Washington Lecture: It's art and culture, stupid!

 

IT'S ART AND CULTURE, STUPID!

Invited lecture at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies,

Washington D.C., 20 June 2014

 

 “At the beginning of the 21st century, the social, political and economic value system finds itself perched at the height of a dramatic transformation: A seemingly anonymous, even abstract and depersonalized shareholder value is at the center of social and political processes. Education becomes redefined as mainly vocational training, in the service of creating employability rather than visions and ideas . Welcome to the European Union!”

This is, how I began my lecture  at the European Culture Forum.

It was 2011 and once more European politicians together with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank just had explained how the financial crisis will definitively be solved now by expanding the Euro Rescue Fund  to 780 Billion € - just a few months after having implemented a 440 Billion Euro Rescue Fund. Some highly sophisticated financial leverage tools, would guarantee that - at the end - no one, especially not the taxpayers, will be charged.

In the meantime the unemployment rate among the Greek population under the age of 30 has increased to 70%.

In the same year the following could be read in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: „Welcome to a nation unable to solve its problems, incapable of civil discourse, bogged down in a morass of multicultural conflict, and lagging the global innovation marketplace. Just look forward a generation or two, and this will be America if we do not address the dearth of investment in art and imaginative capacity.“

And in Durban, South Africa, at the UN Climate Change Conference the representative of India, assisted by China and Brazil, said: „I'm not accusing anybody, but there are efforts to shift the problem to countries that have not contributed to it. WE did not issue a threat.“

What happened to our societies?

The idea of progress is reduced to mere economic growth. Growth  which - under current technological, economic and political standards – is exclusively  limited to the so called industrialized world, simply because the same grade of wealth and comfort we have now, would not be achievable for all 7 billion people on earth - in terms of required energy and pollution.

Universities got used - or forced - to look first at evaluation-figures instead of values and content. Quantification and ranking based on quantitative indicators are the main topics in higher education policy. The art market booms: Party and selling is the main purpose at the numerous art fairs – from Miami to Basel, from Dubai to Hong Kong, Beijing and Sao Paulo. Artwork gets into the role of shares and art collectors into the role of dealers.

In the last decades we increasingly tended to believe in the slogan „If economy is doing well, we all are doing well.“ We got used to the argumentation:  Economic growth is the father of all things: new services and products, cheaper services and products, social welfare, personal  happiness, democracy, world peace – and not to forget: victories in elections. "It’s the economy, stupid!"  We all remember this slogan to success. Consciously or not - Bill Clintons war room – what a name! -  kind of transferred and transformed  Heraclit’s  “WAR is the father of all things!” to the 20th century.

Of course economy is a necessary part of societal development. Anybody who would deny this, would be a naïve and even dangerous fool.

"No it’s not like this, which I found at the website businessneedsmoreart.com:

More art is more inspiration. More inspiration is more creativity.

More creativity is more innovation.

More Innovation is more profits.

More profits is more art."

And it is not a simple hen and egg problem, where you can start acting wherever you want, and you anyway will get to the same result in a circle. Because we don’t have a circle process here. Actually there are three systems acting in the game: Economy, Science&Technology and the Arts. Each of them has its own rules. And of course the question of predominance arises. In particular: Which system has the power to define the terms progress and future?

In this context it is interesting that the most important Biologist of our times, renowned Harvard emeritus Edward O. Wilson in his latest book “The Social  Conquest of Earth” published kind if a revolutionary turn in the Theory of evolution: Wilson, a Darwinist with no doubt, put a second puzzle-stone aside Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” as criterion for human evolution: Group selection, fostering cooperative behaviors, including practicing and reception of art.

Things are complicated. Yes. The world is complex and the grade of complexity increases in frantic speed. We all can read and hear this almost every day. Especially from politicians and scientists. Buckminster Fuller noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.

An increasing specialization in research generated this explosion of knowledge. As a result we are facing a massive fragmentation of academic fields. Universities became an environment of highly specialized experts who compete in getting points for their citation index. We all know the strategies of splitting research results for increasing the number of publications. Separation, demarcation and fragmentation is the story science history is telling us.

And although the terms transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity today arise in more publications - and even more in nice discussions -, effective research- collaboration between different disciplines still is an exception. It does not quite fit into the current academic system, which is highly driven by competition between institutions, disciplines and individuals.

There are only few significant examples of interdisciplinary group formation: The best one is life sciences, where experts in molecular biology, biotechnology, robotics, biomedicine, biophysics, biomechanics, genetics, neuroscience and some more decided to work together. And this strategy lead to an incomparable success story:  Life sciences now are probably the most powerful research field in terms of potentially shaping the future of our civilization. The second one is experimental physics, where theoretical physics, quantum mechanics and quantum optics are involved.

I think it is not by chance that researchers from both of these areas say, that they need visual aspects to increase their theoretical models and they profit from communicating with artists. Anton Zeilinger, one of the leading experts in experimental physics even showed his experiment of teleportation based on quantum mechanics and quantum optics at the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary Art in Kassel last year. And it is not by chance  as well that some of my graduates at the University of Applied Arts Vienna experiment with using DNA for storing and recalling visual information.

Innovation increasingly is becoming the new top slogan in politics. Innovation as medicine for saving the world – or rather the world economy first? But like any political slogans we have to look closely to see what is really meant by innovation.

Let’s have a look at Google:

The term innovation brings 245 million entries.

Innovation and Technology: 1,1 billion.

Innovation and arts: 254 million.

Innovation and society:  202 million.

