The characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation engage in artistic endeavors in many of the show’s 179 episodes.
Commander William Riker plays jazz music, while Captain Jean-Luc Picard has his interests in Shakespeare and Ressikan music. Dr. Beverly Crusher directs plays and Worf enjoys Klingon opera. This constant attention to art and creativity in the narratives of The Next Generation represents the Star Trek theme that in the future, humanity will improve itself. "We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity," reveals Picard in Star Trek: First Contact. The fictional characters of TNG are what writer Henry Miller called “truly alive.”
Ironic, then, that the most artistically active character from TNG is an android. Data is a robotic version of Pinocchio, wishing to obtain the human emotions he was denied by design. Data realizes that the quest, in comparison to the boon, is more meaningful, and he wishes to learn about the human experience despite his lack of emotions. He will not be human physically, but art provides him an appreciation for humanity. Indeed, art and creativity are Data’s textbooks of understanding. “You are here to learn about the human condition and there's no better way than embracing Shakespeare,” Picard teaches as he coaches Data in a play as King Henry (“The Defector”).
Data engages in numerous art forms — poetry (“Schisms”), painting (“Birthright”), acting (“The Defector” and “Emergence”), violin (“Sarek”), oboe (“In Theory”), and singing (Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis).
Data is sometimes successful at his art, and, at other times, the crew reacts with trepidation and incredulousness at his poems or painting. With poetry, such as Data’s “Ode to Spot” written for his cat, it is understandable that the crew is often uncertain how to react to the android’s art:
“O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend"
— Data ("Schisms")
The reason why Data's art is successful sometimes and other times — not quite so — may be found in the ideas of poet Sir Stephen Spender who believed that the necessary traits of artists are concentration, memory, inspiration, faith and song.
Data obviously has very little problem with concentration being an android. In “A Matter of Time,” he explains his ability to listen to 150 different musical compositions at the same time, yet reveals that “in order to analyze the aesthetics, I try to limit myself to ten or less.” His memory is no slouch either, sharing with Commander Riker, “I remember every fact I am exposed to, sir.” Data also possesses the inspiration to be a good artist. He is inspired by his fellow crew, from Captain Picard who challenges him to learn about humanity through acting in Shakespeare’s plays, to Dr. Beverly Crusher who offers advice on the arts. He expresses delights in everyday experiences, from growing a beard (“The Schizoid Man”) to learning about Sherlock Holmes (“Elementary, Dear Data”).
If Data has a problem, it may be that he is short sometimes on faith and song, at least in the sense that Spender defines the terms. Confidence in one’s artistry is what Spender means by faith and confidence in one’s own unique voice is the song. The most common criticism of Data’s art by his fellow crew is that he should stop imitating the works of others, and start expressing his own experiences.
For example, in "The Defector," after Picard credits Data with a fine performance of King Henry, the android reveals he has been studying the performances of famous thespians, to which Picard chides him, “You must discover it through your own performance, not by imitating." When recommending ways to improve his poetry, Geordi advises, “Next time, don't worry so much about rhyme and meter. Some of the world's greatest poets didn't pay attention to rules.” Spender and Geordi might suggest that Data needs to listen to his own proverbial voice.
It is when Data imitates — when he does not show confidence in his own art (voice) and own voice (song) — that his art doesn't quite reach the levels he hopes. The paintings and poems aren’t really failures, though, because artistic endeavors are never really failures. Indeed, it is Data’s desire to try to be an artist that is most important. Data is inspired to learn about humanity through art. And when Data looks at his artistic expressions and endeavors, he too can claim, as Spender does, “What failures there are!”
This article was originally published on August 28, 2016.
Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They recently researched all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to be sharing some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans.