Guest Post: Ben Cohen

Today my old chum Ben Cohen helps us read the signs right in front of us. Ben is an environmental studies scholar who teaches Science, Technology, and Society (in the Engineering School), and Environmental History (in the History Department), at the University of Virginia.


May 11, 2009

Today my old chum Ben Cohen helps us read the signs right in front of us. Ben is an environmental studies scholar who teaches Science, Technology, and Society (in the Engineering School), and Environmental History (in the History Department), at the University of Virginia. He writes for academic journals, popular magazines, and McSweeney’s online, and he co-authors The World’s Fair, a Seed Media science blog where you can find original rock songs written about mitochondria and a debate on what kind of scientist Batman is supposed to be. He’s guest-posted here twice before (1 and 2), which gives me a much-needed break and time to wax my toenails.

Additionally, I felt bad a couple of weeks ago after a graduating undergrad disappointed about not getting to do an MFA in creative writing stuck it to me a little by insisting she was off to be a real artist in the advertising field, and I, in my fatigue, and with a number of years of agency production and copywriting in my past, reacted Churmishly. Ben’s post reminds me that everybody’s an artist—of sorts.


I teach engineers and I talk about creativity and imagination and I discuss and draw from the historical development of engineering as a history of creativity and design. This is done in good faith. It is meant to instill the spirit of innovation-as-art into the mindset of the engineer. My intent is to help illustrate that these students are not technicians and certainly not aspiring to be, none of them picturing themselves as following a procedure and attaching thingamajig A into slot B and then folding slot D over into pocket C, just with ever greater efficiency. No, they stand in league with artists and architects and creators in general; they are the minds that imagine.

None of this is outstanding, but it challenges common assumptions about the engineer’s identity. Technology, the stock in trade of engineers, is a term of recent origin, maybe a century old, at most, in the sense we use it now. Its own linguistic history is much discussed by historians. That history ties technology to the practice of creating things or processes or configurations anew. Technology, craftwork, artwork. The mechanical arts. Technology as technics, technology as technique, technology as mechanical arts and craftwork in the true sense of handiwork, of taking ideas of artifacts and putting them into material form. One historian defined technology as congealed knowledge. I always thought that was fascinating not just because it offered that ideas were congealed, melted and packed in, smashed and smooshed and crammed into material things, but because it means that the knowledge is still there inside the technology. It means that even though it’s invisible and unquantifiable, the creator’s knowledge is ever-present, carried everywhere the material object is carried.

The main point is to avoid a binary between the artist and the engineer, that one is creative, the other “really good at math.” (I already went on about my views of these binary constructions in my last post here.) Engineers, like artists, are creative. Yes, fine, so be it. This is a premise for my classes.

Yet, I still fall prey to the stereotype by and by.

So much so that all of the above, truth be told, was mere prelude to what I actually wanted to discuss: a confusing license plate. It read: “ICR8 ART.” The prelude above, then, is my point of departure not to deliberate on the creativity of engineers, but to deliberate on my own assumptions about what its oft-purported opposite, the artist, is.

My wife, Chris, and I spent some time last week deciphering the possibilities of that personalized plate. And by “deciphering” I of course mean “arguing about.” One would first assume the personalized plate means that the person creates art, that the driver is in fact an artist. “I create art.” One would assume. “One,” in this case, being me. Artists are creative. They are also strong users of the language, skilled not just in the art of paint and image and clay but composition. I say this by enacting a stereotype in opposition—engineers don’t write well, but humanities and art students do. That was what confused me, since I’ve worked to break down that false divide through the notion of creativity. But there I was, replicating it by assuming an artist motivated enough to put together seven characters for a license plate (a super-mini Twitter) would do it correctly. Except it doesn’t read “I create art.” It reads “I crate art.”

One charitable interpretation: Okay, artists may be indirect and skew our perceptions of reality in order to challenge them. I accept that. I get it. But with grammar too? On a license plate? That’s a huge risk, one I’d think was seemingly too great to take. Because someone might misread the plate…and then what do you have? The State Department of Vehicles’ strictures are no place to intervene. The DOV’s mobile ad space, the license plate, is a prized space. What artist wouldn’t dream of an installation with such mobility and visibility? Well, maybe one that handles the grammar more effectively, my wife replied.

But no, no, it isn’t “create,” it’s “crate.” That’s what you have. I crate art. So then, I counter-argued, the driver is probably an art packager, or a shipper, or works at Mailboxes, Etc. and specializes in mailing artwork. Right? I crate art. The driver puts art into crates, because this is a very important job, it is the job of the everyday person who does the work in between, ensuring that the art gets from point A to point B unscathed. Art, of all things, needs special shipment protection. Art, if destroyed in transit, loses its artistry. Art loosely packaged could be art undone. The license plate is thus calling attention to an otherwise neglected and under-respected craft of its own—the art crater. To be honest, I didn’t even know this was an actual job. So, kudos to the driver, he or she has brought awareness to the profession.

Chris was unconvinced. So much so that she offered that the driver was in fact an artist, a creator, one who is creative, one who wields imagination for the betterment of our culture’s understanding of human identity and the dynamics of life in this world of ours. You’ve never seen any of that cee-rated art, she asked? The driver serrates art. It fits. “ICR8 ART.” I serrate art. I take art, the driver is telling us, a driver whose other car we are told is a broom, and use serrated scissors. Not just for tomatoes, I cut little notches along the edges of art. This is who I am, behold my work!

All of that was congealed right there into those seven characters, depth and imagination packed into a plate of metal on the back of a two-tone hatchback. I’m planning to work up the case into a lesson plan for next semester for the engineers. Look, you are this creative, I will tell them. You can do this too. It will be inspirational. You’re not just good at math, you are also artists who can wield imagination for the betterment of our culture’s understanding of human identity. Just be sure to use active voice, please. And proper APA citation style.


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