“How am I supposed to appreciate it?” Art, science, and some silly assumptions

Do we expect to understand art and the natural sciences in the same way? Today, here’s a cartoon to open a comparison in class discussion, with questions and a download at the end. I hope it gives you not only material for class but also a smile.

“How am I supposed to appreciate it?”

cartoon by Theo Dombrowski


Using the cartoon in class

This cartoon, drawn for Theory of Knowledge by my husband Theo, is clearly intended to give a humorous kick in its conclusion by setting up false expectations in the reader and then, in its final frame, turning the tables. It does this by mimicking and echoing many of the most common contemptuous comments made about so-called “modern art” – yet rarely made about other areas of knowledge.

At the same time, though, attitudes recently expressed towards science in some countries may, sadly, make this contrast less obvious. Contempt for facts – even for the findings of illustrious scientific groups – has contaminated public discourse and often decision-making.

It would be sad indeed if our students endorsed the attitudes expressed by the characters in this cartoon. They are the ones to be treated with laughter, not the science or the art that they dismiss – even though I suspect their comments find an echo in many of us!

How could this cartoon be used in class? The questions that follow it could open a discussion directed toward a succession of related topics. Use them as they are, or use them to prompt your own ideas. You might choose one or two, to ask lightly and reinforce points already made in class, so that you give only a few class minutes in passing to the cartoon. You might, though, want to print them out for students to consider in small group discussions, so that the cartoon and questions fuel a lesson.

To give you maximum flexibility, I’ve prepared the cartoon and questions as a download at the end of this post.

“How am I supposed to appreciate it?” : Theory of Knowledge Questions for Discussion

1. The angry speaker in this cartoon is unlikely to represent attitudes that any of us in a Theory of Knowledge class hold personally. Nevertheless, can you recognize in yourself even a minor inclination to make some of the same judgments as shown in the cartoon – towards some famous works of art, or towards any other areas of knowledge? Do you yourself respect and often admire achievements in different areas of knowledge, even if you don’t personally understand them?

2. Is there a difference in your expectations of the sciences and the arts in this regard? Do you assume that you should be able to understand both – or maybe neither? What does “understanding” involve for gravitational waves – that is, for those of us who are not physicists? What does “understanding” involve for abstract art – that is, for those of us who are not artists or art critics?

3. Before we can evaluate whether a new development in an area of knowledge is an exciting contribution – or even worthwhile – how much background knowledge do you think we need to have? Is a judgment with no background knowledge just as good as one with a lot of background knowledge?   Which would you expect to be more accessible to you without much study: an artwork (whether a painting, a novel, or a musical composition) or a scientific discovery? Which are you more inclined to judge for whether it’s worthwhile?

4. What makes a scientific discovery or scientific explanation be accepted as valuable in its area of knowledge? Who judges? What is meant by the “scientific community”? What are their criteria for evaluation and judgment? What is meant by “scientific consensus”? What is meant by an “expert”?

5. What makes a work of art – a painting, dance performance, novel, film, musical composition, for instance – be accepted as valuable in its area of knowledge? Who judges? What are the criteria for evaluation and judgment, and are they communally shared? To what extent does an audience in the arts expect consensus? What is meant by an “expert”?

Note for further reflection: The cartoon is based on four of the most innovative, iconic – and mocked – twentieth century artists. You might want to check out some of the works of Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock and consider why, in defying the norms of “traditional art”, they have been so susceptible to mockery. What about their work could have made them seem beyond the fringe for even those who felt they possessed considerable knowledge of art and artistic standards?

6. Based on your responses to #4 and #5 above, in what ways is evaluation of work in the arts and in the sciences similar? In what ways is it different?

7. But so what? Are developments in either field any use in our lives? Do we expect that knowledge should be useful above all? What do you think are the best things that the sciences and the arts contribute to our lives?