Our Most Imaginative Art Form

March 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Math is fun. Really. But how does geometry figure in a blog about sustainability? First though, fun? Really? I think so, but I’m kind of a geek. The figure at left is reproduced from a charming yet brief volume titled “A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form”. Now, the artists in the crowd may bristle a bit at author Paul Lockhart’s claim. But hear him out:

If there’s anything like a unifying principle in mathematics, it’s this: simple is beautiful. Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things and the simplest possible things are imaginary.

For example, if I’m in mood to think about shapes–and I often am–I might imagine a triangle inside a rectangular box. I wonder how much of the box the triangle takes up—two thirds maybe?…There’s no ulterior practical purpose here…I’m just playing. That’s what math is—wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination.

Now, that sounds a bit like art doesn’t it? Not the physical part of making an art object, but the thinking part. As Lockhart notes, part of the aesthetic lies in the idealized perfection of the figure—but the edges are perfect only in our imagination.

So we get to play and imagine what ever we want and make patterns and ask questions about them. But how do we answer these questions? …The only way to get at the truth about our imaginations is to use our imaginations, and that’s hard work.

In the case of the triangle in its box, I do see something simple and pretty… If I chop the rectangle in two pieces,…I can see that each piece is cut diagonally in half by the sides of the triangle. So there is just as much space inside the triangle as outside the triangle. That means the triangle must take up exactly half the box! … There is really nothing else quite like this realm of pure idea; it’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it’s free. …That’s the art of it, creating these beautiful poems of thought … that one little line made it obvious… Profound simple beauty out of nothing.

The thinking part is, for me, at the heart of the matter. This is the creative mind at work. This is not the analytical process of the MBA or even the prototypical scientist. It comes from an openness to ideas, from a willingness to say “what happens if I do this or this?” from a willingness not to care about right answers. It’s play, pure and simple. Maybe thinking is, in fact, the wrong word. For much of the population, and certainly many parents, teachers, businesspeople, and others with little contact with art or the processes that lead to art, play is not highly valued. It’s something to do after work, or homework, is done. Yet this is a great loss it seems to me. If you are a creative professional, you know that play is at the core of process. Pressure to create can stifle the process—not that a solid deadline can’t play a positive role.

Leveraging both processes, analytical plus creative, art plus business, offers a remarkable opportunity for innovation. But tapping the opportunity will be tough. The creative process, the iterative, open playful process of creating art or creating in the mode of art if you don’t want to call architecture, or design, or even advertising, art, is undervalued in our society and especially in the business world. Daniel Pink has said that the MFA is the new MBA. Richard Florida has extolled the importance of the creative class. But, with only a few exceptions, business has not yet gotten the hint. For that matter, neither have we creatives. Both parties seem to miss the point that collaboration holds. Perhaps we are all working so hard to solve our problems that neither the chicken nor the egg understand their role in the world.

Perhaps the most fundamental of sustainable technologies is integrated thinking. It’s clear that the world and the problems we face are only becoming more complex. Breaking out of our comfortable modes, whether that’s the creative self or the business suit, seems to me to to be a great step in moving toward an integrated populace that knows enough about enough things to have a conversation, and perhaps even to play.

A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form, by Paul Lockhart, can be found at Amazon among other vendors. Buy it, read it, give it to your new Mayor. It might be fun…

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§ 2 Responses to Our Most Imaginative Art Form

  • Markus Dohner says:

    Interesting post, Kevin. I’m helping my 11 year old daughter with her geometry homework these days. At her school the big push I feel is to move onto pre-algebra and using the numbers for something, which is OK by me.

    Geometry is my friend –I use it in exhibition design all the time. Good carpenters know how to use it as well.

  • Kevin Pierce says:

    Yes, geometry is lots of fun for the some of us what likes it. The little book is really great…

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