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Intellect vs. Art - Light One Candle

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August 6th, 2007


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09:10 pm - Intellect vs. Art
An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way. --Charles Bukowski


I really wanted to write something profound on this topic, but I find that the quote has neatly covered most of what I wanted to say. I'll try to explicate why I find this so fascinating, though. It's something that really tends to bother me--especially when I find myself talking to an artist who doesn't get the intellectual side of things, or an intellectual who doesn't realize the artist's side of things even exists.

(Disclaimer: I do realize that very few people are one or the other; most fall somewhere between the far ends of this spectrum.)

"An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way."

"Difficult," here, means hard to comprehend, something out of the normal mode of perception. What the intellectual loves is finding out what makes things work, being able to trace and decipher the components and process of something. That might be the universe (physics, philosophy), the human body (biology, medicine), the human mind (psychology, neurology).... They ask, "What makes this happen? What things must occur for this to take place? What is this made of?"

That's heady, important, fascinating stuff. I'm not strictly an intellectual, and have little aptitude for disciplines such as mathematics, but I do love hearing about advancements in physics or medicine, about the latest research into our cosmos or the behavior of light. Knowing the building blocks of something can make me appreciate it all the more, can infuse my knowledge of the world with even greater wonder.

But if the focus is too tight, it can cause me to miss the forest for the trees. A human being is not just the atoms or elementary particles that make up its cells, and light is not just particles/waves.

"An artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way."

I do love the use of the word "difficult" in this context. What the artist strives for most is expression--communication. He may be intrigued by the building blocks of things, especially if that knowledges gives him a new perspective, takes him behind appearances. But that's secondary to his real focus, which is on images and patterns, meaning and metaphor. It is the business of the artist to take masses of information and figure out a way to present it that enables comprehension.

He asks, "What does this mean? How does this relate to human life, to social life, to history? How do we experience this, and what does that mean?" I'm living proof of this; my university notebooks are full of scribbles where I connected with the material in a class on history, religion, or philosophy by turning the concepts into story ideas. If I could consider it in the light of personal experience, I could come to a fuller understanding of the concept.

But if the focus is too diffuse, if the artist can't take reason and knowledge into account, her work won't have the grounding it needs to stay in touch with truth.

Small wonder the intellectual and the artist tend to clash. The first is all about facts, things that are provable and solid. The second is all about image, about abstraction, about making comparisons that enable understanding. I wish that both could work together more than I see them do at present--science and the intellect informing our art, and art working to describe and impart the essence of what lies behind us and our universe.

The best I can do is try to embrace both.

Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(16 lit candles | Light a candle)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:kerravonsen
Date:August 7th, 2007 06:45 am (UTC)
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It seems to be rare to embrace both -- many think it is impossible. So much so that, for example, my sister in high school wasn't able to study both Art and Science because the timetable had been constructed to make that impossible (because the assumption was that nobody would want to study both). Fortunately this didn't happen to me, I was able to study both. People seem to forget that people such as Leonardo DaVinci did exist, someone interested in both Science and Art.

I think part of the "intellectual" approach is also a desire for precision, which does get caught up in the details of things. And it becomes impossible to explain the "simple thing" in a simple way, because the intellectual knows all these details and they are all important because to leave any of them out would be an untruth, a lie of omission. I've had to strive over the years to curb my pedantry in circumstances where it doesn't fit -- but I've also come to an acceptance of it, because my job requires me to be pedantic, so it isn't an evil flaw in my nature, as I used to think.

On the other hand, being artistic, and artistic with words, I have managed to explain things to people without the details -- and the key to that, for me, is finding the right metaphor.
[User Picture]
From:kalquessa
Date:August 7th, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC)
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and the key to that, for me, is finding the right metaphor.

I've found this to be very true. My dad and I, individually, are not very good at explaining things scientific and theological. He has all the facts but little of the essence and the reverse is true of me: I have a general, over-arching idea of the concept but none of the details. So we team up: he explains with all the details and citations, then I distill his explanation down to a nice accessible metaphor. Everyone goes home happy!
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 7th, 2007 08:32 pm (UTC)
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Too bad we don't have more teams like that running around in the Real World. :-) That's what I'm talkin' about!
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 7th, 2007 08:31 pm (UTC)
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it becomes impossible to explain the "simple thing" in a simple way, because the intellectual knows all these details and they are all important because to leave any of them out would be an untruth, a lie of omission.

Oh, my goodness, yes. I consider myself more on the "artist" side of this spectrum, but I've had to learn to discuss topics without insisting that everyone know all the details about something as well as I do before having an opinion or joining said discussion.

And I do love finding the right metaphor--one I can unpack for people, one that covers a lot of the details as well as the major concept.
[User Picture]
From:wneleh
Date:August 7th, 2007 10:14 am (UTC)
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I like what you're doing with this quote. It's the sort of thing I usually dismiss as anti-intellectual (well, more anti-intellectual*s*).

Disclaimer: I do realize that very few people are one or the other; most fall somewhere between the far ends of this spectrum.)

I think you're being kind; I think most people - even people I consider somewhat creative - aren't even on the spectrum. (Or is my misanthropy showing?)

