Maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson Should Embrace The Humanities More
Bears repeating: Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 6, 2018
Oh no, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
No no no no no.
*pinches brow of nose*
Listen, I appreciate Neil these days more than I perhaps like him — I know he’s backed away from his POP CULTURE PEDANTRY (“A TIE fighter is not made of TIES and so therefore it cannot exist, ho ho! Star Trek? You cannot literally trek upon the stars, you could burn up your feet! My my! Harry Potter is neither hairy nor a maker of pots! I got you again, pop culture! Magic is not real and lightsabers are utter nonsense!”), but I still find that piled around his feet are the corpses of all the fun he has killed, and now, here he is again.
Making proclamations about art.
Let’s rewind a little to this tweet:
In school, rarely do we learn how data become facts, how facts become knowledge, and how knowledge becomes wisdom.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) September 5, 2017
Which, you know, is literally why we have the humanities.
It’s why a liberal arts degree isn’t actually human poison and why STEM is nice but STEAM is much, much nicer, because it helps to generate people who not only understand information, but who can also contextualize it against all the other information that pushes and pulls upon it.
He’s also disregarded philosophy in the past.
And now, he’s offering comments on what exactly counts as “art.”
So, unsurprisingly, it’s not a good take.
Because, really, most takes attempting to find and thereby sequester the proper territory of art and its margins adds up to a bad take. Because art is not a thing. I mean, art exists, but it’s a squirmy, wiggly target on the best of days, and on the worst of days, the definition of art is often one that attempts to create a kind of hierarchy, where Good Art is put into Nice Boxes and all that other stuff is kicked into the trash bin. And that leads us down some troublesome roads — we pit genre fiction versus literary fiction, let’s say. Or we pit hard sci-fi (grr) against space opera (whee). High fantasy versus low fantasy. Romance versus, well, everything not romance. Marginalized creators versus non-marginalized creators. It is, simply put, a good way to make some art subterranean while other art gets to remain above ground, breathing the fresh air and staring up at the stars.
Perhaps even worse, if you take it to its natural conclusion, it often puts us into the territory of that most dangerous of myths for us creators: the myth of the Starving Artist. And it does this in a handful of ways — it suggests first that entertainment is some crass and common thing, which ends up being where the money is. Then, because we’ve all internalized the myth that art and money do not dare travel together, we put something artistic into a such rarified air that it’s balanced at the pinnacle of a tower where no one can reach it — it ascends so high, it is truly inaccessible. But but but, at the same time, by denigrating entertainment, it also gives an excuse for the peddlers of entertainment to pay the creators of entertainment less — oh, that’s just pulp, that’s just bunkum, that’s just clownpants, you’re basically a clown, so dance for us, clown, DANCE FOR US *shoots pistols at artist’s feet*
The tweet is so simplistic, it fails to appreciate a nuanced view of art.
If the definition of art is hung on the peg of our worldview, that’s already fucked up, because we have no single, permanent world-view. We’re not a hive-mind. We don’t all share our opinions through pheromones and antennae-rubs. It is entirely possible that he is suggesting, somewhat cheekily, that all art is subjective, but a) there are better ways to say that and b) it still pushes past the idea that something affirming our worldview cannot be art to us. Which is nonsense. I’ve read challenging books that either challenged my worldview and brought me around to that perspective or that helped me strengthen my already-existing point-of-view, and are those things less artful because of that? By his definition, yes. (By mine? Nope.)
There is an art to creating entertainment, too — the act of creating fiction, or an image, or a sound, that is beautiful and peaceful and does nothing to challenge us but does everything to make us feel something, that’s art. That’s really, seriously, definitely art. The ability for someone to create a scene (or a painting, or a song) that aims to make me sad and then makes me sad, yeah, no, that’s art. If it aims to make me happy, and I’m happy after? Art. If it’s just pretty to look at? Art. If it’s willfully ugly? Art.
Art can be about feelings, not about thoughts.
Art can also be about thoughts, and not about feelings.
Van Gogh does nothing to challenge my worldview.
He fails to disrupt it.
He doesn’t particularly affirm anything, either, except that the things he paints look like the things as they exist, except through the erm, “lens” of his eye and the tool of his brush.
So, is Van Gogh not an artist?
Is Get Out art? Shape of Water?
If they both entertain and challenge, does that invalidate them? Does it put those films in some elusive third category?
Or maybe, just maybe, are there no categories?
Hell, maybe NDT should just settle down, stick to science, and maybe in the meantime go back to college to get his humanities degree. That’d be okay, Neil. Go learn to write some poetry. Paint a painting. Read some philosophy. Liberal arts, Neil. It’s right there in the name — arts.
P.S. I DON’T THINK BEARS REALLY REPEATED THAT, NEIL, I DON’T THINK YOU KNOW ANY BEARS AT ALL, STOP DRAGGING BEARS INTO THIS WHAT DID THEY EVER DO TO YOU
P.P.S. ALSO SHOW ME ON THE DOLL WHERE POP CULTURE HURT YOU
* * *
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