5. What Does it Matter?

I have been asking myself  whether it’s appropriate to ruminate over any more blog entries on the nature of painting while humanity is being engulfed by a pandemic, people are dying, so  many have lost their livelihoods, and, in this country, our medical establishment braces itself for crisis. Really, in the face of this, what do cogitations about painting matter?

Here’s what I can offer:

Sparrow 2
The Golden-Crowned sparrow

On March 15th, an opinion piece titled “A Sparrow’s Song Sheds Light on Being Human for Scientists” appeared in the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was by Caroline Van Hemert, who is a wildlife biologist and writer in Alaska. (She is most recently the author of The Sun Is a Compass: A  4,000-mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds.)

Her op-ed describes a fellow scientist named Daizaburo Shizuka who had been studying the birdsong of sparrows, and she contrasts two ways his research could be communicated. The first was through the language of science which would have produced an analytical account. The second was through the language of the arts. When an opportunity to share his work through a story-telling forum with colleagues came up last year, the researcher movingly compared the song of one unique, peripatetic sparrow he observed to his own experiences with language acquisition. Shizuka immigrated to the United States from Japan as a child. Van Hemert goes on to say:

“… by sharing its unique story, and its relevance to our own experiences, Shizuka taught us something about birdsong, but also so much more. In that moment, we remembered what it meant to be both scientists and humans.

In this time of scientific apathy and social divisiveness, we can no longer afford to treat narrative as the antithesis of knowledge. To be good scientists, we need not be emotionless robots. Instead, we have an obligation to add storytelling to our resumes as statisticians, ecologists, naturalists, physiologists, mathematicians and geneticists. By sharing experiences, we expand our collective understanding – about science and about one another.”

I feel that something similar might be said about pictures at this time, and specifically the kind of pictures we call art.

I am very content to think of art as a branch of entertainment; I don’t think any higher claims need to be fabricated for it, because I think entertainment is very important. That’s counter-intuitive – our culture typically thinks of entertainment as non-essential. It’s what we do when we’re not working (read as: “when we’re not actually contributing something useful to the world”). From this perspective, work – whether in science, business, governance, commerce, law, etc. – is the cake. Art and entertainment are the frosting. That may very well be the case, but life is one cake that is not only unpalatable without the frosting, it can’t even be eaten – can’t be digested – without the frosting, which makes the frosting pretty important. The arts are how we metabolize experience (including work) and invest it with meaning. Without that process – no matter how provisional, shaky or contested the outcome – no society can endure for long, even if it does survive a pandemic.

For my part, if I can create a picture or two that contributes to that process from this corner of the world, and share a story about that, I think it will have been a useful thing. Not a solution, but a useful thing.


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