damnant quodnon intelligunt

Hi, Orgheads!

I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.

We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.

I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other.

Math, science, and art have a long and complicated history in which the three have only recently been sorted into a status array in which science and math (are perceived to) require technical skills and great intellect in order to provide useful products that benefit society (while the arts do not). We scientists bear a special responsibility to defend the arts because, to some degree, our work is art (at least in the very concrete sense that it involves the act of composition). As social scientists concerned with the quality of life on this planet, it is our burden to convey the degree to which the arts elevate our mundane existence, bring meaning, connect us to history, educate us, and so forth. Finally, I doubt anyone reading this post sits in a room that isn’t chock full of consumer products that have been worked on and over by an art school graduate, from the digital interface on which you read these words, to the chair upon which you sit, and the commercial you will use to distract you from my finger wagging. In short, I’ll start with the premise that the arts are useful, that artistic skills are a form of human capital, and that many employers need artists and their labor.

[If you’re interested in learning more about the links between math to art, you might check out the syllabus for this “Geometry in Art and Sculpture” class at Dartmouth, or maybe the 2011 LACMA materials for educators on “Geometry and Art” which covers various topics including lines, repetition, shapes and planes, balance, perspective, proportion and includes a set of exercises to do with objects in the collection, including Diego Rivera’s Naturaleza muerta con pan y fruta (1917), a quilt, and a David Smith sculpture. There’s also a whole NPR series on the topic: “Where Science Meets Art.”]

When you see me next, I’ll be back to tell you what we’ve learned about unemployment rates among arts graduates. Until then, a few quotes from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks—a man who achieved excellence in both art and science:

  • “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”
  • “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”
  • “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
  • “Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”

Written by Jenn Lena

July 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I always loved the conceptual artists, Grup de Treball, in Catalonia, whose work is in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. In the waning years of the Franco regime, they did a piece that is essentially a correspondence analysis of revolutionary terms and revolutionary newspaper titles in a large poster. What I liked about it was that I encountered it while I was at Columbia in the 1990s/early 2000s, when network methods and kindred stuff like correspondence analysis were seen as apolitical “science”, while in a different context, it was political art. It helped me justify my existence to myself.


    John Krinsky

    July 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm

  2. I’d be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money that that last quotation is no more from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks than my recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara. It sounds like pure American Business Pap. That second to last one is totally dodgy as well.



    July 9, 2012 at 10:51 pm

  3. Goodness me. You’re quite right about the last–listed as a “common mis-attribution” (although I think they just say that so’s that I don’t feel like an idiot), and properly attributed to Tom Peters, apparently. Kieran FTW. Now checking the others and correcting the text accordingly.

    And as I slog through the interwebs (and specifically the full text of his notebooks), I’ll share this quote (Vol. 1:11): “Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:–on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own.”


    Jenn Lena

    July 9, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  4. The second last one seems to be from Elinor Smith, a pioneering aviator.



    July 9, 2012 at 11:28 pm

  5. This post reminds me of some of the literature on the psychology of creativity that alludes to the idea that both scientists and artists are deeply involved in similar yet complex processes of idea creation that in-and-of themselves are not that different from each other. I think that the commonly held belief that less talented students go into the arts comes from the fact that scientists can do art, but artists can’t do science.

    Here is a clip of the great Richard Feynman, who was an accomplished artist in his own right. I think that in another video Jirayr Zorthian (the artist in this video) concedes that he didn’t pick up much scientific know-how during his meetings with Richard.



    July 9, 2012 at 11:43 pm

  6. EruObs,

    “I think that the commonly held belief that less talented students go into the arts comes from the fact that scientists can do art, but artists can’t do science.”

    That’s a fact?

    I’m not even sure what that means…If a person is talented both in the arts and in science, how do you believe they should be classified? As an artist who does science? Or a scientist who does art? What is DaVinci, then? Medical illustrators hold art degrees and are talented artists- but they also take courses in biology and dissect cadavers. Sure, their scientific training isn’t the same as an undergraduate who chooses to major in biology, but they must be just as capable of passing the courses. Because these people choose instead to become illustrators, that means they can’t “do” science? Do you mean that it is a matter of training- that it requires a degree to be a biologist or a chemist or something similar, but being an artist requires no such training? And if so, if I chemist wished to also “do art” by playing the guitar or the piano, wouldn’t they need to practice? I’m sure there are a few individuals out there who could pick up a guitar and play with little effort- but most people would need practice. And in that case, why couldn’t an artist do the same with astronomy, geology, or biology? I’d argue then that the chemist is a scientist who dabbles in the arts, while the artist is dabbling in the sciences.



    July 10, 2012 at 11:51 am

  7. Melissa, point taken. First, I’d like to retract the word “fact” and replace it with “broadly held idea.” I would also place more emphasis on “commonly held belief.” Without having seen any numbers on this, I would venture to guess that a representative survey would place an economics or physics major as having more “academic ability,” whatever that may mean, than an art history or fine arts major. As far as I can tell, a belief such as this one is pretty widespread not only within universities (at least the ones I have been to) but also among the lay population.

    In terms of scientists being able to do art and not the other way around, lets focus on the minimum requirements to partake in each activity.

    Art: Grab a canvas, throw some paint around, call it neo-Pollockian painting
    Science: State a hypothesis, collect empirical data, test the data, accept or reject the hypothesis

    If this is the way that the public understands the requirements for each activity (which it isn’t, most individuals likely don’t know what the scientific method entails, and thus science is shrouded in mystery making it even more incomprehensible in the publics mind), then I think that the natural assumption is to think that scientists can do art, but not the other way around. Of course there will be DaVinci’s who can do everything and are called rennaisance men, but by-and-large, science-related disciplines are believed to be full of students with more “academic ability” than arts disciplines, which was the point I was trying to make.



    July 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm

  8. I am not sure what to think of the last post, it might be intentionally misleading. Nevertheless, the blogger has made it quite clear what art is (including design etc.) so thinking of art as throwing some paint around…well. I assume you were joking. Although you’re clearly not a comedian!



    July 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

  9. […] am posting on behalf of my colleagues Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann, and the team at SNAAP. In yesterday’s post, I explained this and tried to frame some of this […]


  10. My university grants bachelor of science degrees in criminology. One of our professors scoffed that the the BS was created for people who could not handle the two-year foreign language requirement of the traditional BA. I suppose that the Greek and Latin of the AB would trump that as well. Last week, I met yet another univesity physics major who said just that: he could not “understand” foreign languages.

    As for EruObs above, it is a common claim, perhaps. But anyone who has taken art, art history, or design knows that such complaints derive from ignorance, not from insight. Similarly, as a criminologist, I have a special interest in academic and scientific fraud and misconduct. My professor for the undergraduate class in social science research methods was Young S. Kim (“CSI Effect”). When Dr. Kim assigned us two academic papers a week for criticism, I asked if he expected undergraduates to be competent to criticize peer-reviewed journal articles. He replied, “It’s not that hard.” He said that we even could find arithmetic errors. We did. … in addition to other problems. It sort of makes you wonder who is “splashing paint on canvas” and getting away with it.


    Michael E. Marotta

    July 11, 2012 at 1:08 am

  11. […] First, I’d like to thank our July guests, Jenn Lena and Katherine Chen. We are blessed to have such accomplished friends. Second, I’m picking a fight with Jenn Lena, just because I can. Earlier this week, Jenn referred to an earlier discussion of college majors, where I argued that some students drift into social sciences and humanities because they are easier and that this means that these students have less academic ability. Jenn called this view bonkers. […]


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