Making + Education

Recently, I have been re-reading Carl Sagan's classic The Demon Haunted World; I had read it several years ago for my thesis show at Rutgers, but I wanted to dive into it again when I wasn't on a fixed schedule to get through it. There is so much in there that, while written in 1995, is relevant to today's current socio-political climate. In the book, Sagan talks about the need for everyday people to employ the scientific method to weed out what is true and what is false in media, politics and general culture. He calls on everyone to be skeptics of what information they encounter, not for the sake of being annoyingly contrary, but for the need of critical thinking. To question an idea, he says, is not to dislike it, but to make it stronger by providing conclusive results that support it. If an idea fails, then it's time to abandon that idea for something new, something perhaps even better. This obviously has much connotation in the Trump era, something Sagan saw coming many years ago. 

Towards the end of the book, after employing all of us to question everything we see, hear, read and watch, he asks us to do one more thing: to wonder. I often tell my students that one of the most striking things that I see in many of my classes is often a lack of general curiosity among them. Even in creative classes, students want to check things off a list, to get them done and to get an A. They want to be told what to produce so that I, as the instructor, will "like" whatever they do and therefore score them accordingly to my subjective judgements. I do my best to squash this idea early in the semester, but sometimes it pervades; I have many requests to produce a concrete grading rubric, keep scores up to date on things like Blackboard or Moodle and to give definitive outlines of what constitutes an A. Of course, I do some of this the best that I can - I obviously give them guidelines and goals while telling them the correct sequence of steps to produce what they need to in order to satisfy requirements. And, of course, to help them achieve their vision for the work. But that vision is something I can't give them. They have to produce that idea all on their own. I tell them right off that the quality of work they produce for my classes should be a direct reflection of how far they push themselves. Each student is graded individually, according to their own abilities. I get that not everyone wants to be a professional artist; but the drive, ambition and perseverance needed to sustain a creative practice are skills needed in any field. And often times, I find that students have been previously taught to push those qualities aside in order to do what pleases an instructor to pass. 

I bring all this up because Sagan talks about the need "to wonder" as in relation to the sciences, but there is so much crossover here with the arts. He quite literally says in the chapter "Maxwell and the Nerds", "to do science for science's sake". (That whole chapter is generally wonderful.) This discussion of doing something for the sake of doing it often comes up in the arts as a detriment to its standing in academia. Artists and art programs are viewed as producing wishy-washy flower hippies, who go out and do watercolor plein air paintings (not that there's anything specifically wrong with that) and try to visualize their feelings. Or, more succinctly, that art is a hobby, not a career; or to be a catch-all for those who do not know what to do with their lives. I actually had an advisor tell me once that they suggested a student become an art major because the advisor felt that the student wasn't cut out for other rigorous academic subjects. Art, they think of course, is easy.  

Yet, when it comes to science, what I would think most of us call a "respectable" profession (at least I was raised to), I wonder (no pun intended) how often doing science for the sake of doing it is now reflected upon. In art academia on the other hand, I feel as if I have this discussion quite often - the notion of art for art's sake and its place in the university. With Sagan, I think, there is a happy balance between the two. After talking about stereotypes, quite useful in the afore mentioned judgements of artists, Sagan then goes on to talk about James Clerk Maxwell, a British scientist who would eventually discover and document the combinations of electromagnetic fields that surround everything in the universe, allowing the ability for simple tasks like picking something up, or broadcasting television and radio. But, Sagan says, even though he essentially ushered in modern physics, Maxwell had no intention of finding out any of this. It was only through the space and ability to try, to experiment and to fail that he discovered what he did. In fact, at that same time, unknown to both parties, Queen Victoria commissioned other scientists to figure out how to do that very same thing: of finding a way to get voices of the monarchy into every British home, what we now call broadcasting. But when tasked, those scientists came up empty. Why, Sagan argues? Because they did not have the freedom Maxwell had to let the ideas simmer, to see what directions the work could go in and to ultimately follow what he proved to be true through experimentation. 

As I read that more and more humanities departments are getting shut down in favor of the promotion of engineering or business programs - which I agree we definitely need - I can't help but feel the same uneasy caution that I imagine Sagan must have felt while writing this part of The Demon-Haunted World. There needs to exist in society a space - either physical or psychic - to allow for absolute creative freedom. And, more importantly, that freedom needs to be funded. Sagan goes on to talk about how congress, in 1993, pulled the funding for SETI, or "the search for extraterrestrial intelligence" because they thought the endeavor useless and expensive. And as such is often the case, the areas of human knowledge that tell us who we are and why we are, perhaps the most important questions of all, get pushed aside to pay for another military endeavor - or, perhaps, to build a southern wall around the US. We are now living in an era where the consequences of Sagan's warnings are coming true: our natural environment is in deep decay, there are political divisions based on incorrect information, and those in power capitalize on ill-informed voters to propel themselves to power using fear and empty promises. The only want to counter all of this, as I see it, is to allow for humans to think - perhaps of solutions, but also just to think - and then, as a society, give them the money to try out those thoughts. (I should note I'm not advocating for a willy-nilly free for all in idea spending - but there has to be something better than what exists today, which is essentially very little.)

