The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 31, 2012

A new book by a colleague of mine, Kay Larson, helps bring classical music back to its spiritual roots

I’m smiling these days on behalf of Kay Larson, my fellow editor at Curator: The Museum Journal and a longtime New York art critic. Her new book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, is getting great reviews. I concur: it’s a terrific, unusual read that humanizes an arcane composer and reminds us that classical or ‘composed’ music is too often talked about as if it were a purely intellectual or technical activity.

We knew Kay was working on the book, but we didn’t realize what a singular contribution it would make. Kay’s own Buddhism gives her a unique empathy for Cage’s story and his art, a kind of identification with her subject that lets her speculate fruitfully and intuitively in areas that few other biographers or critics have tread. Academic music history this is not, although it’s plenty rigorous and deeply researched.

While reading Kay’s book and as many reviews as I could find (NY Times, LA Times, Slate, and especially this one on Brain Pickings), I was struck by the possibility that it may be part of a broader re-acknowledgment of spirituality in the arts. The development of Western music was tied so closely to the church that we might say one invented the other (and not necessarily in the obvious direction). Something similar could be argued about the visual arts. And in indigenous cultures the arts and spiritual practices have always been inseparable. But with gathering momentum in the late 19th century, and through about the end of the 20th, music and art were secularized and walled off from those roots, and indeed from anything else that might make them seem like mere supporting players in some other pursuit.

In these postmodern times, though, something’s shifting. For the last three years, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival has tried to reassert the connection between music and transcendence, with popular results. (Lincoln Center’s language betrays a little academic reluctance to really go there, though: instead of being openly spiritual about the festival, artistic director Jane Moss promises to “explore the spiritual dimension of music as manifested in different cultural and musical traditions, from masterpieces of the Western classical canon to Muslim and Hindu musical linkages in northern India and the mystical minimalism of the Baltic region.” This could be wall text at an art museum.)

Just last week, a NY Times piece by veteran critic James Oestreich described “a wave of spirituality that is surging through the world of classical music,” from the Salzburg Festival’s Spiritual Overture and the Lucerne Festival’s “Faith” season to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Music of the Spirit” week.

Then there are the recent calls by British freelance intellectual Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists and many talks and interviews, for the arts (and the sciences, for that matter) to reverse their historical secularization and reclaim their power to seduce and lift us spiritually. ...

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Categories: Classical music, General, Museums, Performing arts, Storytelling, Subjectivity, Visual art
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May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being judged...by an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

 

Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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