Watson & The Arts
There have been a few big new items on people's minds, blogs, and Twitter feeds in the last week or so. Aside from protests in the Middle East (and my home state of Wisconsin), two that I was drawn to were the discussion about a column on HuffPost by the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the debut of Watson, IBM's new computer, on Jeopardy!
If you didn't watch the shows or read news clips, Watson won over the course of two episodes, against the two highest-scorers in Jeopardy!'s history. In some ways, and in some people's opinions, this is scary. If a computer can do this, how far away are we from artificial intelligence, from HAL? We're probably not as far away as some people may think.
But let's be honest: computers already rule our lives. Aside from the increasingly-rare species of Luddite, most people will check their email, Twitter feed, or Facebook at least once a day. Smart phones are becoming the norm instead of the exception they were only a few short years ago. Cars are now being produced that not only can locate you and assist you if you're in an accident, but can read your Facebook news feed aloud to you as your driving.
And then there's Michael Kaiser's article. The title says a lot, but unfortunately the column is light on substance: "What Is Wrong With the Arts?" I don't think anything Mr Kaiser wrote after that would have satisfied even a simple majority of the people. The answers to "what is wrong with the arts?" are diverse and often well thought-out, but it seems that there are many answers to the problem as there are people asking the question.
I've gotten involved in arts arguments. I've contributed my two cents about what needs to be done to "save" classical music, or the arts in general. I'm getting a little tired of it. Sometimes the pessimist in me feels that this is at least partially a manufactured crisis. But that's a topic for a different post.
What I want to propose here is a simple idea about how we can continue to develop the arts, how we can persuade Obama to avoid cutting funding for the NEA (and Republicans cutting funding for NPR and PBS), about how we can continue drawing audiences into our events, concert halls and museums: by reminding people that art is a human function. A concert is a chance to turn off your electronic devices and become absorbed in something created by humans, for humans, and performed by and for humans. A walk through an art museum offers us an escape from the world of email notifications and the din of the television set.
I'm not perfect. If you ask my partner or my parents, they'll readily tell you that I'm attached to my iPhone. I'm typing this on my MacBook, hoping to send this out into the World Wide Web. I'm a frequent Tweeter. Even a lot of today's art is made using computers, but it's still directed by a human.
But as I'm writing this I'm listening to Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden and I'm thinking back to seeing her conduct Bolería, Soléa Y Rumba at the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and how her passionate conducting and her beautiful music moved me to tears. Art has a human connection that, no matter how hard "he" would try, Watson cannot duplicate.
One of my favorite professors in undergrad defined art as
any human creation which contains an idea other than its utilitarian purpose.
I don't agree with this 100% anymore, but it's one of arts' greatest selling points. Art is human, and is unlike so many other human endeavors. We need to remind people of this fact, even more so in our increasingly electronic times.
We might not be able to stop the progression of technology, but we can balance it with art advocacy, education, and enjoyment.