“Art is science made clear.”
Jean Cocteau - French poet, artist and director
Recently I read Imagining Science: Art, Science, and Social Change. The essays discuss a few different themes. There's an essay arguing that art is a valuable tool for anticipating scientific breakthroughs, and opening up dialogue. Some examples include the US President's Council of Advisors prepping themselves for a debate on nanotechnology, by reading Michael Crichton's Prey. Members of Congress also referred to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale when discussing reproductive technologies. One might argue their choices of dystopian fiction to open up a reasonable debate on science. While it is a useful thing that imagination can precede scientific discovery, the most exciting stories tend to dwell on the worst possible consequences. Still, that's another point of how art can go where science can't, setting the boundaries for debate by depicting extreme outcomes.
A lot of the essays in the book were also obsessed with discussing the differences between 'art' and 'science'. Most of these also seemed to be written by scientists, or sociologists, rarely self-declared artists. And a basic problem was very obvious. When you begin by laying out your definitions of what makes art 'art' and science 'science', the discussion is already lost. It becomes a debate. Art has this quality, which science does not. Science has this quality, which art does not. In struggling to define the qualities of two incredibly complex and varied fields, stereotypes appear and art is painted as mysterious, cultural and dramatic, while science is distilled into methodical, purposeful and clinical. A yawning gulf of difference opens up between the two and the writer has created C.P. Snow's two cultures anew.
One writer described his experience in a particle physics laboratory. "Nobody in the lab made any reference to "beauty" in the construction of an experiment. Nobody mentioned how "feelings" shaped their work." He compared this unfavourably to his wife the painter, and the emotional reactions of people viewing her paintings, and declared an inherent and fundamental opposition in art and science. "Given all this, what I find quite amazing is the notion that artists and scientists would have much to say to one another in any realm."
Another writer also emphasised a mutual exclusion of science and art. "Science is a system" whereas "Art has no agreed upon definition... It admits the possibility of nearly anything." Collaborations of art and science are "more expressive of a desire than logical possibility" and art cannot engage science, it can only engage the ethics of science. (Art, Science and Aesthetic Ethics).
After a few essays like this, a person could be forgiven for thinking of science as a land of ice-hearted joyless automatons obsessively reducing the world into finer and finer slices of truth with high-powered technology, while art is a land of empathic flighty navel-gazers whose rocking hammocks are gently powered by the joie de vivre bursting from their indefinable hearts.
So what do I think? I think it is all relative.
To begin with, to be able to write about art and science, you must have some concept of what kind of art and what kind of science you are addressing. Do you have products of art in mind, exhibitions, theatre, paintings? Or are you thinking of the theory of art? Art defined as inspiration? Science meaning factual knowledge? The scientific method? There's never going to be much definitive progress on discussing art and science without first defining what it is you mean by art and science. Even essays that ostensibly hold similar viewpoints in the book may not, because they start off with different pieces of the concepts in mind.
Now for myself, I generally take art to mean a sensation, a feeling. I am unashamedly going off my own personal experience here. To create something with your own hands. To look at a blank canvas and start transferring an internal mental vision onto the expanse of nothing. To hear a piece of music and be struck by a rush of feelings, of inspiration, a sense that something has been invented in your head which was not there before. I suppose some might call my definition of art creativity, but I think creativity describes rather the process, while art is the way of seeing, feeling, and thinking. To strip it down further, I could suggest it's about seeing beauty. And of course beauty is subjective, but I've already written about seeing the Sublime in Van Gogh's paintings, and how I found the sensation to be the same as when I learned science. I can't be the only one. Those particle physicists in the laboratory are not automatons, they would have gone into science because they saw something beautiful in it.
Everybody is a scientist and an artist. Perhaps it is only less obvious because the skills used to capture art are more obvious in some forms than others. Van Leeuwenhoek made his microscopes and selected objects to study with them quite randomly. He was motivated by a love of what he saw. He used his drawing ability to express his love of what he saw. The father of the neuron, Ramon y Cabal, also saw the art in the brain cells he examined. He also happened to be interested in photography and painting. His photographs and drawings express his interest...(etc). The Origin of Species is elegantly written using that artistic medium, writing. Part of the reason that the Selfish Gene has generated such furore is because the scientific concepts within have been so clearly expressed.
I don't like to set up these two concepts like two sides of a chessboard. On one side, we have Science. The other, we have Art. Media loves this false dichotomy for the easy reactions it invokes. But there's such a basic problem from the start in setting up two different items as discussion points. The instinct is to define each one by their uniqueness, and their difference from the other. Set them at odds. Make sure no progress is ever made.
Not quite a blog, but things that I have written.