Intrinsic Value Project # 1 by Heather Denyer

Intrinsic Value Panel Discussion, July 9, 2014, part of the undergroundzero festival A Blog by Heather Denyer

Featured panelists: Joel David Hamkins, August Schulenburg, Davida Smyth, Phil Soltanoff, Tony Speciale, moderated by Heather Denyer and Daleram Kahrobaei.

Despite the heat, the panel I had the pleasure of co-moderating last night proved an engaging and unusual discussion for scientists, artists, and … humans. Here are my thoughts on the talk.

Festival director Paul Bargetto presented the audience with the impetus for our discussion, namely that as an American artist, he was troubled by a lingering question in regards to how funding opportunities, which are abundant for science, are seriously lacking for art, and what this says about how our society views the intrinsic values – or lack thereof – of either discipline. In other words, do we believe that art matters? And is science really that distinct from art? Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci didn’t think so. In the past, art and science were equally pursued in the interest of improving humanity. Can we conceive of this ever being the case again?

The five panelists expressed their thoughts on the intrinsic values of both science and art and how one can influence the other. Some connections were clear: August Schulenburg writes plays about science and Davida Smyth uses performance approaches to teach microbiology. Phil Soltanoff described his theatre pieces as works that concern humans and how they relate to technology, as in his piece An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, which samples outtakes of Shatner as Captain Kirk to create an original script. But the deeper, less obvious parallels were only discovered later in the conversation.

Both mathematician Joel David Hamkins and theatre director Tony Speciale noted that they seek out specific projects of personal interest; however, when successful, these projects reflect larger, universal issues. For Hamkins, this might be considering an infinite chess game; for Speciale, the play Unnatural Acts about Harvard’s 1920 secret court created to purge the university of homosexual students. When considering the larger picture, Hamkins argued that, time and time again in math and science, something investigated as a seemingly small matter, ends up having incredibly larger implications over time. The “product-driven” culture of funding was brought up by Smyth, as an explanation of why art is underfunded. Yet, even artists work towards a “product,” whether a painting, a song, or a play script or production. It’s in the process that the two fields diverge. But do they truly? Aren’t great scientists creative thinkers finding new solutions to problems? Don’t artists have to think strategically in working on a script or production? While Smyth argued that rarely do scientists have the “freedom to be creative,” Schulenburg countered that “we’re all artists,” we just use different tools. Speciale emphasized that important theatre addresses social questions. Some of these include racism and poverty, but there is also theatre that engages with scientific matters like climate change and health and disease. When it comes down to it, theatre is about storytelling, and so is science.

Be sure to catch the other panels throughout the festival. For a full calendar, visit