Here are a few paragraph's from this chapter: 

"The government has been pressuring the National Science Foundation to move away from basic scientific research and to support technology, engineering, applications. Congress is suggesting doing away with the U.S. Geological Survey, and slashing support for study of the Earth's fragile environment. NASA support for research and analysis of data already obtained is increasingly constrained. Many young scientists are not only unable to find grants to support their research; they are unable to find jobs." (Should sound familiar to any of us currently searching for academic work.) 

He goes on: 

"Basic research is where scientists are free to pursue their curiosity and interrogate Nature, not with any short-term practical end in view, but to seek knowledge for its own sake. Scientists of course have a vested interest in basic research. It's what they like to do, in many cases why they became scientists in the first place. But it is in society's interest to support such research. This is how the major discoveries that benefit humanity are largely made." 

Further down:

"Giving money to someone like Maxwell might have seemed the most absurd encouragement of mere 'curiosity-driven' science, and an imprudent judgement for practical legislators. Why grant money now, so nerdish scientists talking incomprehensible gibberish can indulge their hobbies, when there are more urgent unmet national needs? From this point of view, it's easy to understand the contention that science is just another hobby, another pressure group anxious to keep the grant money rolling in so the scientists don't ever have to do a hard day's work or meet a payroll. (I could comment much, much more on this notion - the correlation to art making is extraordinary.)

Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar or television when he firsts scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn't dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; Roentgen wasn't contemplating medial diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it 'X-ray'; Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn't planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Molina weren't planning to implicate CFC's in ozone depletion when they began studying the role of halogens in stratospheric photochemistry. 

Members of congress and other political leaders have from time to time found it irresistible to poke fun at seemingly obscure scientific research proposals that the government is asked to fund. Even as bright a senator as William Proxmire, a Harvard graduate, was given to making episodic 'Golden Fleece' awards - many commemorating ostensibly useless scientific projects - including SETI. I imagine the same spirit in previous governments - a Mr. Fleming wishes to study bugs in smelly cheese; a Polish woman wishes to sift through tons of Central African ore to find minute quantities of a substance she says will glow in the dark; a Mr. Kepler wants to hear songs the planets sing." 

Also in the book, Sagan talks a lot about pseudoscience and the inability of the general public to separate superstition from fact-based truths. Among one of these pseudosciences that I imagine he would have an opinion on is this idea of the "Law of Attraction", or what made The Secret so popular many years ago: it's this idea (admittedly based on incorrect or unfounded "science") that one can attract things into their lives by thinking about them, both psychic and physical. You think positive things, positive things come into your life. Same with the negative. The trick, according to the belief, is to get your unconscious mind to start thinking about the positive things while having your conscious mind do the work to get there. I'm not saying this is true, but I do think there is something to the notion that what ideas we collectively put out into the world is what we get back. I often see articles saying things like "man makes functioning Star-Trek tricorder" or "how scientists say we'll accomplish warp drive" or "how to physically make lightsabers". And while I don't think that our cultural consciousness magically brought these things to manifest, what I do believe is that it took much time and space for creative people - like Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas - to come up with these ideas in the first place. It is through the creative arts - visual, literary, musical, theatrical -  that fantastical ideas are born. It is through years of revision and rethinking that Lin Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton. It took Jackson Pollock years of making what he thought were "bad paintings" before he would come up with what we now consider his masterpieces. It took Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams their entire lives to produce some of our greatest stage plays or literary works that get to the heart of human mentality. Without the time and space (and perseverance, willingness to sacrifice and downright luck) they would have never have been able to produce what they did. Now imagine if they had the financial and intellectual support of a society wanting them to make these efforts. 

Sagan goes on to say, that in addition to these ideas that these scientists came up with, they often were no longer around to see the idea's true fruition. Indeed, science is a practice that builds off of the previous generation's work, with the newer researchers trying to find which blocks of prior information to fit where, and sometimes needing to reshape the old blocks. It is often not the creator's responsibility to see their idea through - it often isn't until someone comes along and picks up that idea that they find what it is really capable of. The same is true for art. While our culture is obsessed with originality despite being way past the post-modern, it is really the notion of picking up where others left off. Elizabeth Gilbert says that she is often more interested in people's authenticity than she is in their originality. There's truth to that, even though authenticity is a dirty word in the art world. We need to stop being so focused this unattainable standard of the new and realize what we already have in front of us. If one comes up with something totally new, great. But work that often changes the way we currently do things takes way longer than one human life; it takes a team. That team is built over generations, and as with most things that have revolutionized our world, it takes time, space and money to begin to try. 

Along with that team, it takes a culture willing to embrace the next steps and then support the creators as they take their journey. We no longer can hold onto ideas that clearly do not work (things like fossil fuels, for example) and move towards what will bring about a healthier, and in the end, more lucrative possibility. The people who think up those ideas are creatives, and they need the support to do so, starting with our educational systems. The place where we begin to dream about possibilities - and find the skills needed to articulate them to others - starts in the arts.  Sagan goes on to talk about the economic benefits of creativity and of the US getting outpaced by other countries who are ready to embrace the new. Indeed, the enormous amount of technology that has been developed in order to aid scientists as they seek to better understand the universe has led to incredible advancements that we now take for granted in our everyday lives. Through allowing and encouraging this creative process to occur and unfold, we not only allow for the development of embryos of new ideas to happen, but if anything, also for new potential business opportunities. It's the way we make a future for ourselves and it's a way to think about what we are capable of. This is the power of art, of writing, of music, of theater. As Sagan reminds us from over 20 years ago, that's why we need them now more than ever..