Art in an enlightened culture

Yesterday I saw a New York Times article titled The New Humanism (if that link doesn’t work, it should be the top article via this link). It’s a fantastic article, well worth the ten minutes to read. In the article author David Brooks examines how the Enlightenment influenced our own American culture, distinguishes between different philosophies within Enlightenment and then talks about how science itself is now disproving much of what the the Enlightenment taught. An excerpt from the article — which will be more clear to author David Brooks’ point than if I tried to restate it — follows.

We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect . . .

. . . We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion . . .

. . . Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else . . .

. . .First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.

Art is not quantifiable. Artists don’t think in terms of what is or isn’t quantifiable. As artists, we’re not afraid to attempt to articulate the “processes down below.” Art is messy. It readily accepts the challenge of difficult subject matter.

All of this begs a question in my mind: How does living in a culture so reliant on the ability to quantify, so entrenched in the French Enlightenment idea of individualism, effect that culture’s reception to and perception of the arts?

Would the arts have been better off if the Enlightenment had remained a somewhat obscure philosophy, or if the more well-rounded ideas found in the British Enlightenment usurped those of the French? Would the United States be like if it were less focused on science, industry and economy and more focused on relationships and the humanities? Would it be easier to make a living as an artist? Would modernism and its penchant for individaulism have been so prominent?

I don’t have answers, but it’s still interesting to ponder. Carve out a few spare minutes this weekend to give the article a look and tell me what you think.

About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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