Maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson Should Embrace The Humanities More

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Oh no, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Oh no.

No no no no no.

*pinches brow of nose*

*exhales slowly*

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:

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*

Ahem.

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.

Put differently:

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?

Shakespeare?

Spielberg?

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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50 comments

  • So, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint , it’s more like a big ball of wobbly-wobbly, arty-warty… stuff?

  • March 6, 2018 at 3:34 PM // Reply

    I always sort of liked NDT…but I think he needs to stop listening to imaginary talking bears and let art be whatever it wants to be.

  • Twitter makes the most intelligent person sound slightly dumber. I imagine this is a hard time for scientists in the face of such unrelenting ignorance from all fronts, but becoming the arbiter of what is art is a strange tack to take.

  • Hmm, I am a Wendig FAN and a Tyson FAN. Please, please don’t make me choose!

    But, I think I can straddle both camps.

    I think I understand your critique and your concern of creating categories for “art” and for “entertainment”. But I actually think his statement is less about that and more about worldview. If you’re not challenged by what you’re looking at and you enjoy it then you are being entertained. If you are challenged by what you look at you are not being entertained, per se, but you still appreciate the experience.

    So, I kinda think you went off the deep end on “don’t you dare define what art is! it’s all art!”

    Whereas I think really what he was saying – don’t be put off by stuff that challenges you. (Which I’m sure would be agreeable to the Wendigian way of seeing the world?)

    Or maybe I’m just lame and don’t want to have to burn either a Wendig nor a a Tyson effigy…

    • It’s possible that if that’s what he meant to say, he should say that instead of the thing he said. Which means that maybe a humanities degree would help him refine his writing skill somewhat.

      It’s also possible that he meant what he said, and I just disagree with it. It doesn’t mean you have to choose camps, we don’t live in a world where false dichotomies rule, which is also part of the point of this post — you don’t have to choose ART over ENTERTAINMENT just as you don’t have to choose him over me or vice versa. We can all get along together even as we disagree.

      • Umm, the part about choosing a camp was meant to be a joke. Bad writing on my part. Still learning after all these years 🙂

        Peace.

  • p.s. but yeah, he should embrace the humanities more. just as artists should embrace the wonders of science. 🙂

  • “He knew in his heart that spinning upside down around a pole wearing a costume you could floss with definitely was not Art, and being painted lying on a bed wearing nothing but a smile and a small bunch of grapes was good solid Art, but putting your finger on why this was the case was a bit tricky.” -Thud, Terry Pratchett.

  • What is it with modern Western culture and its obsession with labelling things? (Or people.) I can’t be having with it, and in any case I lost my label-maker years ago. Or maybe I gave it away. Too Long; Don’t Remember (the other TL:DR).

  • Dr. Tyson has always been a man driven by the reality of science more than anything else. It brings him wonder and joy.

    The failing to this is that he’s not known for investing much in philosophical thought. That’s why his ideas of what make Art and Entertainment seem wrong. A scientific description tends to ask for specific definition where an emotional, spiritual, or philosophical mindset is more prone to overlap.

    My two cents. If I’m wrong, please, tell me. I’m all too happy to hear it.

  • The movie “Jaws” did not challenge anything except how comfortable we feel swimming in the ocean. But, damn, what a movie…and it made half a bazillion at the box office. So, is it Art? Entertainment? Both? “The Dark Knight” is the same way, and “Titanic.”

    Fricken’ “Black Panther” is magnificent, it DOES challenge, and it CONTINUES to do boffo.

    A well-done movie is both Art and Entertainment. They are not exclusive. Fight me.

    • No, I won’t fight you. I shall agree with you. “It’s all art” would be my take.

      But, I will say that I think NDT was just trying to say “don’t be afraid by what challenges you”. I don’t think his message was as much about the taxonomy of “art , entertainment and all that stuff” but more about how one perceives things based on ones worldview.

      Yes, as a literal reading he offers a taxonomy. But, hey, as folks who embrace the ambiguities in life should we be reading it so literally? After all as CW points out this whole pedantry around pop art misses the point – so shouldn’t we also five leeway to the words written and look for the meaning trying to be portrayed?

      Also, to get a bit nerdy – where does he say Art and Entertainment are distinct sets?

  • I feel like Neil deGrasse Tyson desperately wants to be the Carl Sagan of our generation, but he’s missing one important aspect of why Carl Sagan was so effective.