Of course , these are just figures. But if you realize what Google actually happens to be in our times, it gives us a good picture of the status and awareness of these terms in our society. From Schumpeter to current definitions, innovation is meant as the introduction and dissemination of new and improved products, processes, systems and devices for commercial use. Only few assign achievements for our social life like law, music, literature, painting, dancing, Democracy, Human Rights, Schools, Universities, hospitals, museums, theatres to the innovation system.

Government documents clearly show the current direction: “With an ageing population and strong competitive pressures from globalization, Europe' s future economic growth and jobs will increasingly have to come from innovation in products, services and business models. This is why innovation has been placed at the heart of the Europe 2020 Strategy for growth and jobs.” (EU Commission) And at the white House website you can read: “President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation seeks to harness the ingenuity of the American people to ensure economic growth that is rapid, broad-based, and sustained.  This economic growth will bring greater income, higher quality jobs, and improved quality of life to all Americans.” 

Before the industrial revolution started, in the middle of the 18th century, no one could imagine that Europe, later the USA and parts of Asia within a few decades would go through a profound and lasting transformation of economic and social conditions, working conditions and living conditions. Inventions based on the use of mechanical processes changed the way of production and travelling. Large parts of the population lost occupation and income. Traditional jobs, like for example weavers, disappeared, new professions aroused together with increasing social inequality.

Today it is hard to imagine, that in a few years consumers will be able to produce a wide range of products at home or in digital 3D-printing shops, like today photos. And even less we are able to imagine which changes will happen in working, communicating and thinking along quantum physics and biotechnology. We do not know how these changes can and will influence our culture. But they will. When and not the least how changes will affect us depends on imagination and creativity.

Einstein said: Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Who had the imagination to realize flying to the moon? No it was not John F. Kennedy, and it was not the NASA. It was Jules Verne, 100 years before, with his book “De la Terre a la Lune.”

The breakthrough from the geocentric to the heliocentric model came along with the invention of the central perspective in renaissance painting, which was somehow necessary for finding this way of viewing at the world from a fixed central point outside the globe.

The paintings of Seurat can be seen as pixeling pictures, a technique or then a technology which was used some 60 years later for television.

Picasso disintegrated in his paintings the visual and intellectual interrelation between material, form, time and space. A person is falling apart or we can look at a person from different points at the same time, a few years before Einstein wrote his theory of relativity

And Heisenberg told us that the more precisely you measure a particle’s position, the less precisely you will be able to determine its momentum. Uncertainty was the paradigm breaking topic at the end of the 19 and the beginning of the 20th century.

„A successful scientist thinks like a poet and works like an accountant.“ Edward O. Wilson. And the neuroscientist Wolf Singer pointes out that scientists, when formatting new theories,  use criteria which go far beyond  making logical conclusions. Criteria which are leading to the languages of the arts.

These few examples proof that the arts often create an atmosphere which in some way is able to fertilizing science and technology.

No doubt. Innovation, based on science and technology will be dominating future developments even more and even faster than in the past. But science and technology will also more than ever need creativity and the arts as the mother tongue of creativity to make the big leaps rather than the small steps towards the future of our civilization. And not only this: Art has the power to innovate, to strengthen societies only by being art itself. There was no time in human history  without art. And this was not just because art is beautiful, no art was and is necessary if we don’t want to be frozen in the ices of utilitarism and technocracy.

 

Art cannot change society. But art can change people. And people change societies. Beginning from the stone ages till now. In Egypt artists were some of the main organizers of the Tahrir-Place movement which lead to the Arab spring. The same now happens in Istanbul again.

The Arts – contemporary arts - must come into to the middle of our societies – again. Not instead, but in addition to museums, galleries and opera houses. Not by refraining from artistic autonomy but by reading autonomy in a contemporary context of democratic societies.

The key for implementing this approach lies – as so often – in the education system. Not isolated specialized knowledge alone is the basis for innovative strength, but flexibility, the ability to think and act in interdisciplinary and intercultural contexts, bridging different spheres of thinking, crossing borders, questioning existing intellectual as well as behavioral habits, arriving at with new scenarios and producing amazement with its own work. This is the domain of the arts. Therefore interaction between arts, economy and technology systematically should be implemented on all levels of our education system.

After all: In our fragmented and even confusing world it is time to educate interdisciplinary innovation experts: Specialists in de-specialization. Which means utilizing the benefits of specialization by interconnecting people and ideas, seeing something together, which has not yet been seen together, recognizing the effects of contexts, uncovering correlations that are not arbitrary. We cannot waive specialized expertise. But in addition, the world urgently needs people with translational creative skills, people who are able to bridging the islands of specializations.

Lorraine Daston the famous Science Historian shows in her research, that paradigm-breaking innovation  mostly arises at the overlapping edges of different disciplines. And our globe urgently needs this kind of paradigm-breaking innovation – technological innovation as well as social innovation.

 

More than two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, again standing on societal and economic crossroads, the crucial question now is: Is it possible to make the development as well as the realization of creative ideas and visions the very trademark of our societies? Looking at the social, environmental, economic and some more challenges there is no alternative to heading towards a creative society. But to meet this goal, the next societal and economic revolution will have to be a “creative revolution”. Thus, the valences of  societal paradigms must be shifted – from a mere commercialization of arts and culture towards a culturalization of our societies. To achieve this, innovation must be a joint collaborative effort between art, technology and economy.

And as long as Art and culture is given no proper role in defining the terms Progress and future in our societies, I keep on saying:

“It’s Art and Culture, stupid!”