SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SCIENCE AND ART
Anthony Hill (dir.), DATA : Directions in Art Theory and Aesthetics, London, Faber, 1968, p. 134-149.
BY FRANK J. MALINA
During the recent past there has been a spate of essays and books on the lack of understanding between scientists and artists, symbolised by Lord Snow’s popularisation of the idea of ‘the two cultures’. The debate between the scientist and the artist, which is frequently most intemperate, especially from the art ride, will undoubtedly continue for a long rime to come. The estrangement between the natural sciences and art, which became more and more acute after the Renaissance, with the growing success of modem science, began to break down at about the rime the camera was invented in France by Nicéphore Niepce in 1829, to be perfected by the painter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.
But my experience after a number of years of work in the engineering sciences, mainly astronautics, and in the visual arts, especially with light and movement or ‘kinetic’ art, leads me to believe that the misunderstandings arc still far from resolved. This state of affairs is caused, not only by the confusion in the mind of artists about the objectives of science, but also by the failure of the theoreticians of art to put forward hypotheses which command the respect of the practitioners either of art or of science. 1
When speaking of art I shall limit myself to the artifacts of the pictorial type made by individual artists for individual observers, in contradistinction to visual artifacts of the spectacle type for simultaneous viewing by a mass audience. It is important to stress that the human sense of vision is also essential in the domain of the natural sciences. Indeed, in the study of phenomena beyond the range of the human eye one has to resort to instruments that must be read, and frequently to pictorial models to facilitate comprehension.
The word ‘science’ covers the vide range of human activities stretching from the accumulation of knowledge about the myriad relationships of the physical universe and the world of man, to the application of knowledge for the satisfaction of human needs, dreams and desires. Thus we have the terra ‘pure or basic sciences’ to cover the subjects of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geophysics, biology, psychology, etc, and the terra ‘applied sciences’ to cover the subjects of agriculture, engineering, medicine, sociology, etc. 2
There is now a generally accepted view that there is no clear-cut division between the basic and applied sciences, in spite of the fact that there are still some who speak of ‘science for science’s sake’. For example, until recently astronomers concerned with the moon and the planets of our solar systems could imagine that their work only satisfied man’s curiosity and craving for an understanding of the universe. Now they find that engineers are calling upon them for help with the practical problems of sending people to these heavenly bodies, not only to learn more about them, but to use them for human purposes.
It is comprehensible that in the past attempts have had to be made to justify the study of phenomena and problems which appear to have no relation to the immediate satisfaction of man’s needs, for we live in a world where even the basic needs for biological survival of many members of the human race are far from met. Nevertheless, defence of undirected research in the basic sciences is becoming less and less necessary, for it is becoming clearer that it is not possible to predict which knowledge of the infinitude of the universe will be valuable in the applied sciences. One should also bear in mind that the portion of the world’s brain power being expended in the basic sciences is very small, even though there are more scientists alive today than have lived during the whole span of man’s existence.
It is perhaps worthwhile to be reminded that mathematics is not ‘science’ in the same way as physics or engineering. Eric Temple Bell bas called it the ‘Queen of the Sciences’, - and why? The mathematician, unlike the scientist, is not concerned with meeting the test of physical experiment. His work is axiomatic and the results he obtains must be consistent only with the assumptions he has chosen. It is fortunate that the product of the mathematician is so helpful to the scientist in his efforts to understand the workings of the universe, and to the engineer in making useful things.
The mathematician helps the scientist to make predictions about the future. It is the prediction of the future behaviour of well-defined aspects of the universe which gives modern science its power. One might say that it is this predictive power which has caused science to be the highly respected human activity it bas become.
There are those who are impatient that science is not capable of making predictions on al] matters close to their hearts, leading them to cast doubt on the whole of scientific endeavour. For example, they cry that science is caught up in the ‘uncertainty principle’, without realising that the engineer now is able to apply this principle in quantum mechanics for the design of predictable nuclear reactors for the production of useful mechanical energy.
