An articulation of value

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I was struck, amid the remarkable discovery of gravitational waves at the edge of space and time, by the eloquent articulation of value that Lawrence M. Krauss wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature.

Art is so often appealing to the hard sciences for import. We hear the value of arts education is that it will make you better at math – listen to Mozart, ace calculus! The inclusion of the “a” of art in the science of “s.t.e.a.m” curriculum seems simultaneously intuitive and perfunctory – learn to be creative so you can be a better engineer! Against this backdrop and in the wake, almost literally, of a transformational discovery, here was a scientist appealing to the arts for true value. How refreshing!

<!-- missing image -->There’s part of me that wants to write to Mr. Krauss and say, “Yes, they hardly ask that of Mozart or Picasso, but that’s because they aren’t seeking funding!” For everyone else in the cultural sector, get ready for a version of “what’s the use of [art] like this?” and you better figure out how your work is going to “produce faster cars or better toasters.”

On a deeper and more discouraging level, I recognize in Mr. Krauss’ lament a familiar struggle and a sympathetic appeal. Even hard science isn’t immune to the demand of a demonstrable impact and a readily identifiable metric. You can imagine the critics (or maybe the bean counters) clamoring, “Give us the ‘real world’ impact of this discovery!” How poetic, and sad, that he must appeal to the profundity of the arts as a defense.

I’m not arguing that the arts, or the sciences, shouldn’t have a responsibility to the world in which we live.  I’m not suggesting that we in the theater shouldn’t be ever mindful of the impact of our programs and work.  Clearly, we could do better and should.

But what does better mean?

What is the right metric to measure the impact of “cultural contribution?”

Too often, I fear, we mistake the most readily available metric for the right metric. We measure what we easily can (page clicks or earned income or better toasters) and become stymied when we begin to approach those qualities which, almost by definition, resist objective observation. (Again, it’s no small irony that part of the brilliance of this scientific discovery is its ability to measure something so elusive that it has been compared to measuring the distance between Earth and the nearest star with an accuracy of the width of a human hair.) When we lazily choose the wrong metric not only are we measuring the wrong thing, we’re also inadvertently making the arts subservient to that incomplete measure and that other discipline. If we argue Mozart makes you better at math then we’ve made math more important than Mozart.

How do we measure a contribution to humanity?

We, in the arts, all know in our bones the importance of the work we do. We have all heard the stirring retrospective testimonials – versions of “the arts changed my life” – articulations of changes in “our perspective of our place in the universe.” How do we articulate that value in a world obsessed with different metrics?

Perhaps this obsession with the wrong metrics and the dissatisfaction those bring is what underlies the seemingly disparate success of both the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns?  Both, in their own radically different ways, are tapping into a dissatisfaction with how things are and how they are measured.  It’s both nostalgic and instructive to think back to President Obama’s first campaign where he seemed to urge us to measure, and believe in, “Hope.”

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks captured our daunting moment,

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

I’m not sure I’m on board with Mr. Brooks’ reductive aesthetics but if you read his beauty in a Keatsian way, his conclusion is stirring,

If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.

Racial reconciliation. Nobility. Hope. “Our perspective of our place in the universe.”

Those feel to me like metrics that would be profound and worthy of the arts.

Perhaps, our challenge is not only in picking the right metric but also recognizing that success might be profound not through measuring something abundant but meaningless (page clicks) but by measuring the right thing in truly inspirational detail?

If science should borrow from the humanity of the arts, maybe we in the arts should borrow from this scientific discovery?  After all, they have discovered evidence of something almost unimaginably large by focusing on something miniscule but profoundly meaningful.

[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]