MIT professor’s book digs into the eclectic, textually linked reading choices of people in medieval London.
Interview by Mary Haller, Office of the Arts, with MIT President Charles Vest
HALLER: Why is it important for scientists and engineers to study and participate in the creative arts?
VEST: Involvement in the arts broadens one's perspective and opens the mind to new possibilities--it's like looking at an image upside down, to see it for what it is and not just as the image your eye is "trained" to see. When we develop our ability to think creatively, we are able to find new solutions to the problems on which we are working, both in our labs and in our lives.
I've read many times that scientists who have had truly original ideas almost always think about their mathematics or their science in some sort of nebulous, undefined visual way. I can't help but think that that's closely related to the way artists think and work. I have found that good scientists and engineers tend to be very creative people; a deep love of music seems to be particularly common.
Of the colleagues and students I've come to respect the most over the years, many have had a love and appreciation for the visual and/or performing arts. But involvement in the arts not only helps us in our professions as scientists and engineers. It is simply good for our souls, giving us a different kind of connection with the world.
I think that most of us, whether we articulate it or not, subscribe to the ideas that Vicky Weisskopf talks about in his autobiography: that it is important to view the universe in artistic and humanistic ways, as well as in to purely scientific and technical ways. He draws an analogy with the particle/wave duality principle in physics. We must participate in the world in more than one way in order to be "complete" as individuals.
HALLER: The artist-in-residence program within the Office of the Arts builds upon two strong traditions at MIT: bringing outside people known in their fields to the Institute to study and work with students and faculty; and the nurturing of collaborations between artists and scientists. Why is this program important to you and to the Institute?
VEST: MIT is an institution that celebrates expertise, knowledge, and creativity no matter what the field is, and people here love to engage in debate and learn from each other. I see the artist-in-residence program as a very natural part of that continuum. Whether it's in mathematics or physics or mechanical engineering or the arts, we respect having people among us who are highly talented and knowledgeable about what they do and we learn a lot from them. I think the artist-in- residence program is a very natural thing for the Institute to undertake in a very serious way.
HALLER: How are these collaborations important in the "real world?"
VEST: The fields of engineering and engineering education are moving fairly dramatically toward a more macroscopic and more integrative style, with more emphasis on design and synthesis and a little less emphasis on reductionist kinds of science. I think that art and appreciation for the aesthetic components of what people do has to be helpful in that regard. And of course, as we work to improve the quality of designs and products, I think it's going to be increasingly important for engineers to work with artists to develop the visual, tactile and aesthetic qualities of their work.
HALLER: You mentioned once that you had experimented with painting at one time in your life. What did you gain from that experience? Are there other arts activities that you'd like to try or learn?
VEST: I grew up spending most waking hours as a little kid with paper and pencil, drawing. I just loved to draw. My father was a mathematics professor; every now and then he'd bring me a big stack of yellow paper, and I'd sit down with a pencil or pen and draw and sketch. I found it very relaxing and enjoyable.
In junior high school, when most of the other kids were taking typing I took oil painting instead. I blame that for my inability to touch type, which I am very sorry about given the fact that I make so much use of the computer! But I'm glad I took a painting class. I used to do a lot of painting in the summer, and I worked with pottery, too. I even attempted air brushing for a while. I'm afraid I've dropped most of it, although the one year of my life I spent on sabbatical leave I did take along a pad and some charcoal and spent a little time sketching. Maybe when I retire I'll get back into it. I do enjoy photography a lot, and have taken some photographs I'm proud of, mostly from travel. I stopped doing my own developing and printing many years ago, but I still enjoy composing a picture.
HALLER: What is your favorite sculpture on campus?
VEST: I think that my "favorite" sculpture probably varies from day to day, from week to week, and from mood to mood. I think that the Great Sail is a unique and exciting piece that is quite symbolic of the Institute. And certainly if I close my eyes and visualize the MIT Campus while I'm on the road, that's the one I see. Currently, my favorite piece of work is Henry Moore's bronze "Three-Piece Reclining Figure" in Killian Court. It is so full and volumetric and curved, and provides a nice contrast to the straight lines of the buildings surrounding the great court. I also find it quite wonderful in the spring and summer, when it blends in with the full-leaved trees.
The sculpture also connects me to other times and places. Because Henry Moore is a very popular sculptor, it makes me reflect on many other places around the country and around the world where I have seen pieces similar to this work. It's nice to be connected to other times and places in that way.
HALLER: Artist Mags Harries is currently working on ideas for a sculpture project for the Stratton Student Center with input from the MIT community. What kind of art would you like to have in the Student Center? What kind of responsibility, if any, do you think public art should have to those who live and work in the same environment with it?
