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Can art create order?

October 5, 2008 | 12:15 pm


Growing up, I was very good at math, which was uncommon for girls. My reading scores were never as good as my math scores, which surged ahead in every test, often off the charts. At home, bored, I would create massive long-division problems to see if the numbers would sift into patterns, then try to figure out why. Later, in 11th grade, I studied calculus. Watching the practical, solid numbers spool out according to complex equations was at first incomprehensible, then one day, it clicked. When I had an elective my senior year, took advanced calc on a lark. For a long time I saw beauty in numbers.

And for me, the arts were something different: They were about being able to move outside of the rules. It started by pouring pea soup into your shoes -- if you could pour soup in your shoes, and elephants could wear suits, then why shouldn't children walk from a wardrobe into another word, one that moved asynchronously with their own? Teenagers could be driven to suicide by unrequited love. Leia could be a heroine for the Rebels, people in a Las Vegas bar could be lizards wading in blood, the Clash could rock the Casbah.

So I was surprised to find PhD student and The Valve contributor Joseph Kugelmass write:

I needed to be supremely rational and brilliant to cope with the challenges ahead, and the way to do that was to create an environment that encouraged the furthest flights of intellect. Rather than getting stuck in the emotional, instinctual thrashings of pop music, I needed to climb up to the Olympian heights of classical purism: Mozart, Bach, some Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Scarlatti, and then other acceptable works by Dvorak et al.

He goes on to talk about how, as he listened to these classical musicians, the works that he found appropriately rational got whittled down -- no "Requiem," no "Rite of Spring." Now he questions the entire project, and -- lacking the knowledge of Alex Ross -- I do too. Is any classical music rational? It has form and structure -- but does that make it rational? Pop music also has form and structure (take any song produced by the Neptunes as an example). Is it really possible for any music, no matter how formally complex, not to be emotional or instinctual?

When I read, I often adore the books that encourage the furthest flights of intellect (to be fair, Kugelmann's quote comes from an extended conversation about his response to the work of David Foster Wallace). I love books by Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo and enjoyed puzzling over John Berger's "From A to X." But I would not say that these writers are devoid of emotion. "Ratner's Star," Delillo's science-iest novel, is full of trepidation, expectation, loss and fear.

Is art a logical place to seek order? What kind of art might create an environment that nurtures our most rational and brilliant selves? In July, "The Eureka Hunt" by Jonah Lehrer in "The New Yorker" investigated research that shows that inspiration comes from our intuitive right brains, suggesting that our "furthest flights of intellect" may be very connected to the "emotional, instinctual."

Or are we at our most brilliant when we are rational? Can fiction or music or painting help get us there?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Jackson Pollock painting "One: Number 31, 1950" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Americasroof via Wikimedia