There are also those who would dilute the objectives of science by introducing the misconception that the emotional appeal of the elegance and beauty of an experiment or mathematical relationship is sufficient. That a scientist experiences joy from these kinds of human reactions cannot be denied. The theoretical physicist Paul Dirac once said: ‘It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment. It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one bas really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.’ P. B. Medawar, in his review of Arthur Koestler’s book The Act of Creation 3, points out that the key part of Dirac's remark is ‘if one has really a sound insight!’ If an equation in the natural sciences does not fit experimental facts, its beauty will not save it.
In aeronautics there is a saying that a good aeroplane looks ‘good’. However, for an aircraft designer considerations of beauty are of secondary importance. The aircraft’s safety, performance and efficiency are controlling factors. It is difficult to believe that one would call a helicopter a beautiful flying device, and it is very doubtful that anything can be done to make it less clumsy looking; nevertheless it is capable of performing uniquely many useful tasks in the field of air transportation.
Few would be inclined to call beautiful some of the arrangements of instruments and equipment used in the new field of astronautics to explore space. Lunik I and Ranger 7 successfully obtained photographs of the moon in spite of their bizarre appearance.
The chief purposes of the visual arts are, by means of artifacts, to stimulate and satisfy human emotions, to help the human mind to comprehend the knowledge and conceptions of the universe and of the world of man, and to widen and deepen emotional perception of selected portions of man’s environment. 4
The theoretical basis of art is the concern of aesthetics, but the practising artist finds this branch of philosophy about as useful as meteorology is at present for predicting the weather a month ahead. This remark is not intended to minimise the great importance of these two endeavours, which are struggling with such extremely complex fields. But it explains why anyone feels competent to criticise the works of artists. This confused state of affairs is further aggravated by artists themselves, who subconsciously resent that many of the functions of art of bygone days have been taken over by science. The basic sciences have been found more effective than magic and mysticism (to which art was closely allied) in giving an understanding of the universe, and the applied sciences in highly industrialised societies have provided means of communication and replication that have taken from the visual arts one of their most elementary and useful objectives of the past.
The fact that during the past centuries some of the useful functions of art, which persisted for millennia, have been taken over or reduced in importance by other domains of human endeavour should not cause the artist in despair to compete with those domains, but rather to search for new ways of giving man emotional satisfaction and comprehension of the world in which lie lives.
George Kubler in his most intriguing book The Shape of Time 5 says: ‘... Works of art are distinguished from tools and instruments by richly clustered adherent meaning. Works of art specify no immediate action or limited use. They are like gateways, where the visitor can enter the space of the painter, or the time of the poet, to experience whatever rich domain the artist has fashioned. But the visitor must come prepared: if lie brings a vacant mind or a deficient sensibility, he will see nothing. Adherent meaning is, therefore, largely a matter of conventional shared experience, which it is the artist's privilege to rearrange and enrich under certain limitations.’
Science is providing the visual arts with new tools of much greater complexity and variety than coloured chemicals and static flat surfaces, which the painter has used since the days of the cave man. Furthermore, the various branches of science are causing man to experience sensations unknown before, and to be aware of phenomena in the universe previously unseen. Perhaps it is not too strong a statement to make that it is the artist’s duty to help his fellow man to live in greater joy in the world of his time by making artifacts with new adherent meanings and of sufficient complexity to satisfy man’s increasing sensibilities of perception. 6
J. Bronowski, in his compact and delightful book Science and Human Values 7 writes: ‘When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought: beauty, lie said, is “unity in variety”. Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature - or more exactly - in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase, for unity in variety. Each in his own way looks for likenesses under a variety of human experience.’
