Great New Questions

Artsy Editors
Jul 20, 2013 10:18PM

"We stand on the brink of great new answers, but even more, of great new questions."

Matt Ridley, author of Genome: An Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

The Human Genome has, give or take, 20,000 genes. These complex templates store the very recipe for what makes us us. It is a notion that feels almost ridiculous: an extravagantly long document, microscopic in size, builds humanity. Everyone that ever lived and everything ever done.  It is an idea as multilayered, complex, and ungraspable as anything we could fathom.  Except maybe “Art.”

The question “What is Art?” has haunted and taunted thinkers for centuries.  After all, art-making as expression is considered as human as the human genome itself. Importantly though, it is the mystery itself that accounts for such enduring interest and inquiry in art, as in biology. As Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious--the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Spoken like a genius.  To have a “beautiful experience” or any powerful emotion at all one must first know where to enter. Einstein could wax poetic only because he had enough knowledge.   

When we have information, we can leverage it to look in new ways, to ask more questions.

The invaluable benefit of the Human Genome Project is only beginning to be felt. For example, common diseases like heart disease were believed to have a simple genetic cause--one or two defective genes shared among many people. After scientists completed the genome, the information unearthed enormous genetic complexity at the root of heart disease, an invaluable breakthrough that in turn requires much new research. Nobody could have predicted such a discovery at the outset of the project.

Likewise The Art Genome Project, which uses 933 created genes to categorize art by technique, style, concept, geography, time period, and many more, does not provide all the answers, but enables many questions. Based on research, Leonardo Da Vinci would get gene values for Italy, High Renaissance, Portrait, and Math, among others.  Click on “Math,” and see how Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy engages with mathematical principles 500 years later, only now highly abstracted. This ‘genetic’ material not only builds a framework for learning the basics, but draws compelling and unexpected connections.   

To take another relevant example, consider our gene “Patterns.” It is immediately evident that humans of every culture and time period have scratched out patterns--perhaps as an impulse to order the world around us. From a 17th century African mask or Greek vases to English crafts, Cubism, and 1970s Minimalism, the motif is pervasive.  But narrow it further, to “Pattern” and “Striped,” and wonder how ancient cultures achieved exact uniformity, what the expressive difference is between linear and curvilinear forms, or how patterns can suggest disorder, as in the work of Fred Tomaselli.  It’s a bit of human mystery decoded.

Artsy Editors