Can Art Be Diagrammed?

The National Endowment for the Arts has supported creativity and innovation with governmental funding since 1965. Over the last two years, compelled by our Republican Congress, President Obama has cut the NEA’s budget by $21.5 million (12.8%). Earlier this year, however, the President proposed a 5.5% increase to the program in 2013, while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said that he would eliminate the endowment entirely. During a brief speech in February, the President delivered the following message to recipients of the National Arts and National Humanities Medal: “Equal to the impact you have on each of us every day as individuals is the impact you have on us as a society. And we are told we’re divided as a people, and then suddenly the arts have this power to bring us together and speak to our common condition.” For so many of us, this idea feels true. Perhaps, while reading words, we have experienced what Vladimir Nabokov called “the sob in the spine,” that subtle yet unmistakable awakening. Perhaps we have been struck dead by live music, like what Frank O’Hara describes in his poem “The Day Lady Died,” which remembers a Billie Holliday performance (“everyone and I stopped breathing”). Perhaps we have felt the selfless satisfaction of giving ourselves up to an idea, as in an artistic group or community (like my community). We all know art affects us; but can these effects of art be measured? This is a scientific question, and one that the NEA, “to promote knowledge and understanding about the contributions of the arts,” has set out to answer systematically. The organization revealed its five-year research agenda called “How Art Works,” which seems at the same time eerie and right on point.


About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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