Crossing Boundaries Once Again

When I first enrolled at SUNY Geneseo, and even when I first registered for this course, I was skeptical, but curious, about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. A class I took with Dr. McCoy last semester caused me to reconsider my skepticism; however, as I entered this class, The Art of Steve Prince, my vision was still clouded by the assumptions I had previously generated regarding the intersection, or lack thereof, between the sciences and the humanities. Indeed, I had always assumed that science and the humanities were distinctly separate realms with no direct connection or relationship with each other. While I was beginning to warm to the idea that science and literature might be intimately and intrinsically connected, I was not ready to see that there is science in art and art in science. But, as this course draws to a close, I find that my views have shifted tremendously and that I am now incapable of visualizing art without science and science without art. This transformation was made possible by many things, particularly, the work of Steve Prince, the lectures and lessons of the supporting faculty, and the blogging process.

Furthermore, my thinking across barriers with respect to academic disciplines mirrored the thinking that I and my classmates did across cultures, communities, and individuals. This class helped me to see past the exclusionary labels assigned to academic disciplines and unearth their similarities and differences in a way that connects and celebrates each respective discipline. In a similar fashion, this class, and the thinking it inspired, encouraged me to, in the words of Steve Prince, “look more and name less” and recognize that human beings, though each bearing different creeds and cultures, though each occupying different communities and spaces, are essentially united, not in spite of their differences, but in a way, because of such differences, as well as the similarities that lie beneath these differences.

In order to discuss the shift in my perceptions regarding the intersection between the sciences and the humanities, particularly the art and literature aspects of the latter, I first must consider the bias and assumptions that instigated my initial failure to visualize the veritable connections that I am now able to perceive. First and foremost, the dichotomy between left-brain and right-brain that I discussed in my first blog post of this semester served as the predominant barrier between me and the possession of an interdisciplinary outlook. The right-brain left-brain dichotomy, while often regarded as pseudoscience, is widely known and accepted. Many individuals view themselves as right-brained, meaning they are allegedly creative and have a proclivity for art, whereas many other individuals that regard themselves as left-brained would be considered logical, rational, and gifted at math and science. In high school, my biology teacher devoted a significant amount of class time to have her students take a test to determine whether they were right-brained or left-brained. While I do not remember my result, I know that, at the time, I desperately wanted to be considered left-brained, though I, and many, are more likely combinations of the two. I believe the reason why I wanted to be regarded as left-brained was a result of pressure from family members and friends to seek a career in the sciences.

In the years that followed, I chased this desire by pursuing a physics major and received ample praise and awe from those with which I had shared my major decision. These positive reactions caused me to perceive the sciences as a field with inherent worth and value. On the other hand, I recall the reception my friends who had not chosen science majors received, which was less than positive, and, reflecting back on these moments, I realize, not at all justified. As I continued along my path down the physics major, I found myself missing not only the literature classes I had always loved but the interdisciplinary nature of education that I had come to expect in high school and in my first few semesters at Geneseo. So, I decided to pick up an English double major to feed all aspects of my academic and internal self. This initial decision, and the Reader & Text course I took with Dr. McCoy, provided me with a great deal of evidence pointing to the fact that literature and science exist in conversation with each other in many places. For example, our close reading of the works of Percival Everett allowed me to see physics and biology present themselves respectively within Everett’s novel, I am Not Sidney Poitier and poetry collection entitled, re:f(gesture).

This semester, The Art of Steve Prince course represented a new avenue for which I could further develop my readiness to uncover relationships between science and the humanities, particularly through the medium of Steve Prince’s art. Indeed, if one were to read my very first blog post of this semester, one would immediately recognize my surprise at seeing the name of a math professor, Dr. Olympia Nicodemi, on the syllabus for a course devoted to studying an artist’s work. However, Dr. Nicodemi’s presence in this course was invaluable, specifically during her lecture discussing perspective and vanishing point. These mathematical concepts figured heavily into how I came to view and engage with art from that point forward. This early instance of mathematics, a field closely related with science, as it is often grouped with science through the acronym of STEM, demonstrated to me that art was rife with mathematics, and likely science, as well.

As the semester progressed, I started to see and solidify connections between the science with which I was once engaged and Steve Prince’s art. Particularly, the words of Dr. McCoy and Steve Prince aided me in my journey to link Prince’s art to the sciences. I can recall one class period wherein Dr. McCoy told the class that she was curious about the physics behind the horsemen’s feat displayed in Prince’s “Dirge” and about the muscle structure of the leading woman in “Flambeau.” Prince, in his “Kitchen Talk” lecture, referred to his piece “Requiem for Brother John” and stated that the lines emanating from the trumpet in the foreground were indeed sound waves, a judgment I had formed a few weeks earlier in an attempt to write a blog post, that, at the time of Prince’s lecture, had not yet materialized. However, thanks to the words and ideas expressed by both Dr. McCoy and Steve Prince, I was left with many blog post ideas that each contained a similar kernel: that of bridging the sciences and humanities and of locating science within art and art within science.

The first blog post of this illuminatory saga represented my attempt to explain the mechanism behind the horsemen’s actions within “Dirge” from a physics perspective. Further posts also dealt with physics and sought to locate the physics in Prince’s “Requiem for Brother John,” and the consequences that arose from visualizing the physics in Prince’s art that perhaps, in turn, generated more art, in the form of my somewhat abstract interpretation. Upon exploring the physics within Prince’s work, I turned to the scientific discipline of biology, a field with which I am also familiar. I began to seek out biology in Prince’s work and investigated the muscle structure of one of Prince’s figures, particularly, one from a piece entitled “Flambeau,” and the possible significance of said muscle structure with respect to the context behind Prince’s pieces, which I learned about during my time in this course. Additionally, I discussed both the biological, botanical aspects of the fern motif present in Prince’s “Song for Aya,” as well as the fern’s status as an Adinkra symbol, that is in itself art and full of metaphorical, cultural meaning.

In engaging in the aforementioned process, I saw the connections that existed between art and science through recognizing when scientific concepts or entities were cohesively featured or referenced in Prince’s work; however, acknowledging the instances wherein there was contrast, and therefore, tension, between my scientific knowledge and my interpretations of Prince’s art is also necessary in the formation of connections. Indeed, this contrast, and the differences upon which such contrast is built, is just as important as the moments of harmony and similarity, and so requires further discussion which, in turn,  promotes understanding. While the similarities between art and science have encouraged me to label less, recognize the interconnected nature of academia, and realize that no discipline can function on its own, the tensions between science and art, particularly, through the lens of Prince’s art, have demonstrated to me the merit of difference. Such differences pushed me to arrive at new interpretations that enhanced my knowledge of physics and Prince’s art, and W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Therefore, differences should be accepted, and one should not utilize similarities to collapse varying entities into one. Rather, one should celebrate the differences between disciplines, and use said differences to promote further thought and discussion by looking more into said differences, instead of merely naming them as differences, thereby, in a way, dismissing them.

During the process of locating and solidifying connections between the scientific disciplines of which I am familiar, biology and physics, and Steve Prince’s art, the humanities his art is a part of and the humanity contained within it, I realized that this class represented, in the words of Dr. McCoy,  not only a “cross-disciplinary class” but a “cross-human” class. The process of noticing more and labeling less that I practiced within my blog posts with respect to the disciplines of science and art has led me to agree wholeheartedly that this class is indeed an interdisciplinary and “cross-human” class. For example, I noticed more, but labeled less, in the class’ discussion of the Baby Doll’s of New Orleans, and chose to view them not as only either innocent or promiscuous, but to consciously notice their multifaceted presentation and contemplate the consequences of such. This interpretation was promoted not only by the words of Prince but by the collections of essays found within Kim Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy, as well. 

This practice, of noticing more and naming less, is important to exercise not only while interacting with the Baby Doll maskers of New Orleans, but with each and every person that one encounters in one’s daily life. For example, though the students at SUNY Geneseo all come from varying countries, counties, communities, and cultures, they are all united by their shared presence at Geneseo and their universal desire for higher education; however, each student’s own personal motivation for choosing Geneseo is unique, and in this collective uniqueness, there lies a connection. Similarly, this past semester, in The Art of Steve Prince, students came from many different disciplinary backgrounds. Indeed, the class is comprised not only of English majors, but also of science, math, psychology, Black studies, music, and geography majors, to name a few.

The presence of multiple students with different majors in the classroom certainly deepened my understanding of Prince’s work, as the expertise of the students with non-English academic backgrounds often informed at least one aspect of Prince’s art and, due to this newfound perspective, transformed either that aspect or the entire piece in my eyes. Thus, despite the variance of the students’ academic backgrounds, the class as a whole was able to work towards a common goal of uncovering and appreciating the meaning within Prince’s work from a myriad of perspectives. While the incorporation of each individual discipline could respectively lead one to interpret Prince’s art in extremely different manners, there lies coherence in the fact that each discipline is capable of affecting one’s interpretation at all. Indeed, the variance in interpretations that results from each discipline also cements similarities between said disciplines since viewing Prince’s art with respect to a particular discipline will likely not only change one’s perception of Prince’s art but of the discipline, as well. Such was the case for me in my blog post entitled, “Seeing Sound Waves (And More).”

Finally, I would like to return to Prince’s words of noticing more and naming less. This class has proven instrumental in my learning to actualize Prince’s suggestion, as it demonstrated to me not only similarities which lay beneath surface-level differences but the merit of difference and the cohesion that underlies the tension that many associate with difference. This lesson can be applied not only to the academic disciplines in an effort to bridge the disparity and judgment that fuels many assumptions, attitudes, and practices within academia, but to connect individual human beings, as well. Indeed, human beings are all connected through their differences, as one must exercise empathy and understanding when considering the multifaceted backgrounds that each individual possesses, thereby linking all human beings in their shared participation in such a process. Moreover, one must refrain from labeling other individuals as “x” or “y” and recognize that individuals, though hailing from different cultures and communities, are similar to oneself in several facets, but perhaps most notably, through their shared humanity. Thus, the process of looking more and labeling less inherent within this course has led me to recognize the underlying similarities in the human experience, which are themselves by-products of difference. By looking more one can come to acknowledge and appreciate the variation of human experience and by labeling less one can prevent divisions from arising, taking hold, and destroying opportunities for harmony to bloom from tension.

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