Madonna, Mozart and the Lure of Polarity
by Dr. Shiv Pillai
In 2001 an extraordinarily gifted 37 year old artist-in residence at the Mithila Museum in Tokamachi, Japan was found hanging from the ceiling. Nine years after this tragedy, scholars from different parts of the globe met for a day on the leafy campus of Wellesley College to discuss the very meaning of art and to consider this artist's remarkable legacy.
Janghar Singh Shyam was a Gond, a member of a group long relegated to the status of "tribals" in central India. In a remote, rural, setting, far removed from the galleries and museums of the cities, this unschooled artist had created magical and truly amazing surrealistic paintings, some rooted in the creation myths of the Pardhan Gonds, others in his own wondrous view of the world around him. He was a true original — Daliesque in his brilliance. Two ongoing exhibitions, one at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and the other at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, provide an opportunity for us to obtain some sense of this painter's emotional depth and artistry.
At the symposium at Wellesley entitled "The Gond and Beyond: The Predicament of Contemporary 'Ethnic' Arts," panelists raised important issues regarding the system of artistic apartheid promulgated even in a post-Eurocentric world by critics and scholars, separating mainstream art from "ethnic" and "tribal" expression. There is subjectivity and arbitrariness driven by the cultural baggage we all carry that drives definitions and tastes in art. We may all perhaps assume that the music of Mozart will be remembered centuries after Madonna has been forgotten. We have absorbed the world-view that there is a timelessness to great art, but our judgments are perhaps driven by opinions gained by cultural osmosis rather than by any definable objective criteria.
A short while after I graduated from medical school I vividly remember being captivated by a remarkable essay that raised profound questions about the meaning of art and science. This perspective by the late Arthur Kornberg, a truly great physician-scientist and the father of DNA polymerase, was published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1976. Kornberg tried, as many philosophers have, to describe and define what constitutes science. Karl Popper had already suggested that science be defined as a system of "testable hypotheses". This remains a widely prevalent and useful view of science today. Kornberg's take on what constitutes science requires us to think about subjectivity, taste and the meaning of art as we consider fields of human endeavor and the underlying principles that drive and distinguish them.
Scientists and artists, philosophers and soldiers, commoners and kings, are all subject to the same existential insecurities, are all as likely or unlikely to be kind or vicious in their dealings with their peers, as prone or immune to the need to have their egos salved, as readily viewed as weak or strong by their kith and kin. There however remain definable distinctions that can be drawn in the descriptions of different fields of human striving as opposed to the similar strengths and frailties of the humans that embark upon them. And this is where Kornberg brings to us the idea of polarity as a distinguishing feature of one aspect of human activity.
A bleak landscape painted in the late 15th century by Toyo is perhaps no less mesmeric than landscapes painted by his countryman Taiga in the 18th century. Can we really confidently consider the paintings of the impressionists to be either more grand or less impressive than the woodcuts of the Edo masters, a source of inspiration to this group of European artists? The enigmatic eyes of the Padmapani, or lotus bearer, created in the second century BC by an unknown Buddhist muralist in Ajanta can evoke as much of a limbic response today as the eyes of the woman in a celebrated da Vinci painting that will hang forever in the Louvre. Great art inspires millions and provides a window to the soul of the artist. The artist no doubt has obtained that elusive mixture of release and ecstasy from the actual execution of his or her creation whether this happened in the 5th century BC in West Africa or on the left bank in 19th century Paris. Art inspires and moves people across barriers of time. It does not depend on what went before. It has no polarity.
A physician may on occasion take a set of interesting clinical observations and intuitively make a mental leap to link these observations. There is little doubt that this kind of individual effort represents a high form of creativity. Such intuitive leaps are rooted in but also continue to shape a body of knowledge derived from the repeated generation and examination of hypotheses. One would imagine that it might be relatively easy to link a swelling in the neck to eyes that seem to pop out of their sockets. History suggests otherwise. The first description of what we now call Grave's or Basedow's disease was made by the great Persian physician, Sayyid al-Jurjani, in the 12th century. The first such recorded case in the western world was described in 1786 by Caleb Hillier Parry, a physician (and a friend or Edward Jenner) who practiced in the English countryside. Al-Jurjani, Parry, Graves and von Basedow were thoughtful physicians. They each drew on a prevailing knowledge base in order to be able to make connections between seemingly disparate sets of physical observations. They may all have experienced the same creative satisfaction, akin to what an artist experiences, in the course of their recognition of a new disease entity. The scientific act of making the connection between goiter and exophthalmos does not however easily translate into a communicable emotional experience for a viewer or a reader looking for the uplift or inspiration that art can provide.
Kornberg referred to science as the only field of human endeavor with polarity. Chargaff's rule provided the basis for Franklin, Crick and Watson going on to decipher the structure of DNA. Blobel's description of the role of signal peptides in the secretory pathway informed and shaped Townsend's leap in understanding the MHC class I pathway. Science, at its core, is a great equalizer, and nothing could be more antithetical to this view of the world than to deify successful and creative scientists. Or the many true geniuses of the arts. No, we do not stand on the shoulders of giants that went before us. If not them, then others would surely have traveled a parallel path of discovery. But indeed let us recognize, as Kornberg did, that science is uniquely defined by polarity.
Dr. Shiv Pillai, MD., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.