Third culture

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THIRD CULTURE by Alexei Monroe

The notion of a Third Culture is based on what it claimed to be a gradual but accelerating fusion of the “two cultures” of the humanities and science. It is argued that if the these two cultures were formerly in a state of constant border conflict, they are now increasingly drawn to each other just as they were once repelled by each other. This is the underlying process that has allowed the Third Culture to establish itself as an attractive meme that seems to imply new forms of progress and interaction that were previously prohibited.

Some of the artists here refuse to recognise any formal genre boundaries, moving between and within different artistic forms via advanced technologies. This implies a nomadic approach in constant movement across the old art/science frontier. The central question is whether these artistic (and also scientific) nomads are really producing a new third culture through this mode of activity.

Artists are increasingly “embedded” as guests in scientific and academic institutions and institutional science now likes to use contemporary art as a way of legitimising itself to the wider public – since science has lost the unchallenged authority it had prior to the postmodern era its arguments can no longer be expressed in purely scientific terms. It has to rely on applying aesthetic categories (beauty, complexity, intricacy) to scientific and natural phenomena. The practice of scientists working closely with artists on creative projects provides a kind of training that will allow future scientific leaders to make their case using artistic concepts or techniques.

Conversely, artists are sometimes seeking more than practical technical skills from the scientists that help them realise their projects. The more intangible asset of intellectual-technical respectability is valued by many and some artistic institutions also feel that they can no longer rely solely on appeals to aesthetic values. Scientific perspectives and metaphors are rapidly infiltrating artistic practice and younger artists in particular no longer feel as free to wholly reject or deny the scientific approach to life. Future cultural leaders exposed to scientific collaborations gain new intellectual weapons with which to assert their claims to cultural value.

It is at these intersections where the third culture may be emerging. Even if in some sense each side intends to use the other for their own agendas rather than a common aim, neither side will be left unchanged and if the frequency and intensity of these exchanges accelerate then the artists will become more like scientists and the scientists more like artists, even despite their own intentions. Perhaps a real third culture would be secessionist, with nomads from both sides breaking away from and questioning the two parent cultures they have emerged from, rejecting the poles of artistic primitivism or scientific fundamentalism. As an organisation which presents hyper-contemporary technological art, Sonica is interested in helping map the supposed Third Culture. Questions that we want to explore in this symposium and in future activities include:

   What is the Third Culture and what might it (not) be?
   What might it be made into?
   Can we take its promises at face value?
   Is it as utopian as some would like to believe?
   Is it a negation of both science and art or a combined affirmation?
   Are scientists pursuing art by other means and are artists pursuing science (or at least scientific research) by other means?
   Does the embrace of technology force artists to be more scientific and is in the interests of art and creativity?
   Technology increasingly supports or determines contemporary art but how much does the opposite apply?
   How widespread is it in reality?
   Bearing in mind that some thinkers such as A.C. Grayling believe a decline in scientific literacy is actually causing a new distance between art and science, how representative is the third culture and the promise or threat that it represents?

The “two cultures” paradigm is most strongly associated with the English novelist and scientist C.P. Snow. However in 1963 he claimed that the social sciences actually represent a third, intermediary culture in between the two older cultures.

For more on his ideas see:

See also: