Artist Alexis Rockman and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson debate the merits of hopeful images, science in pop culture, and how Hubble images mimic psychedelic art.

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NT: Well, where do you draw the line? “The Earthrise” is not a bleak picture. It was not a beacon of hope for our future. I can’t claim to know everything you’ve painted, but in the striking works that I’ve seen, they are warning shots across our bow. The images are not hopeful. They are scary.

AR: Right.

NT: So do you see any place for the hopeful image?

AR: Absolutely.

NT: What would it be? A painting of beautiful future Earth? Many people assume that’s coming without having to fix anything that’s going on now. So that’s kind of dangerous.

AR: I think it’s a gaping hole that I can fill. Nature abhors a vacuum, as we know, and I think one of my impulses is to show you a vacuum of bad news. [Laughs] I was doing a talk at UNESCO in Paris last month about global warming and why it’s so difficult to imagine in our culture. Someone was speaking about corporate culpability and he pointed out, I think very accurately, that at this point in time, our culture understands being afraid more than it understands anything else. That is the thing that gets attention, or at least the attention of lawyers.

NT: That’s true. That’s what leads off all the news stories. Fear.

AR: And the Bush administration knows that very well, by invoking elevated terror warnings or saying, “Al Qaeda’s going to attack soon, and that’s all we can tell you.” That, I guess, is my strategy. I think that these are aggressive imges that are really trying to show not necessarily the worst-case scenario, but a scenario that’s unbearable to many and that has to be considered. And that’s all I can do. In terms of being in the world, there are many comforting images and that’s just not where I — 

NT: That’s not the niche.

AR: Yeah, and that’s not my psychology. I grew up in New York, in Manhattan, and I also lived in Peru, seeing a third-world shantytown for two years. So I saw how humans could live. And I became very skeptical about how permanent our civilization is. I guess I’m interested in bad news. That’s my role, because no one else was willing to do it. and it’s a bummer sometimes.

NT: Well, shock therapy is what it is.

AR: I’ve been doing this for 20 years. When I was starting my career I was extremely aware, and it was deliberate, that I was one of the few.

NT: One of the few who had science as the source of your creativity.

AR: As an artist, I was coming out of what I thought was a revolutionary moment. I was, as a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, taking the lessons of Earth art, Robert Smithson, Michael Heiser, Richard Long, using the landscapes as your platform. Enormous scales. The Spiral Jetty.

What I’m coming out of and what I was doing at the time was then forming those impulses with a pictorialism from the history with painting and drawing. I would go up to the library and go look at Seba’s Thesaurus, Ulysses Aldrovandi, Durer, and combine them with those impulses. I think that now, to quote an art ctitic from the New York Times last Friday, if I see another nature-in-art or science-in-art show, I will literally throw up.

NT: [Laughs]

AR: That’s a huge pendulum shift.

NT: Yes. There’s been an ongoing shift in the landscape of creativity.

AR: Exactly. So that’s where my confusion is.

NT: Okay, so I’m glad you agree, because when I made the observation that science inspired artists, I didn’t know whether it was a change in my awareness or a change in my external reality. And on top of that — I presume because of the rapidly advancing frontier of science — there’s no shortage of new things to delight the artist, if that’s where you’re going.

AR: It’s endless.

NT: Endless. About your mural: I presume that not long ago you could not have painted it this way, because it contains newly discovered things and ideas.

AR: Absolutely.

NT: And it’s in the painting right now. And it’s different from the artists who simply tried to draw a tree—

AR: Right. To me that’s the most exciting position to take, to become a time capsule of belief systems, but with credibility.

NT: Yes.

AR: I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m more optimistic than I was before I came here this morning, which is great. Thank you.

NT: Well, let me give you another point of optimism. Here’s a very peculiar but real measure of things: A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed on the Today show. I was there because Cassini, the space-craft, had just gone into orbit around Saturn, having been en route for years.

The way these morning news programs work, they’re on for two hours, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and they typically put the harder news items in the first hour leaving the softer stories for the second hour. Other than the Columbia space shuttle disaster, I don’t know that I’d ever seen space-related science in that first hour. They usually air it later, alongside the celebrity interviews and cooking recipes. In that way, if a “real” story runs long, the cosmos just get bumped. In all my years, I grew accustomed to having the universe occupy secondary status.

So now here’s Cassini, just going around Saturn, minding its own business — nothing broke, nobody died, we didn’t discover life. We simply went into orbit and they featured it at 7:12 in the morning.

AR: Wow. That’s great.

NT: Yes. It was not only in the first hour, it was in the first half hour, in the first 15 minutes of the first half hour. And I said to myself, What a triumph. Not only of the power of science to excite the public, but of the fact that the press recognizes this and feels some obligation to put it up front.

So that’s why I think there’s more than a candle burning in the dark. I have some hope. And I’m going to continue that way. I think the hope is real.

AR: I’m with you now.

NT: Even if there are still anti-intellectual forces that want to squeeze it, I retain a level of hope that we can cultivate a scientifically literate electorate, a scientifically literate public at all ages. Progress is slow but real, and we have true measures of it. I see this daily because I work in a public museum, and you work in a private studio. I see, on busy weekends, a thousand people per hour coming through the Rose Center for Earth and Space to sit there and learn something about the universe, to walk through the exhibits. And there is my hope springing eternal.

AR: Bless you.

Originally published June 6, 2004

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