Intrinsic Value Project # 2 By Heather Denyer

Intrinsic Value Panel, July 10, 2014, curated by Heather Denyer and Delarem Kahrobaei, featuring Nick Becarref, Joel David Hamkins, Evangelia Antonakos, Roman Kossak, Esther Neff, and Gretchen Van Lente.

What is the value of the work we do? Is there more value to a discipline that is seemingly practical like science as opposed to a less tangible discipline like theatre? How do we really view our work as having value? How do we then define it as such when applying for much-needed funding? As part of the undergroundzero festival in 2012, festival director Paul Bargetto curated lectures on debt. This year, with a slightly more positive spin, three sets of panels discuss the intrinsic values of science and art. In last night’s conversation, it became clear that the “experts” in their areas agreed across the board that more traditional definitions of what is art and what is science are obsolete. In fact, they ended up questioning all of the terms of the discussion, including the central term “value.”

Rarely do we bring together artists and logicians to openly discuss the disparate fields. It might, then, seem surprising that they have so much in common. As mathematician and philosopher Joel David Hamkins explained, both math and the arts have a need for constant justification because neither is considered by society to be practical, yet they both have an important value in the human experience of understanding. Roman Kossak, mathematician and logician added that like art, many view a disparity between math and “real life;” they couldn’t be more wrong, he asserted. Esther Neff, co-director of Panapoly Performance Laboratory, explained that in theatre, there has progressively been a breakdown of the barriers between life and art as well. Theatre offers a way of seeing, as does math, perhaps through a more formal lens. Gretchen Van Lente, puppet artist and director of Drama of Works, drew another connection between theatre and math: that both are experiments and both are about solving problems. Further pursuing this concept, director Nick Benacerraf of The Assembly related art and science to philosophy and religion in terms of “grappling with the unknown.”

Reflecting on the enormity of the questions the panel was addressing, Kossak explained that something more specific that science does is create a language to explain things. The theatre artists were quick to add that theatre is all about communicating, through stage language as well as the literal. In fact, Neff, herself, works in semiotics. Van Lente emphasized that the most exciting moments in theatre are when people change the language they are using to communicate. Hamkins agreed that the most interesting moments in math are when you arrive at a solution to a problem that is other than the one expected. Benacarref, the son of a philosopher of mathematics, asked when math became beautiful? He was quickly countered by Kossak turning the question back at him. When is art beautiful? For Benacarref, art is beautiful when it renders something unknown known. The same could be said for math as well.

Not only are there a number of parallels between math and theatre, science and art, but they also influence each other. Benacerraf offered the example of Einstein’s theory of relativity changing artists’ perspectives. Hamkins drew attention to the potential of theatre/art and science/math coming together in an educational aim.

Finally, audience member Brad Burgess addressed that whole panel, claiming that in our conversation, the two disciplines are essentially the same – one could replace the other in many of the statements that had been made. Why, then, if we see so much in common when we come together to talk, does the general society see such a disparity in the fields? This notion is instilled in American education and popular culture, but does it need to be? Can we continue to find other occasions to come together to discuss our specializations in relation to the larger issues we’re all dealing with, namely, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in regards to existence and humanity?

At least in the festival, there will be more opportunities for these discussions. Please join us! For details, visit

Heather Denyer