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Art Is a Different Kind of Cosmic Order – The New York Times

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This is the essay is part of The Big Ideas, a special section of The Times’s philosophy series, The Stone, in which more than a dozen artists, writers and thinkers answer the question, “Why does art matter?”


The torrential rains at the summer resort in the Catskills, where my dad was a weekend bass player, entitling us to the use of a free if leaky bungalow, drove all us campers into the cavernous dance hall for an impromptu game of trivia. I was 5 years old, and the first up. “Where are you from?” the head counselor asked when I had climbed onto the stage.

I was so intently focused on my private, newfound passion that I hardly registered the question. “Math!” I answered, only to be baffled when everyone around me erupted in laughter.

Mathematics is a universal language of pattern. Equations articulate relationships. They speak to unassailable truths that stand beyond the vagaries of perception and interpretation. Every flat, right-angled triangle drawn before Pythagoras, and every one after, until eternity, satisfies the famous theorem that bears the ancient Greek philosopher’s name. There are no exceptions. That’s the nature of mathematical insight. And through its terse, pristine delineation of inflexible truth, mathematics offers us the comfort of reliability and the beauty of precision. Since my earliest introduction, I have felt the deep allure of these unchanging patterns. Patterns that are impervious to authority. Patterns that transcend all things personal.

It is a perspective I have found to be widely shared among those who practice mathematics or physics as a profession.

All the same, many more of us are drawn to patterns of a different sort, patterns conveyed through particular combinations of sounds and colors and shapes and textures and movements, yielding works of music or dance or film or painting or sculpture — patterns, that is, which emerge as creative human expression. These are patterns we value because of, not in spite of, their capacity to reflect thoroughly personal, deeply subjective responses to the infinite spectrum of human experience. As cave paintings, ancient figurines and archaic musical instruments attest, since the earliest glimmers of thought our species has intensely pursued and consumed such expression.

And that presents a puzzle.

I have little doubt that should we ever make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, they will understand our mathematics, especially the equations we have developed to explain the regularities of reality. After all, recognizing the patterns inherent in physical phenomena is central to survival. We have prevailed because we can sense and respond to the rhythms of the world. Every tomorrow will be different from today, but beneath the myriad comings and goings we rely on enduring qualities.

The sun will rise, rocks will fall, water will flow. The vast collection of allied patterns we encounter from one moment to the next profoundly influence our behavior. Instincts are essential, and memory matters, because patterns persist. While the specific environment of a distant intelligence may differ significantly from our own, it is likely that it, too, prevailed by developing a refined sense of pattern described with precision through some version of mathematics.

Yet when it comes to our artistic yearnings, there’s a chance that the extraterrestrials will be thoroughly perplexed. Why would any species spend time and energy on creative works that seemingly have no survival value? In a precarious world with limited resources, the puzzle is thus to understand why we are drawn to activities that relate so obliquely to the goals of securing food, or a mate, or shelter.

Charles Darwin himself took up this question, and wondered if the goals might not be as oblique as they seem. Perhaps, he suggested, the art impulse originated as a type of mating call, drawing various of our forebears together and thus steering the propagation of the species. Other researchers have suggested that the creation and consumption of artistic works may provide an intellectual playground, where ingenuity and imaginative problem-solving skills are brought forth and refined in a safe environment. According to this view, the sorts of minds that can summon forth everything from “The Starry Night” to “Guernica,” from the “David” to “The Burghers of Calais,” from the “Goldberg Variations” to the “Ode to Joy” finale, are minds that have creatively imagined their way out of one potentially devastating challenge after another. Perhaps, then, art matters because it primed our very capacity to survive.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Among those who think carefully about the relationship between art and evolutionary selection, there is as much controversy as there is consensus. Establishing an irrefutable Darwinian basis for art is no small challenge. Moreover, in considering why art matters today, not just in our ancestral past, the adaptive role may give us insight but at best would provide only a partial accounting. To fill in that account, we must focus on the many nuances of truth.

Mathematics and science seek objective truth. Physicists approach it through their analyses of fundamental particles and the mathematical laws that govern them. Chemists illuminate it by invoking collections of these particles, organized into atoms and molecules. Biologists consider higher levels of organization, amalgamating atoms and molecules into the fantastic complexity evident to us within cells and life forms. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers add further layers still, examining the workings of the mind and the questions minds can pose about themselves and their experiences. No single story tells it all. Only by blending insights from each of these accounts can we gain the fullest understanding.

