An Artist, a Physicist, a Statistician and a Choreographer Walk Into a Museum…

Last night at New York’s Whitney Museum, a rather motley crew took the stage to address a topic of no small consequence: “Why does art matter now?”  To tackle this question, the museum assembled a crack team with a Captain Planet-like allotment of strengths: Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, visual artist Vik Muniz, choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and statistics whiz Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight.com). Highlights from the stunning meeting of minds, after the jump.

Whitney director Adam Weinberg introduced the program with an anecdote about what had inspired it: once, he found himself seated next to an Olympic high jumper on an airplane flight, and the athlete admitted that she just didn’t understand abstract art (which happens to be the Whitney’s stock-in-trade). More and more, Weinberg said, institutions like the Whitney are being called on to justify their existences. He began the program by asking each panelist to recall a time in their work when they had been “stuck” in some way.

From there, the panelists veered off into their respective areas of expertise. Muniz discussed his odyssey in search of the backs of the world’s most famous paintings, and how he discovered that the back of say, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is in some ways just as interesting as the front. Silver explained that, where an artist’s raw material might be paint and canvas, he works with data: he talked about how he has struggled with making sense of inconclusive data from Iran’s recent election.  Streb, who spoke over animations of performances she had choreographed, further ruminated on “raw materials,” explaining that movement, rather than music, is the building block of choreography. Insisting that music may be the enemy of dance, she explained that music artifializes action. And somehow, Randall chimed in with a relevant bit of physics: it turns out that she helped to write an opera concerning particle physics that will be performed at Paris’s Pompidou Centre.

In the end, none of the panelists were able to isolate a reason that art matters now. I’m not altogether sure that anyone would be able to form a coherant answer to that question. Perhaps you have an answer?