    Carl Sagan’s musings on the Pale Blue Dot weren’t great because they were scientifically rigorous and peer reviewed by propeller-heads that publish in PLOS and Science. It was an incredible piece of writing because the way he said it made us feel small and insignificant… tiny against the expanse of nothingness that the picture was looking into, and absolutely minuscule against the exponentially greater emptiness beyond the solar system that the camera couldn’t see.

    He related incredibly difficult science to the things we know, like the apple pie that you can only slice so many times before you get to atoms and particles, and can’t split them anymore. Neil takes the things we think we know and tries to make us feel dumber for the fact that it’s more complicated than that thing we said.

    Where Neil says, “Well, actually…,” Carl would have said, “Well, yes, but if you think of it this way…”

    In short, Carl Sagan embraced art to make his point, and Neil won’t deign to recognize it as being the reason so many of us know and appreciate what he does.

  • I love how passionate Tyson is about science and reason and rational thinking and stirring the public into being more active with that, but he does get super nit-picky about things that are not so cut and dry as science. He does sap the fun out of it. I don’t need everything to be scientifically accurate in a story, but it has to make sense in that story, and have a reason for being in that story even if it defies physics. That’s the whole point! Story is where you can direct the imagination a little, but never tame it. Neil wants every movie and story to be able to back up their physics with real science or he enjoys it less. That’s your prerogative Neil, but it ain’t mine. Beam me up, Scotty. Or Data. Or La Forge. Also, he doesn’t get art and art is okay with that.

    • March 6, 2018 at 10:49 PM // Reply

      Again Neil said that a good story is much more important than scientific accuracy to him. He is also generally fine with sci-fi taking liberties for plot reasons, just prefers that they take the time to understand the science first.

  • Speaking as a physics teacher and a writer: NGT is a bit of a one-trick doofus. What he does, he does very well, but he’s wearing great big blinders on his brain that he doesn’t even see.

  • Gosh, now I’m doing that thing where I’m swimming up stream and looking for counter points to all the “yes, you’re right” flowing towards CW.

    Here’s a thought – NT is accused of being “too science oriented” but if he tries to offer an opinion on something outside of science he get’s his wrist slapped: “Hell, maybe NDT should just settle down, stick to science” – not very inclusive, huh? Doesn’t that seem to play to the “science nerds stay over there” – “word nerds come play over here”?

    Heck, I should go sip a chamomile tea to calm down.

    • There’s a difference between offering an opinion and making blanket pronouncements about subjects you lack knowledge and understanding of. Of course he doesn’t have to “stick to science.” But if he’s going to try to definitively engage with with a question (“What is art?”) that artists have been asking for as long as there have been human beings, it might behoove him to do a little bit of research first, and to communicate his thoughts more clearly.

      • – tweeting is neither “making a blanket pronouncement” nor is “definitively engag(ing) with the question “What is art?”
        – a tweet was originally meant to be a quick way to make a throw away comment. In a weird twist of fate and because humans have such short attention spans it has become something it’s not really very good at.
        – a tweet is a tweet
        – i don’t tweet
        – if i did tweet they’d all be “tweet storms” at which point why tweet? why not blog?

    • I’m not truly suggesting he not talk about fiction or art. Just that he not make proclamations about them when they are not his arena. Nor does this have anything to do with “inclusivity.”

      • I don’t want to be too pedantic (just a little!) – but here goes anyway. I know you’re not “truly suggesting” he not talk about fiction or art. But if I read your words literally that is exactly what you say. Later on you talk about “I can only go by what he wrote”.

        Not that it matters one whit but here’s my take:

        – I agree with the position that it’s all art and that art vs. entertainment in the general sense and that attempting to categorize is not only worthless but also harmful. That’s the thrust of the blog piece, right?

        – I agree with the position that art can be challenging and uncomfortable thus art might not be considered entertainment in some circumstances. That I believe is one reasonable reading of the tweet…

        And finally, lest it not be clear:
        – I really appreciate this blog and read it regularly (I also own Damn Fine Story and a bunch of your other works). I really, really appreciate the time you take answering.

        • That’s certainly a fair point — let’s just say I’m not suggesting he never talk about ART/ENTERTAINMENT as much as I am suggesting he not try to own that topic. Just as I wouldn’t try to own science, but I’m free to talk about it and include it in my fiction, it’s not “my space,” strictly speaking.

          I think another thing to consider is that NDT has a huge, HUGE platform, and should utilize that platform with greater responsibility and less ego.