- Helen
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 7th, 2007 08:34 pm (UTC)
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I like what you're doing with this quote. It's the sort of thing I usually dismiss as anti-intellectual (well, more anti-intellectual*s*).

The quote is, you mean? It may well be--I'm unsure of the original context. But being an intellectually-leaning artist, I couldn't just leave it in that state of possibility. It's too good a parallel to resist pondering. :-)

I think you're being kind; I think most people - even people I consider somewhat creative - aren't even on the spectrum. (Or is my misanthropy showing?)

Aren't even on the spectrum in what sense? They don't think? I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at, here.
[User Picture]
From:wneleh
Date:August 8th, 2007 12:49 am (UTC)
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Aren't even on the spectrum in what sense? They don't think? I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at, here.

I think most people are primarily concerned with getting through the day most of the time, and not with the deeper meaning of things; or whatever meaning they need is covered by their particular expression of spirituality. I think this doesn't mean their lives aren't adding to global knowledge, or global beauty - they can be quite good at what they do, have a well-defined sense of aesthetics, find joy in art and music - but they don't put a lot of effort into, um, pondering quotes on artists and intellectuals, for example. So I don't think they fall on any sort of artist-intellectual spectrum.

The reason I'm pondering this sort of thing is that I'm raising a child who, I think, has tremendous artistic potential. And I know *nothing* about art. It's very scary.

- Helen
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 8th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)
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I think most people are primarily concerned with getting through the day most of the time, and not with the deeper meaning of things

That's true enough, though I think sometimes I just ignore that huge section of the population, because I can't imagine living like that. If that's misanthropy, I'm joining you in it. :-)
[User Picture]
From:feliciakw
Date:August 7th, 2007 11:59 am (UTC)
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Someone who is both who immediately came to mind is author (Dr.) Robin Cook. He came to the PAC a few years back as part of our library series, and I'm so glad I worked that show. He was fascinating.

He writes medical thrillers. And during his talk, he made the comment that he couldn't write to his own satisfaction because he didn't know how the specifics worked. So he went to med school and became a doctor. As he put it, he became a doctor so he could write thrillers. (He also had a great way of distinguishing a thriller from a mystery, but I don't remember what it was.) And he sounded like he was far more interested in writing fiction than being a doctor. Now that's commitment to your art.

He also had some great stories about what goes on in an operating room that the general public doesn't know because if they did, they'd never go to the doctor. He was a very engaging speaker, and I really need to read one of his books sometime.
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From:kalquessa
Date:August 7th, 2007 09:22 pm (UTC)
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Wow, that Robin Cook story is deeply impressive. That's right up there with Orwell joining the Spanish army during their civil war years so he could write convincingly about war. My hat is off to these gentlemen, but I don't think I'll be following in their footsteps any time soon.
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 8th, 2007 04:04 pm (UTC)
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What you said. Wow. :-)
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From:kalquessa
Date:August 7th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC)
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Iiiinteresting.

I'm definitely more the artist. I have intellectual tendencies occasionally, but I have a very short attention span for sheer information, so they're always a flash in the pan. Whereas:

If I could consider it in the light of personal experience, I could come to a fuller understanding of the concept.

This made me think of my one and only philosophy class. To me, it seemed quite reasonable to respond to new philosophical concepts by saying "There's a Star Trek episode about this!" To me, that was validating the concept. I was saying "hey, you can make a story out of this, so it has a purpose!" My professor, who was an intellectual, was not amused. Now I can kinda see why: she probably wanted us to value ideas and concepts based on their own merits rather than on how many ways we could put them to use.
[User Picture]
From:izhilzha
Date:August 7th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC)
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To me, it seemed quite reasonable to respond to new philosophical concepts by saying "There's a Star Trek episode about this!" To me, that was validating the concept. I was saying "hey, you can make a story out of this, so it has a purpose!"

EXACTLY. That's exactly what I used to do. Not that the concept wasn't interesting in and of itself, but I'm too much an artist not to want to play with them and do stuff with them.
[User Picture]
From:feliciakw
Date:August 7th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC)
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So what does it say about me if I like art that appeals to the intellect? Word play, for example. Linguistic humor. Or the logicing out of mysteries?

Or musical humor, like PDQ Bach or . . . um . . . I don't know the comedy team, but they were a husband/wife pair who were in reality very accomplished pianist and singer respectively, and they started a comedy routine for parties wherein they became parodies of an accomplished pianist and singer and performed just a scootch out of tune in such a way that is absolutely hysterical--if you understand the intellectual material they are parodying.

Hm . . . maybe this is why humor is such as complex and difficult discipline. One must understand the inner workings and be able to distill it down to its essence.
[User Picture]
From:jd3000
Date:August 7th, 2007 10:47 pm (UTC)
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Art without Intellect has no foundation, Intellect without Art has no innovation. The Universe itself is the ultimate, unutterably sublime combination of both.

-JD
[User Picture]
From:kalquessa
Date:August 8th, 2007 12:02 am (UTC)
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Very nice Zen-speak. I can almost smell the lotus blossoms.

(No, seriously, I agree, it just made me think of haiku for some reason, and...I'll go away, now.)

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