December 23, 2011 10:07 pm

Why we smart with ignorance

Culture provides havens from the material world and attempts to explain to us that world. Can it offer more?

We live in a world that is startlingly incomprehensible. Collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps, arcane instruments that have been seen to affect our lives profoundly, are just the start of it. Excitement mounts in Geneva, among a rarefied and usually unexcitable community, over the search for the Higgs boson, a notional particle that may explain the origins of the universe or why there is something rather than nothing.

We empathise with the nobility of the cause, and the intensity with which it is pursued, but our understanding of it is feeble. The best many can do is to imagine the bothersome boson as a “God particle”, so that we can helpfully picture it with a long white beard and a bad temper. It is an infantile reduction.

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Even in such apparently superficial activities as shopping, there is mystification where there was once understanding. We are in thrall to consumer goods that seem miraculous in their slick workings. As the design critic Stephen Bayley observed in last week’s BBC documentary on Steve Jobs, a visit to the Apple Store eerily resembles a communal religious experience.

The programme revealed how Jobs and his colleagues tested scrupulously to find precisely the right shade of white for his then-revolutionary iPod. White is the colour of purity and cleanliness, but also of bandages, spirits and ghosts. Our reliance on, and pleasure taken in, technology is based on faith, which is but a stronger version of superstition. We have the scantest knowledge of what occurs inside those pallid plastic frames but cheerfully plan our iLives around them.

The ambition of the Enlightenment, which was to understand everything, seems ridiculous now. It is said that it was the last historical moment in which it was possible at least to retain a robust grasp on all extant knowledge. We, by contrast, are evolving into the first people who understand nothing.

Art should have an important role to play in this fogging of the human intellect. But what should it be? Most obviously, it can offer distraction. I think of the millions who walked through Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall some years ago to stare at a large representation of the sun. Olafur Eliasson’s installation, “The Weather Project”, spoke a primitive language. It was elemental in its scope and universal in its appeal. Here was art that pretended at pre-modern times. Times that also contemplated the unknowable, because we didn’t know very much.

Today we know a lot more, yet still smart with ignorance. We are more pleased with ourselves, less in thrall to deities, proud of the progress that humanity has made. But there is a niggling feeling that velocity has been achieved at the expense of wisdom.

Pride is a close relative of narcissism. Eliasson brilliantly anticipated the conflict within us in his work. A vast mirror on the hall’s ceiling allowed visitors to lie back and contemplate themselves. Of course we think we are the most important element of the we-centred universe. But whatever would the adjacent sun have thought?

Much of the public’s engagement with contemporary art installations such as “The Weather Project” is an escape from everyday complexity. This is a reversal of what happened in the recent past when our lives were more ordered, and we looked to culture as a place where the imagination could run riot. Today art is a balming agent, a refuge from the creative flights of investment bankers and their like.

The arts also have a secondary function: to explain. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, told me last year that his commissioning of David Hare’s play about the financial crisis, The Power of Yes, followed a telephone conversation between the two men in which they confessed their difficulties in understanding precisely what had happened. Here was a cultural event that sought to unravel a baffling chronology of epochal importance. It was journalism with knobs on. Audiences lapped it up.

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Fictional works, too, help us to fight the fight against opacity. Margin Call, JC Chandor’s taut new movie on the 2008 crisis dramatises events that we can barely follow. If you don’t know what a CDO is before you see it (and you are in good company), then you certainly won’t know by the closing credits. But the film, released next month in the UK, is an investigation of greed, and how even the morally upright can get sucked into a perniciously over-rewarding system. It adds a universal human dimension to a very particular, 21st-century problem. This is where we arrive when we always want more.

So: culture provides us with havens from the infernally complex rhythms of our material world, and it attempts to explain that world to us, luring us into an imaginative space that is located somewhere between the first draft of journalism and the definitive account of history. Can it offer us anything more? More on the subject next week.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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