Field of Science

Art is Science, Science is Art

Guardando nel suo Figlio con l'Amore
che l'uno e l'altro etternalmente spira
lo primo e ineffabile Valore
quanto per mente e per loco si gira
con tant' ordine fé, ch'esser non puote
sanza gustar di lui chi ciò rimira.

Gazing on His Son with the Love
the One and the Other eternally breathe forth,
the inexpressible and primal Power
made with such order all things that revolve
that he who studies it, in mind and in space,
cannot but taste of Him.

---Dante Alighieri, Il Paradiso, Canto X, English translation by Robert & Jean Hollander, via the Princeton Dante Project.

I have probably been remiss in not mentioning that this week (since Saturday, in fact) is National Science Week in Australia. To mark the week, I was considering presenting daily posts on five of the foundations that I think underly the concept of science - Mathematics, Language, Art, Enquiry and Skepticism. Obviously, this didn't end up happening - if nothing else, I'm not really knowledgeable enough to comment on most of them (it's probably better I leave such things to people such as John Wilkins who are more likely to actually know what they're talking about). I would like to present one of those ideas, though, flawed as my reasoning might be - the relation between Science and Art.

In that incredible human ability to devise false dichotomies that I've spoken of before, people often imagine "the Sciences" and "the Arts" as two distinct entities, often imagined to be at odds with each other in some way. As with so many other such distinctions, this is complete rubbish. For all that they may differ in method, the ultimate aims of science and art are practically identical - the investigation and description of the world in which we find ourselves living. Interest in either field engages similar qualities - creativity, the desire to investigate and challenge boundaries, and ultimately the desire to communicate about one's findings/products with others.

Art, like Science, is a difficult concept to define, and one question that tends to come up repeatedly is how an empty room with a flickering light bulb, a statue of the Virgin Mary ensheathed in a condom, or a couple of buckets of paint dribbled randomly over a canvas by Jackson Pollock qualifies as "art". Part of the explanation is that there is more to a work of art than simply the piece itself. The movie Memoirs of a Geisha refers to such an artwork - "At the temple, there is a poem called "Loss" carved into the stone. It has three words, but the poet has scratched them out. You cannot read Loss, only feel it." The viewer's experience of the artwork is as integral to that work as the physical object itself. In the Kurt Vonnegut novel Bluebeard, the artist Rabo Karabekian keeps his last and most spectacular artwork locked up in a barn, concealed from all others until it is only revealed after his death. The obvious question is whether, had it never been found, the piece would have even qualified as art as all. I would also cite the example of an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which Edina decides to invest in art in order to establish a legacy. At the gallery, she makes it clear that she has no interest in the artistic intention of the works, only in their monetary value, so the gallery manager immediately sells her a pile of the more rubbishy abstract works - a pile of planks of wood lying against the wall, a stack of empty jam jars, a mobile constructed of coat-hangers. Later, she attempts to explain the pieces to Patsy (really, only reading out what it says in the brochure): "This is the materialisation of the psychotic's dream deciphered by a clairvoyance... hangers, it's hangers". Without the viewer engaging the artwork as an artwork, it ceases to be one - the pile of coat-hangers is merely a pile of coat-hangers. Similarly, the ultimate value of science lies in communication. Research that is conducted in private and never made public might as well have never been done at all. Just as an artist prepares their work and presents it for the appreciation and criticism of their peers, so a scientist prepares and presents their publications.

Last week I referred to Ernst's Haeckel's luxurious 1899-1904 work Kunstformen der Natur ("Artforms of Nature"), which deliberately blurred the boundary between a scientific and an artistic work. As reflected in the quote at the top of this post, one of Western Civilisation's most enduring works of Art, La Commedia of Dante Alighieri, stressed the importance of rational enquiry as long ago as the 1300s. I have spoken to a number of fellow scientists - both professional and amateur - who have described their interest in reading firsthand the works of past researchers such as Owen, Cuvier, Darwin, Cope and Marsh. In many cases, the practical significance of these works has arguably decreased over time, as their premises have been improved or superceded by later workers, but their significance and interest as historical compositions turns them into artworks in their own way.


  1. Hi,
    I'm thought that perhaps you'd enjoy these two links:

  2. Die Kunstformen is one of my particular favourites. But why won't you write those posts anyway, Chris? I can then critique you on my blog... win-win.


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