Much thought is being given in our day to the similarities of the ‘creative process’ in the arts and in the sciences 8. As another example of an approach to this question I will quote the description of a possible model of our intellectual apparatus given by N. E. Golovin in his essay The Creative Person in Science 9 ‘In the first place, let us assume (as has been done, for example, by Ashby) that the central nervous system acts as a quasi-mechanical regulating system with the capability of controlling the entire body so that it continually acts to maintain itself in dynamic equilibrium within its environment. The peripheral sensory channels accept and code information characterizing the external environment. This coded information is recoded in the process of transmission to, and receipt by, the central nervous system. There it is stored, and then processed for comparison with similarly coded and previously stored sets of standard patterns related to the minimum physical requirements for the organism’s survival. These comparisons generate error signals which are transmitted throughout the body (including the brain) in the form of instruction for compensatory reactions representing the regulator’s best estimate of the survival response necessary to take account of the information received. Crudely speaking, the central nervous system is a “computer with memory” whose inputs are coded data supplied by the nervous system from the environment and memory, and whose outputs are coded instructions to various organs of the body, including the computer itself.
‘Such a system will be subject, of course, to the general principles of information theory. It follows, for example, that the central nervous system cannot have a capacity to process, that is, to modify or suppress the information being received by it, which exceeds its capacity to function merely as a transmission channel. Furthermore, if the flow of information from the environment grossly exceeds this channel capacity, then an efficient way available for the regulator to assure system survival in the long run is to develop, through natural selection, for example, a capacity for reducing the effective inflow of new information by finding data redundancies in the environment. Such a capacity, in principle, is identical with ability to discover the natural laws operative in the environment. Such laws allow the system’s regulator to replace large quantities of inflowing data by a relatively small volume of appropriately coded stored information.
‘This model suggests that the basic human intellectual propensity to study and understand the environment, and to reduce its complexity by correlations and natural laws, may be no more than the necessary physical result of the need for a biological system to regulate itself adequately in an environment so complex that the inflow of new data greatly exceeds the information channel capacity of its central nervous system. On the basis of this model, we can view the non-scientific varieties of creative activity, for example, as being biologically justified by need for play with the environment undertaken by the organism essentially involuntarily, to help maintain its regulatory and information-processing system in an optimum operating condition.’
Although one might suspect that J. Barzun would consider Golovin’s model another example of Science: The Glorious Entertainment 10, Golovin is, in my view, at least making a positive attempt to assist our understanding of an extremely complicated process.
My work in the fields of the engineering sciences and visual arts leads me to support the view that in both these fields the ‘creative’ process is basically similar, even though their objectives are so different. There are other differences, however, that seem to me to bear consideration.
It would be most interesting to compare the differences between the educational processes used in good modern post-secondary schools to prepare the hands and minds of scientists and of creative visual artists. I will, however, limit myself to describing the differences I have noted between the modes of work and outlook of mature artists and scientists.
References to previous work
There is a good tradition in the sciences that, before one begins work on a problem or the design of a device, one should study systematically the available technical literature, in order to minimise duplication. If the work is undertaken because it appears to have sufficient significance, then, when it is completed, a report is written for publication in which the author is expected not only to describe what he has done and how he did it, but also to cite references of other pertinent works.
In the arts a very different situation obtains. Not only are examples of other artists, especially contemporary ones, seldom studied in depth before an artist begins his work : the ethics of his profession do not demand of him that he give credit to previous related works. Partly for this reason, art is said to be non-accumulative, and replication takes on the aura of creating prime objects, since the artist places only his own signature on his product. 11
In the sciences, which are so heavily dependent on the sense of vision, it is nevertheless expected that a written report be prepared by the one who carried out a piece of work. In the visual arts the artists are generally mute, and instead a separate class of verbalisers has arisen which not only informs the public and other artists of current artistic work, but actually writes about what a particular artist was trying to do and how he did it without, in most cases, consulting the artist himself.
The number of cases of artists writing about their own work is not very great. Some information coming directly from artists can be gleaned from personal letters, manifestos and interviews. If, when an artist exhibits his work, a catalogue is prepared, the introduction is rarely written by him. Art journals dealing with contemporary work seldom turn to the artists themselves, but instead obtain second-hand reports, which the artists look upon with whimsy.
The strange idea has taken root in the visual arts that it is immodest for an artist to write about his own work, perhaps because articles on art tend to be exhortative literary efforts rather than straightforward reports. In a scientific report, clarity and conciseness are considered of much greater importance than literary quality; and a feeling is developing that the more a scientific paper approaches literary art the more it diverges from the truth.
