Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Science and Art: Feynman and the Flower, Practicality and Beauty

I was first exposed to Richard Feynman by an Astronomy professor in college who insisted we watch the1993 documentary The Best Mind Since Einstein. (For those of you who have never heard of him, Feynman was the scientist who testified to the Shuttle Commission about the faulty O-rings in the Challenger which resulted in its explosion in 1986.)   Feynman had a lets-try-this-and-see-if-it-works approach to life, and he was incredibly observant about day-to-day events.  He was also a writer.  This is noteworthy because (a) it shows the interconnection between the sciences and the arts and (b) because he was a very funny man and his books are both easy to read and enjoyable. 

It was for these reasons that I picked up a copy of Classic Feynnamn: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, a compilation of selections from his books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?  Feynman had a dry sense of humor and what seems to be a talent for letting other people believe he knew more than he really did.  (This is not to suggest the man was not a genius, because I think he was.)  His books are also beautiful in the way that one does not have to read from page one to the end to understand them--each chapter can pretty much stand on its own, and if you're looking for a short, entertaining read, it's easy to find in this book.


...it is his attitude towards "artists" which has stuck with me ever since that Astronomy class, and these sections stood out in my reading of his books recently.  For example, in "Mixing Paints," he writes:
The reason why I say I'm "uncultured" or "anti-intellectual" probably goes way back to the time when I was in high school.  I was always worried about being a sissy; I didn't want to be too delicate.  To me, no real man ever paid any attention to poetry and such things.  How poetry ever got written--that never struck me!  So I developed a negative attitude toward the guy who studies French literature, or studies too much music or poetry--all those "fancy" things.  I admired better the steelworker, the welder, or the machine shop man.  I always thought the guy who worked in the machine shop and could make things, now he was a real guy.  That was my attitude.  To be a practical man was, to me, always a positive virture, and to be "cultured" or "intellectual" was not.  The first was right, of course, but the second was crazy.
Fenynman alludes to the fact that he eventually re-evaluates his stance on art (to the point that he becomes a skilled artist and even has his own art show), but the idea of "practicality" makes me think about just how far modern (American) society has moved from practicality as a way of life.  I don't grow my own food, make my own clothes, or get my own water.  America is a massive supply-chain and I'm right at the end of it.

This being true, then, does it matter if something is "practical"?  Writing about literature won't keep my apartment warm during the long Colorado winter, but all I need to do to ensure I'm toasty in January is pay my Excel bill.  Practicality has become about getting the most money for the least amount of unpleasantness, I'd say, and if one is a successful academic--or poet or artist--, then one is set.

However, Feynman also thinks that an appreciation of aesthetic beauty.  (See video below.)  Aesthetics and utility are closely tied together in his mind, to the point that he does not think that merely enjoying the beauty of a flower is at all comparable to enjoying the beauty of a flower because one knows how it evolved.  Appreciation and understanding are hand-in-hand to Feynman's way of thinking--another display of practicality, perhaps?  From a "practical" point of view, utility is far superior to meer aestheticism in an "ant and grasshopper" kind of way, which we've discussed previously.  Just like before, I still firmly believe that there is a place in society for musicians, artists, and poets, a place that is filled only by unadulterated beauty without a hint of practical use about it.

Unfortunately, those of us who are middle class still have to pay our Excel bills, so practicality (as far as income) still comes first.  I find, however, that my life becomes very gray if I don't spend my free time creating something beautiful without a hint of practicality about it.

My point, then, is this: I reject Richard Feynman's claims about the utility of art.  (But, before anyone jumps down my throat for criticizing the mighty Feynman, he's still something of a hero to me.  I couldn't be my father's daughter if that weren't the case.)


Homero said...

I'm going to ramble on, so this is a warning...

This reminds me of the relationship that I have with my cousin Victoria. When we were younger, our fathers bought homes, fixed them up, and rented them out, something they continue to do to this day. She and I were went from house to house to house doing minor electical work, landscaping, mudding walls, primering, replacing door jams, patching holes in drywall, laid down laminate flooring. For all intents and purposes, we have a very practical set of skills.

Flash forward years later, what are we doing?

She's a psychobilly bar tender who can talk your ear off about Pabst Blue Ribbon and the proper way of installing a garbage disposal. I'm a English instructor who has been doing my own home repairs for things that most people would have called profesionals in long ago. These skills are something we both highly prize.

I watch an episode of "Property Virgins" or something like that on Home and Garden Channel and yell at the people because they don't know what they are talking about, or are about to bite off more than they can chew.

Does having these practical skills make us less appreciative of art? Not really, at least I dont' think so. But we both are very practical people, so more so than I.

This does not mean that I think that art should be practical. Far from it. One of my favorite artist is JM Turner. His art changed in his lifetime from carefully structured realistic renditions, to quasi-chaotic pre impressionst images of light and darkness.

Not focusing on the overly practical side of things keeps me sane. That sanity is meaningless, however, if I can't get by on a daily basis.

Rample over. I totally lost my focus...

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Ramble on, my friend. You've been reading my ramblings for how many years now? :)

And I know some people would claim that I'm totally missing the point of Feynman, that I'm a disgrace to nerds everywhere, but I just cannot get behind his little "The Artist and the Flower" fable. Both he and Aesop can suck it. Why does everything have to be PRACTICAL? Practical is so freaking boring, and we have to pretend to be it for so many hours of the day, why can't we just enjoy things that aren't practical during our free time?

I mean, really.

(By the way, I'm going to work "quasi-chaotic impressionist images" into a conversation tomorrow. See if I don't.)

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