VEST: I feel very strongly that society has a responsibility to public art, and we at MIT are in the process of reaffirming our own institutional commitment to include public art in major building projects. Over a long sweep of time, I would like to see public art on our campus that speaks somewhat of the history of changes that have occurred. Assuming that MIT is still standing proudly in a century or two, it would be nice to come back and see some representation that has a little bit to do with trends of thought, so that we can see ways in which the world has changed through that time.
But more immediately, I think that public art should first call to our attention the presence of art in the midst of an environment recognized primarily for science and technology. It should remind people that there are many ways of thinking about and viewing the world. But I'm also old- fashioned enough in my own taste to think that the most important function of all is to provide some degree of aesthetic pleasure and help to instill a private place in us.
HALLER: What do you admire about artists?
VEST: I admire people who are creative and have genuinely profound ideas. That may well occur in a talented artist or in a mathematician or engineer. I also admire fine technique. My personal taste is for classical art--I love master painting and fine portraits of the eighteenth century. I also admire good photography, and listening to classical music is a very important element of my own life.
HALLER: Is there any particular artistic event or person that has been particularly memorable for you?
VEST: One of the most stunning personal experiences I've had in my life was an opportunity several years ago to visit Milles Garden in Stockholm, the home of artist Karl Milles for many years. It was an absolutely gorgeous day with a very blue sky and a few light streaking clouds across the sky. It stands on the top of a very tall bluff overlooking the sea and many of Milles' lighter pieces are mounted on columns that I suppose are 30 feet high or so. Many of them have an under-water, ocean motif; you stand there and look up against the sky and there's a sense of wonderful motion. It was a very beautiful and emotional experience for me.
Most of the other artistic events that really stand out in my mind are probably musical. I've attended a number of very stunning concerts over the years. One I immediately remember is hearing Sviatoslav Richter once play the Grieg piano concerto, and at the end of it he was so transfixed that he was sort of paralyzed. He just sat there motionless for two or three minutes. Someone finally came over and shook him and pointed out that the audience was on its feet, whereupon he turned back to piano and played the entire last movement again. It was just as thrilling the second time as it was the first. I remember the wonderful experience of hearing Jacqueline DuPre when she was in the height of her powers and before illness unfortunately overtook her. I also remember a wonderful concert once by the Leningrad Symphony when they toured the United States during an ephemeral thaw in the Cold War. They played the Leningrad Symphony and "Alexander Nevsky"--a very thrilling performance during a very emotional time.
HALLER: What is your sense, through your travels and outside contacts, of how well the "outside world" is aware of MIT's arts programs?
VEST: I've been pleased to discover that people I meet in the Boston area generally recognize that the arts and humanities are very much a part of the Institute. They are much more aware of the arts programs here than I expected. Outside of Boston, many people that have had no connection to the Institute are pleasantly surprised to learn of the presence and the quality of both our arts programs and of our athletics. But I find it quite binary, either people are very aware of the quality of the art here or else they don't know anything and are quite surprised.
HALLER: Last spring, MIT's List Visual Arts Center was at the center of controversy when funding for the exhibition "Corporal Politics" was denied by the acting chairman of the National Endowment For The Arts. You joined many organizations in publicly criticizing the decision. Why was it important for you to release a statement about this issue?
VEST: Unfortunately, I felt I was on rather familiar ground. It was both easy and important for me to make a public statement because I believed that it exemplified problems in the relationship between the federal government and our universities. The action against the exhibition "Corporal Politics" was another example of the failure to base funding decisions on merit, as measured in some reasoned manner such as peer review. We've seen a similar breakdown in the federal government with regard to the awarding of research contracts and grants. I have been pretty outspoken about similar cases in academia and in other parts of the Institute, and my response to this situation was a very natural extension of that.
HALLER: The Office Of The Arts is very committed to affirming and celebrating the cultural diversity of the MIT community, and building bridges through the arts. How do these goals contribute some of your own goals for the Institute?
VEST: Unless MIT succeeds, over the coming years, in reflecting the change in the population of the United States, we simply won't play the same kind of leadership role in the country in the future as we have in the past. The more innovative we are in celebrating and encouraging diversity, the better off we all will be. The arts allow people from very different perspectives and backgrounds to communicate and interact with an almost built-in degree of mutual respect. I think MIT's arts programs and multicultural initiatives by the Office of the Arts help establish patterns that we can carry over into our other endeavors. More broadly, I think that the arts are very important in making us whole. I'd like to see the arts always be a part of the lives of MIT's students, faculty and staff, and complementary to our technical, scientific, and professional endeavours. They broaden our worlds, and enable us to participate in and appreciate life more fully and in different ways. The arts will always be a natural part of MIT.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 22).