Another strong tradition that has developed in the sciences is for workers with similar interests to meet together and exchange views. This is done frequently, in spite of the fact that scientists have personality traits as diverse as artists, and that much of science at this stage in the world’s development is carried out under the shadow of various forms of secrecy. This tradition among artists is still in its infancy. Those of us who have been working with kinetic art go to the extent of showing examples of our artifacts in group exhibitions, but advantage is not taken on these occasions for the participating artists to meet together to discuss their work.
Nevertheless there is a danger of artists blindly imitating the modes of work of science. An example is the recent attempt to form teams of artists to make kinetic art objects. In the sciences, whether it be experimental studies in nuclear physics or the design and construction of a rocket vehicle to explore the space environment, the complexity of the ventures and the variety of skills required, which exceed those that any one individual can possess, have led to the formation of teams of specialists. These teams can be credited with significant achievements.
There is a justification for the use of the team approach in kinetic art when the art object to be created is sufficiently complex to require specialists of different skills. This is the case, for example, with the design of an audio-kinetic art device which requires the solution of problems of electronics, electric lighting, mechanical drives, and, of course, aesthetics. Since the objective of the device is to be an object of art, the output of the device must be conceived and executed by an artist. Since the senses of hearing and vision are involved, the artistic leader of the team needs talents similar to the composer of opera.
Teams of mature artists formed to execute conceptually simple artifacts are of doubtful value. The painter’s atelier of old was not a grouping of highly creative artists, but rather an apprentice system for education and training. If, as is being attempted today, a team of artists of similar skills is brought together primarily to assemble an object containing myriads of similar pieces, then it appears to me that the team conception is being abused. The artist who conceived the object, if lie cannot carry out all the labour involved himself, would do better to use the help of artisans who have no artistic ambition. Team work both in scientific and in artistic work is basically uncongenial to men with original, adventurous and nonconformist minds. Stresses and strains soon develop in such teams, for it is difficult for individuals of this type of temperament to work together toward a common objective. 12
An experiment in the sciences is made to discover new phenomena, to study the behaviour of matter in its various forms, to verify the validity of hypotheses, to help in the development of new useful devices, etc. The validity of scientific and technical work is finally determined by experiment, to sec that the truth of facts is not violated.
The word ‘experiment’ has worked its way into the field of art, with peculiar connotations. If a work of an artist is appreciably different from preceding widely accepted art objects, it is highly probable that the new work will be classified as ‘experimental’. Then a miracle may take place, for without the artist modifying his work in any way, with the passage of time it is reclassified as a masterpiece. In the world of art it would perhaps be more appropriate to call the consumers of art ‘experimental’, since it is they who have so many times modified their view of an artist’s work.
When an artist permits a work to leave his studio he feels he has accomplished a synthesis of unity in variety which satisfies him. He takes the risk that other people may not find his work aesthetically satisfying. There is small likelihood that an artist would complete a single work in his lifetime, if he considered it to be an ‘experiment’ after it left his studio, subject to modification on the basis of criticisms made of it.
While in the process of making a work the artist might be said to ‘experiment’ with his own sensibilities. When he reaches a point where he feels a work satisfies him, his ‘experimentation’ has ceased.
The results of experiments in psychology and physiology on the reaction of the human senses to stimuli, are certain to be used more and more by the artist, as, for example, the results of studies in gestalt psychology and optical illusion have already been utilised.
A recent impact of experimental science, of dubious character, on the visual arts consists of artists presenting demonstrations of physical phenomena as works of art. These include magnetism, polarisation of light, the breaking of light into its colour spectrum with a prism, the flow of liquids, movement of various kinds, etc. The artist provides only a frame or a base for supporting the equipment devised in a laboratory. The transfiguration of the phenomenon-producing apparatus into an art-object is accomplished by merely passing it through the door of an art gallery.
There is no doubt that these various physical phenomena, which during the last hundred years or so have become readily reproducible and controllable, will be applied in the visual arts to broaden the range of aesthetic experience. The lag in their use by artists is perhaps due only to the estrangement between the arts and the sciences, which is now slowly being overcome.
