Friday, June 01, 2007

Beauty's so meta

I once wrote myself a note that said, “I want to marry a scientist and live in New York forever.”

New York is infinite, and I want its changing continuity to be the backdrop of my whole life. I want to give myself over to it on the faith of my 27 years here and commit—all the while knowing that long, slow stays in forests and oceans are part of that commitment. I want to make a life with someone who’s voraciously curious about how things work and whose passion can overtake them keeping them up at night running on fumes like mine does. I want to make children who are the products of an artist’s and a scientist’s lusts for life.

It’s so poetic too, the marriage of art and science, but I don’t know any young scientists really well yet so it’s hard to say if my poetry can withstand the reality of it all.

I found very encouraging support for this plan a few weeks ago while listening to NPR’s art and culture radio program Studio 360. Astrophysicist Michael Salamon was talking about the beauty he experiences in his work and his frustration with Walt Whitman for being blind to the beauty so present in that field. He defends his profession valiantly here and scoffs easily at Whitman's disinterest knowing deeply that he is blessed with an understanding Whitman lacked. He also believes that given the chance, he could turn Whitman on to the analytical side of astrophysics.

Salamon was a freshman at MIT when he first experienced beauty in physics. Janis Joplin played in the background as he sank into a deep meditation struggling to understand Maxwell's four elegant equations explaining electrodynamics. After many hours of this, the concept opened up to him in an explosive moment of beautiful clarity. He works at NASA now--in the Universe Division.

Here’s the Whitman:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Salamon loves this poem, but it also bothers him to hear Whitman, of all people, dismissing the beauty of physics because for him, knowing the workings of the universe makes its beauty that much more beautiful.

I understand Whitman's dismissal though because I'm fully guilty of it myself. Aesthetic theory frustrates me to no end, and I continually find myself walking away from books telling myself that focusing on the way we experience beauty is more essential to this work than reading the work of these criminally detached scholars. Ultimately though, it’s just dense complex material I haven’t mastered yet, and I have to be honest with myself and acknowledge that what I am seeking with my study of experience are the very nuts and bolts these theories provide.

Eventually, by studying both experience and theory, I may come to an explosive understanding of my own when the warm, murky mystery of beauty becomes crisp and clear and solid. I used to worry that knowing too much about beauty would ruin it, but if I get to experience what Salamon has, it'll only be that much more beautiful.


ericelectronic said...

Being one of those people who found a partner in a scientist, I have to say that it is very challenging to remain melodramatic and artsy in the face of a constant onslaught of rational thought. However, the fight makes me a better artist insofar as it allows me to incorporate truth into my perception in ways that connect the science to art. And after all isn't that what we should strive for? Cause if not, isn't t just religion that we are creating?

varsity aesthete said...

Fascinating. I like the idea that art needs to be provable to be believable (which is a huge and sprawling statement I'm currently unwilling to defend in its further reaches...but may revisit).

As for art as empty religion, I get that feeling when I encounter art I don't like because of a weak (and, yes, sometimes unknown) premise. It's awkward and sometimes infuriating to be there with the artist's work, believing they're trying to get you to say yes to their bullshit.

Conversely, when, with a work of art, I am swayed past my initial neutrality or disgust to affinity by explanation on the part of artist or art historian, there is a sense that I have been converted.

Which is nice actually. Because I have no need to be loyal to any one artistic view.

Ericelectronic, how does this come up for you? This incorporation of truth into your "perception in ways that connect science to art"?