The Science of Art


The Culture of Hope, by Frederick Turner, New York: The Free Press, 250 pages, $23.00

In this radical, insightful inspection of our cultural times, Frederick Turner proposes a quiet revolution. He believes that with "postmodernism" we have suffered through a cultural twilight and are about to enter a great cultural epoch, deeply classical and informed by modern science: the "radical center."

He holds the academy, particularly the humanities, guilty of confusion and shoddy thinking. "Like the Jodie Foster character in The Silence of the Lambs, we have gone to school with monsters, with the Hannibal Lecters (or cannibal lecteurs) who, in biting the text into pieces with their deconstructive slashes and parentheses, have bitten off the faces of their authors."

Turner has written distinguished criticism, fiction, even epic poetry about transforming Mars. A professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas, Dallas, he takes no prisoners, left or right:

"The radical center sees that the avant-garde and the conservatives share certain metaphilosophical assumptions, inherited from the nineteenth century…." The left loves entropy, while the right sees our salvation from shrinking resources in the Invisible Hand's market. This split leads to art's "desperate crisis of originality, its failure to find an audience, and its isolation from vital intellectual currents in the human and natural sciences, religion, technology, and the environmental movement." To some on the left, "we are free only if we can perform a gratuitous act with no sense or reason." To others, art must serve political ends: Both views crush creativity.

While Turner sees our present capitalist markets as "our closest approximation to date" to natural "value-production," he adroitly describes how the right barricades the past against the present. It "believes in the pretty; it denies shame by exporting to the outside all the unpleasantness and smell of our lives….Its final state is the terminally bland." Rejecting shame means omitting our mammalian selves, which the right often offloads onto the "social, racial or sexual Other."

His radical center embraces evolution—in biology and in physical processes—as the producer of order in novel forms. "Chaos theory tells us that beautiful 'attractors' can underlie apparent chaos, and that highly ordered systems can, through iteration, [and] feedback …generate entirely unpredictable emergent properties."

The world is neither running down nor deterministic, and a strict division of order versus chaos is just wrong. Such ignorance leaks into culture. Turner condemns "the bankruptcy of postmodern fictional self-consciousness," noting that one genre "has continued triumphantly to satisfy the requirement of a full-blooded and healthy art: science fiction." There, art rubs against science, extending the fresh visions available at the flowering center of science. Science fiction is the sole art able to do this without flinching, sentimentalizing, or recapitulating the postures of the romantic era; in this is it truly modern, and so seldom uses postmodern devices.

Turner foresees that "postmodernism is destined, like the late eighteenth century 'picturesque' movement, to be seen as only a transitional phase into a new period of cultural history that does not need to be labeled feebly with a modification of its predecessor's name."

America, the leading Western society, has "found the knack of listening to and absorbing other cultural values." The essential, classical values come from "deep neurobiologically based grammars, as does language itself, that are common to all cultures." Turn to the genuinely universal art forms and genres, he urges, which give us poetic meter, musical tonality and scale, methods of visual imaging and motifs, mythical structures. His radical center, then, "rejects the ethnocentricism of the Right, but it also rejects the demonization of the West by the Left."

Turner turns to nature, particularly viewed through chaos theory and the gathering theories of emergent order, as the true spirit of our century's science, and a deep source for the arts. Lazy ignorance of these ideas has served the arts poorly.

A view of nature as dense and nonlinear is at the core of our contemporary science. Process and order emerge subtly. "A single human brain possesses more potential brain states than there are particles in the universe. More happens in a year in one of our forests than has happened on Mars for the past million centuries. Thus any ideology which is based on the 'tiny insignificant speck' worldview (such as that we might as well give up the enterprise of civilization and devote ourselves to exciting as many of our membranes as possible before we die) is founded on a false premise."

This leads to a broad attack on many currently fashionable views. Turner accuses the feminist worldview of resorting to "elaborate theories of conspiracy, in which the patriarchy masks itself behind legalism and science." This ironically leads to a feminist vision mistaking the stuffy conservatism of many institutions for a diabolically clever Establishment, wily and cunning beyond plausibility. He puts his finger on the paranoia feminism inherited from Marxism, and its fantasy prehistory of a benign matriarchy, overthrown by Bad Males back before the wheel. Feminists' deepest error is their confusion over whether men and women are different, and how. That confusion could be helped by contributing to the ongoing studies of primate behavior and sociobiology, but few feminists see biology as a productive arena; they would rather snipe at it from afar, ritually reciting their mantra of "social construction"—the view that there is little truth afoot in the world, only our perceptions.

Turner's attacks are adroit, often convincing, but one must be familiar with the debate to catch the nuances. Art, criticism, and both high and low culture get their lumps.

Much of his vision is rooted in biology as the paradigm model of emergent order. "We have a nature; that nature is cultural; that culture is classical. Our literary and artistic nature is inscribed in our central nervous systems" in such diverse features as our universal preference for poetic meter and narrative, particularly of an unselfconscious yet mythic dimension.

Much scientific evidence from the neurosciences, twin studies, sociobiology, physical anthropology, and genetics strongly implies that the nature/nurture balance is roughly 70/30 or even 80/20. The central myth of the late modern then, that we are born as blank slates to be written on by culture, is largely wrong.

Beauty, too, emerges from our biology. Our peculiar capacities lead to a natural classicism, connected to our neurotransmitters and endorphins. Rather than Freud's equation of the aesthetic with a sublimated libido, a model of brain reward implies that certain "lores" are privileged. Poetic meter has a line length of about three seconds, tuned to the period of acoustic processing pulses in our brains. We remember by internal echo for three seconds, then pass that to a longer-term memory system, which edits, organizes, and pushes the bit down to a less immediate level. Drive a natural brain rhythm, like the 10-cycles-per-second alpha rhythm, and large changes of brain state and chemistry follow. Poetry gets processed not by merely the linguistic left brain, but by the musical and spatial right brain. This stereo neural mode gives fresh power to ideas which are genuinely nonverbal.

Avant-garde music then often goes astray because it fails to use our wiring diagram effectively. Similarly, postmodern aesthetics' demand that we treat every visual element as significant, avoiding hierarchies, misses an audience. A species which used such a viewing strategy would be unable to throw a rock, dodge a spear, or catch falling fruit. Our "marvelously parsimonious cortical world-construction system" leads to a set of classical values, to which Turner predicts we shall soon return.

In the end, postmodern art is obscene not because it is offensive, but because it is boring. A "bankrupt tribe of venal mediocrities who now infest the arts" decry the philistine mass, failing to note their own unmoored ideas, principally the notion that reality is socially constructed.

Turner shores up his general argument with many pungent observations, and a few winding, fantastical digressions which lose the thread—he gives in to his sense of the epic. This gives a glimpse of his prescience, but at the price of coherence.

Still, this cogent, broad analysis will make many enemies, and deserves to be read for that alone; delicious cuts and thrusts abound. Unlike nearly all the culture warfare swirling about the maypole of politics, Turner's vision is positive.

Pay attention to the world, he says. It instructs.

Gregory Benford is professor of physics at UC Irvine and the author of Timescape, among other novels.