Abstraction, invention and illusion
One of the most powerful features of the scientific method is the process of abstraction, which is as old as man. It has been found that enormous progress can be made in understanding the workings of the universe, and in devising useful things for man, when complex problems are simplified. The results obtained through the use of this process must be submitted to experimental verification to determine if the truth of facts has been adequately met to make them valuable.
In the visual arts, abstraction cannot be avoided, for the simple reason that an art object is not made of the same materials as the meaningful content represented. It is a linguistic misfortune that the word ‘abstract’ in the world of art has been given to a special class of artifacts. Confusion is further compounded when the word ‘non-representational’ is used as a synonym for ‘abstract’ art.
‘Abstract’ art appears to connote for some artists and writers an art with no relationship whatsoever to the real world of man. I cannot recall seeing an ‘abstract’ art object which did not stem from something the eye had been exposed to in the visible universe, or seen through instrumental aids provided by one of the sciences. The artist, by using his powers of invention and illusion-making, can cause the relationship to be very tenuous indeed. Furthermore, ignorance or forgetfulness can easily lead one to believe that the content of an art-object came from nowhere but the artist’s mind. For example, if a present-day member of a stone age culture was shown an impressionistic painting of Piccadilly Circus, he would undoubtedly be sure he was seeing a pure invention of the artist -but only until he was brought to London.
The process of abstraction has led artists to make surprising statements as, for example, Mondrian, who said in his essay Natural Reality and Abstract Reality 13 in 1917: ‘The new plastic idea cannot, therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation, although the latter does always indicate the universal to a degree, or at least conceals it within. The new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour.’ Further on, he wrote: ‘We find that in nature all relations are dominated by a single primordial relation, which is defined by the opposition of two extremes. Abstract plasticism represents this primordial relation in a precise manner by means of the two positions which form the right angle. This positional relation is the most balanced of all, since it expresses in perfect harmony the relation between two extremes, and contains all other relations.’
Shades of Pythagoras ! Guy Métraux, secretary-general of the Unesco project for the scientific and cultural history of mankind, has pointed out to me that Hogarth in his Analysis of Beauty tried to prove that the curved line was the basis of all beauty.
In science abstractions take on life only when they lead to results that give a useful approximation to the reality of nature. One wonders about the life and unity in variety of a monochrome canvas. Are artistic imitations of the geometrical abstractions used in mathematics works of art? An infinite series of static paintings or constructions can be made with two lines or rods, merely by changing their positions. It is noteworthy that artists of the Renaissance, to whom the method of achieving an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface was a major concern, did not consider their studies of perspective geometry suitable for framing, for they could do more to satisfy their sensibilities in their paintings and frescoes.
In the arts the power of invention is in some ways much freer than in the sciences, for an art-object need obey no laws of nature. An aerodynamicist will not complain if a satisfying painting of an aircraft violates established principles of design. No-one has grounds for objection when Dali paints an image of a watch unlike one that could be made for useful purposes. It is not expected that a house will be constructed from an impressionist or cubist painting of one.
The possibility of creating illusions and multiple meanings within a work offers the artist another avenue of freedom, whereas in the sciences the greatest care is taken to minimise these subjective manifestations. One of the hardest lessons science has had to learn is the unhappy tendency of man to delude himself in spheres where delusion can lead to very grave consequences. Furthermore, the scientist attempts to give his symbols and words single-value meanings - not always an easy matter when one is probing the unknown.
I wonder if the comparison I drew between the present state of aesthetics and meteorology, as regards predictive power, is fair. The natural sciences test on the fundamental premise that nature is governed by laws; that is, there is order, regularity and unity in nature, even though some of the laws may be expressed in terms of the statistical method for dealing with complex phenomena, and situations involving uncertainty and chance. Is it possible to construct an aesthetic theory capable of predicting into the future the effect a work of art will have on people under anticipated conditions of life?
