The Frontal Cortex

The Fourth Culture

In my recent Seed article on science and art, I wrote about how we need to foster a new cultural movement:

If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we’ll need to create a new movement that coexists with the third culture but that deliberately trespasses on our cultural boundaries and seeks to create relationships between the arts and the sciences. The premise of this movement–perhaps a fourth culture–is that neither culture can exist by itself. Its goal will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments, which lead to new works of art and so on. Instead of ignoring each other, or competing, or co-opting each other in na├»ve or superficial ways, science and the arts will truly impact each other. The old intellectual boundaries will disappear. Neuroscience will gain new tools with which to confront the mystery of consciousness and modern physics will improve its metaphors. Art will become a crucial source of scientific ideas.

Yes, I know: I’m a naive optimist. Our cultural schism isn’t going to dissolve anytime soon. But there are some tentative yet tangible signs that a vibrant fourth culture is emerging. Consider the NY Times review of a new MoMA exhibit, “Design and the Elastic Mind”:

This exhilarating new show opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art makes the case that through the mechanism of design, scientific advances of the last decade have at least opened the way to unexpected visual pleasures.

As revolutionary in its own way as MoMA’s “Machine Art” exhibition of 1934, which introduced Modern design to a generation of Americans, the exhibition is packed with individual works of sublime beauty. Like that earlier show, it is shaped by an unwavering faith in the transformative powers of technology.

Yet the exhibition’s overarching theme, the ability to switch fluidly from the scale of the atom to the scale of entire cities, may sound a death knell for the tired ideological divides of the last century, between modernity and history, technology and man, individual and collective. It should be required viewing for anyone who believes that our civilization is heading back toward the Dark Ages.

I’ve yet to see the MoMA show, but it sounds awesome. I’ve blogged before about the current Olafur Eliasson show currenly up at SFMOMA. I think that show also demonstrates the power of fusing our cultures together.