Art is a critical component of this project, a pathway toward a yet broader variety of truths that encompasses subjective experience and celebrates our distinctly human response to the world. This is vital. There are truths that stand beyond articulation, whether in the language of mathematics or that of human discourse. There are truths we can sense, truths we can feel, that would be diminished by translation from inner expression. Art is our most refined means for accessing such truths. There is no universal summary of art, no definition that unambiguously delineates it. Our reactions to art are uniquely our own. But it is this very flexibility, this dependence on the individual, this reliance on the subjective, that makes art essential for grasping our all-too-human place in the cosmic order.

Whereas the patterns of math and science matter because they speak to qualities of reality that exist beyond us, the patterns of art matter because they speak to qualities of reality that exist within us.

Brian Greene is the director of Columbia University’s Center for Theoretical Physics and a co-founder of the World Science Festival. Portions of this essay were adapted from his latest book, “Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

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Kootenay Gallery of Art virtual store project well underway – Castlegar News

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The Kootenay Gallery of Art in Castlegar is in the process of creating a new virtual gift store.

Art curator Maggie Shirley said the virtual store is slated to go online in July and will feature up to 300 pottery, jewellery and woodworking items created by West Kootenay artists.

The gallery started the project to help make up for lost revenue since it has been shut down since mid-March due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The new website will have an accessible layout for everyone, according to Shirley.

“We’ve been categorizing each art piece as we put it onto the virtual store,” said Shirley.

“One category will let customers search for different objects on the site while another category will let people search for individual artists.”

The art gallery is setting up a completely new website for the virtual store and will have debit and credit card payment options. Links will also be put on the art gallery’s existing website and social media pages to direct people to the virtual store.

Shirley said the project has been time consuming, especially since it takes staff up to 30 minutes to photograph, weigh, measure and put each object online.

Customers will either be able to pick up their items at the art gallery or have them delivered or shipped to their door.

While the items will be able to be shipped across Canada and the United States, Shirley said the high shipping costs could deter some customers away.

Despite the difficulties, Shirley said now has never been a better time to launch the store.

“This is a really important transition time for us and a lot of local businesses. We really want to survive these difficult times and grow,” said Shirley.

“This is a big risk were taking, especially since we don’t know if we’re going to get enough traffic to the virtual store to make it worthwhile. However, this is the future of how people will buy things and its a perfect time to get on the bandwagon.”

Shirley hopes that the art gallery will be able to open its physical store again in September.

READ MORE: Kootenay Gallery of Art offers hand-made gifts

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@connortrembley
connor.trembley@castlegarnews.com

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Levi Nelson art on display in downtown Pemberton – Pique Newsmagazine

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Hydro boxes in Pemberton just got a lot more exciting.

Pieces by Levi Nelson, a Lil’wat Nation artist in his last year at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, are now installed on hydro boxes along Portage Road and on the utility box at the Downtown Community Barn.

“We are incredibly grateful and honoured that Levi shared his artwork with us,” the Village of Pemberton said on a Facebook post on Friday, June 5.

Nelson’s work has been exhibited at the Talking Stick Festival, the Museum of Anthropology, North Vancouver City Art Scape, and the Emily Carr University of Art & Design Aboriginal Student Art Show. He also recently became the first Lil’wat Nation artist to have a piece in the Audain Art Museum’s permanent collection.

The recent hydro box wraps were made possible thanks to a contribution from BC Hydro’s beautification fund.

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Applications being accepted for public art funding – paNOW

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Macleod Campbell explained they are also happy to support public art projects as they help to improve the overall quality of life for people in the city.

“It’s nice to have public art for viewing at this time as well as of course supporting the artist,” she said.

Eligible groups can include a range of organizations from local art groups to private businesses. In order to be eligible, the group has to be working with a professional artist and the piece must be displayed publicly.

There is not a hard deadline for people to apply for funding. Macleod Campbell said applications are subject to approval from the art working committee and city council.

Macleod Campbell explained the city is also working to make people aware of the art which is on display in public spaces around the city, as they have created a public art tour brochure. The document is currently available on the city website and they are looking to get physical copies out into the public.

“That’ll be something as well,” said Macleod Campbell.

MichaelJoel.Hansen@jpbg.ca

On Twitter: @mjhskcdn

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