  • Speaking of physicists:
    “It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not be approached without some humor and some bewilderment.” Freeman Dyson
    “So what do you care what people think?” Richard Feynman

  • March 6, 2018 at 10:44 PM // Reply

    To be fair, a lot of stuff NDT says about pop culture is for fun–he’s openly said that he doesn’t care how scientifically accurate something is as long as its a good story (though he still thinks sci-fi writers should research science).

    I think what he’s trying to say is not as black and white as it sounds (it was a tweet, not much room to elaborate). I see it as him preferring stories that challenge one’s worldview, as simple as that. Don’t think he really means entertainment can’t be art.

    I do agree with your points though.

    • Given that Twitter has threading as a capability, I feel like there’s ample room to elaborate. Further, tweet size alone would’ve given him plenty of space to say the thing YOU said instead of the thing HE said, which leads me to believe he isn’t saying what you’re saying that he’s saying. I can only go by what he wrote.

  • I don’t think that’s 1:1 what he meant with his tweet, and it’s probably a consequence of the medium he’s using.

    Also, I find it quite patronizing to say “Stick you to your science, NTD.”

    I get not liking his position — if he truly believes this distinction between entertainment and art, then your points as such are well taken — but NTD is as free as any other person to articulate his views and have them celebrated/corrected/dismissed/etc.

    Tell him to shut up about it and you deprive him of the right to learn and have his artistic opinion bounce off of other minds. That takes the liberal right out of the arts again.

  • March 7, 2018 at 10:07 AM // Reply

    It’s all about perception. Can a work challenge your world-view AND entertain you? Of course! Take Blade Runner, for example. For me, it’s a statement about what it means to be human; whether biology or experience of life defines humanity on an individual level. It was also very entertaining. For my wife it was just somewhat boring. How we perceived what we watched was vastly different. Can art, be it a book, a movie, a painting, entertain you or make you happy without changing your world-view? Absolutely. We have a somewhat generic watercolor painting in our dining room that I love because it’s pretty and it matches the colors in the room. It makes me happy, just by being there, because it pulls the colors in the room together. But it doesn’t challenge my world-view. Does that make it just entertainment and not art? No, absolutely not.

    Art isn’t something that can be boxed in or easily classified beyond a medium or a genre. Art is about its effect on the individual. It is, as I said, subjective, and can’t be classified as Dr. Tyson attempted to do.

  • Thanks for calling this one out. Tyson’s great at cool-sounding, but semantically void statements. You nod along with what he says to feel smart, without actually thinking.

    I mean, take that tweet above. How do you even define what disrupts whose worldview? Since so may people have such different worldviews, every piece of creativity could be disrupting something at some time. So now everything’s art. Making this whole conversation pointless.

    You know what? Let’s just…all go outside and play for a while. Maybe Mom was right, maybe we do all really spend too much time in front of screens. Because eventually we trip into nonsense like this.

  • March 7, 2018 at 4:46 PM // Reply

    I read that tweet, and I immediately thought:

    So – from your perspective – scripture and religious iconography must be some damn fine art because it challenges your worldview.

    I understand what he’s trying to say here, but as a sound byte it falls flat on its Plutoid.

      • I’m an atheist. But I find some religious iconography beautiful. If the artist’s muse was celebration of their chosen deity it makes no difference to me than if their muse was Chuck Wendig. 🙂

        Now, to reference a previous post: “To everyone else it’s irrelevant.” – that’s a blanket statement!

      • That’s so untrue, Stella, a non-believer could easily have a mental, emotional or aesthetic response to a religious icon that was neither belief nor indifference. Or it could prompt a movement, or a temptation to move, from non-belief to belief, which would certainly challenge the worldview of an atheist.

  • it’s hard to respond to an ad-hom attack without analysing the author of the attack– which would make my response ad-hom as well. So I’ll just say that It’s a shame that his comment struck you on the raw as your response indicates it did.

    I disagree with Tyson’s notion, which is not original to him anyway. My definition of art is; “When you see something that isn’t there, but should be there, so you make it be there.” The motivation for making this thing become visible is not the definition of the action, in other words.
    I’m an artist and I know very well that some of my work is merely meant to entertain, while a very few pieces intend to challenge. And I know that the entertaining work takes just as much hard work as the thought-provoking pieces do– more technical skill, in most cases, because ‘entertainment’ is harder work than most people think it would be.

    What I find disturbing about your post’s focus, and even more so, I’m disturbed by some of the responses to it, is that it reminds me of the ways President Obama has been repeatedly attacked for his intellect and education. I assume this is a false impression… but my gut is saying; maybe there’s something in that?

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