The first time I heard the word “polymath” was in a college writing class. No, the word did not emit from my repository of SAT words, but one of my Mexican students asked something about Goethe. “Wasn’t he that German polymath who wrote poetry, drew and painted, developed theories of optics and the origin of plants?”
I looked at the student and thought, “That’s an interesting word!” And I thought, “Boy, if you grow up speaking a Romance language you have the SAT sewn up.”
Lately, I’ve been reading academic papers about the Middle Ages from a site called “Academia.” They send me papers periodically, and if they interest me, I read them. One caught my attention, “The Aged polymath as a Non-professional Artist” by Joseph Salzman. It discusses the retired scientists who become artists after retirement and the hurdles they must face — notably learning to paint (ha ha). Some of his points ring true for me, too. I’m not a retired scientist, but I have not been a career artist, either. If I’m honest with myself and look at my actual life as I have lived it, I have been a teacher. So…I have had to learn about the materials, struggle to get my work shown (even more difficult in a place where no one lives), face my lack of skill, deal with jealousy and competition (not mine; other artists in this place where there are more artists than people…what?)…
I remember the way some of my science teachers looked down their noses at art, as if it didn’t require any “mind,” knowledge or discipline. My dad — a theoretical mathematician — had a high regard for art, particularly poetry and drawing, and he tried all his life to improve his abilities at both. I grew up with that as a model. I’ve always known that the dichotomy between art and science is a false dichotomy, but… Salzman writes in his piece about the OPPOSITE judgmentalism on the part of artists toward the retired scientist turned painter which is, basically, that the cool kids won’t let him play.
But there is a more compelling challenge: the perspective of the art-world. The aged poly-math is trying to erase boundaries while the art world institutions are set to preserve them. In spite of the high diversity and variability of artistic expressions, institutions, constructs, there is always a divide, a frontier between the professional artist and the “others”, and the ubiquitous gatekeepers (Art critics, curators, gallery owners, dealers, art teachers) Gate keepers defend boundaries by using social theories of cultural capital, habits, and held value. They may assume the role of arbiters of quality without offering justification for their judgments.
They marginalize by labeling: outsider, art-brut, folk-art, self-taught artist, naïve-art, outlier,craft, junk art, and more recently amateurish! Labels communicate confusing ideas, causing misunderstanding and derogative connotation. But polymathy is beyond all that. It is rooted on the very foundation of humanity: onfostering culture. Regardless the specific field: science, technology, poetry, mathematics or the arts, the polymath is vitally engagedJoseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist”
The word “amateur” means “one who loves” and that should be reason enough for anything we do. I have no problem being an “amateur.” If there were some miracle and I were suddenly a famous painter/writer I’d still be an “amateur” (I hope). And a dilettante — one who delights. Bring it on. And, IMO, any artist should work for the sake of the work FIRST. Any accolades (and money) are kind of after the fact. A retired scientist — presumably with a pension — isn’t in the same boat as a young person striving to make his/her way as an artist. That retired scientist is like me.
I’ve thought a lot about what if I’d had art as a career. My mother was adamantly opposed to either my brother or me being an artist. My brother went for it anyway (kind of) and I didn’t, but it didn’t mean I stopped making art, stopped writing and stopped painting. Not at all, never. But the necessity of earning a living meant I had to work and, lucky for me I had work that I loved and which was meaningful to me most of the 38 years I did it. I realized some years ago that I was lucky that my mom pretty much forced me NOT to become an artist (I began college as an art major) because I was never compelled to become an art whore. I’m no great talent. I’m a good talent that, until I got to know myself, would have been a pretty decent commercial artist. Nothing wrong with that, but teaching was better for me. Being a versatile kind of human made me a better teacher — I think. Being a teacher made me a better person — I’m sure.
The question the article ends with is the important point, the meat of polymathy. That question is “Why?”
For him there is no outside or inside. If he makes art, it is simply because he has to. He may bring new values, new projections, create novel versions of the world. Isn’t this the real platform of progress? In reality, not every retiring polymath becoming a non-professional artist is likely to be-come a modern Leonardo. Still, they hold a potential value of social impact. In words of (Professor) Martin Kemp:
…true polymathy involves a unique and improbable blend of incorrigible ambition, undeterability, imagination, openness, and humility… the principle of see-ing something as it were something else – seeing it as belonging in other than its normal conceptual place – is more vital now than ever if we are to nurture the culture of mutual understanding necessary for the survival of the human race…
Joseph Salzman, “The Aged Polymath as a Non-professional Artist” (Joseph Salzman is an Emeritus Professor at The Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Zisapel Nanoelectronics Center, TECHNION The Israel Institute of Technology.)
So, if I had Joseph Salzman in front of me right now I’d just say, “Shut up and paint,” but I’m not sure he’d listen to me. After all, I was just a writing teacher. 🤪
Featured photo: Goethe’s color wheel