Thomas Munro, dean of American aestheticians, in his Evolution in the Arts 14 writes: ‘Yet the task is not impossible. People and their responses are not completely different or unpredictable. Within a certain culture at least, one can sometimes predict with fair success what the most common response will be in persons of a given type. Dealers, publishers, film producers and the like must do so in order to make a living. The fact that prescientific aesthetic technology now seems absurd, over-simplified and rigid does not prove that it was totally false or unworkable. It seems to have worked fairly well as long as artists and their patrons willingly thought and felt in this way, and while it coincided with the general climate of baroque culture. People had not yet acquired the romantic aversion to rules and mechanical devices. These were never sufficient in themselves to guarantee good art, but could be put to good use by a Racine or J. S. Bach as a part of his total resources. If artists and critics again look more favourably on science, these eighteenth century attempts at an aesthetic technology can be corrected, developed, and refined.’
1 - The estrangement between the natural sciences and art is caused, I believe, much less by scientists, for the objectives of their work are much clearer and, although many are insensitive to works of art, they are not antagonistic to those who play with human emotions.
2 - The term ‘applied sciences’ as used here refers to those activities involving the development of new devices, techniques and processes which may require knowledge beyond that accumulated by the basic sciences. These activities differ significantly from those of technology, farming, clinical medicine and practical politics which are essentially repetitive, but none the less just as important to society as the basic and applied sciences.
3 - P.B. Medawar, Koestler's theory of the creative act in New States-man, 19 June 1964, p. 952, and 10 July 1964, p. 50.
4 - The term ‘visual arts’ as used here refers to those activities involving the making of objects which are novel from the point of view of subject matter, of method of presentation and of accepted symbolism and convention. These activities are significantly different from those of making replications with minor variations from prototype art objects, and of adapting the prototypes for practical purposes, as in advertising.
5 - George Kubler, The Shape of Time, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 26.
6 - C.H. Waddington, The Scientific Attitude, Pelican Books, 2nd ed, London, 1948, pp.24-35.
7 - J. Bronowski, Science and Human Values, Hutchinson, London, 1961, p. 27.
8 - Mark Van Doren in Creative America, The Rich Press Inc, New York 1962, p. 89, has expressed the following point of view: ‘Before the creative spirit can be communicated to the young, or to those of any age who do not have it yet, it must be defined with all possible care, lest it be misunderstood at the very outset. Misunderstanding in this case can be serious: indeed, it can be fatal to the spirit in question. And the commonest form of misunderstanding consists of supposing that man ever does create anything - that is to say, causes it to come into existence, brings into being or originates it. Man simply does not have that power, though sometimes he seems to think se. His genius and his glory lie in an altogether different direction: he is an imitator, not a creator.
... The scientist and the artist are alike in that they begin with existence, and go on from there to imitations or reconstructions of it, which by their brilliance can blind us to the fact that nothing after all has been brought into being. All that bas happened is that being itself has become clearer and more beautiful to us than it was before. This is a superb achievement, and it does not belittle man to claim that he is capable of it. Rather do we then perceive his ultimate, his incomparable distinction.’
9 - Scientific Creativity - Its Recognition and Development, edited by C. W. Taylor and F. Barron, John Wiley & Sons Inc, New York 1963, p. 12.
10 - J. Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment, Seeker & Warburg, London 1964.
11 - Cf. preface by M.A. Coler to Essays on Creativity in the Sciences, ed. M. A. Coler, New York University Press, 1963, pp. xv-xviii.
12 - F.W.Baughart and H.S.Spranker in a report on Group Influence on Creativity in Mathematics in The journal of Expcrimental Education, vol. 31, n° 257, 1963, conclude that the contribution of the group has been overly emphasised. In none of the five research studies completed did the group factor make any contribution to problem solving. On the contrary, there seems to be a consistent, if slight, advantage to solving problems alone.’
13 - Michel Seuphor, Mondrian - Life and Work, Thames and Hudson, London 1957, pp. 142-143.
14 - Thomas Munro, Evolution in the Arts, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1963, p. 401.
© Frank Malina & Leonardo/Olats