Comment from reader Michael Ricciardi

Taney Roniger/ We’ve received an impassioned comment from one of our readers challenging some of the statements that have been made here. In my great appreciation for the push-back, I’m reposting his comment here for anyone who might be interested in responding. Thanks for offering your perspective, Michael!

Michael Ricciardi/ Perhaps the debate over the meaning or purpose of ‘sci-art’ results from the placing of ‘sci’ before the term ‘art’. That said, I have no problem with the term as is. Further, in no way have I ever felt that this meant “Art in the service of Science”…Consider the 2015 exhibition at the Hall of Science Museum in NYC (which I participated in) called ‘Science Inspires Art – The Brain’ [http://web.archive.org/web/20160330064431/http://www.asci.org/artikel1369.html]. The exhibition of some 40+ works included several works that were both humorous and /or questioning of cognitive (“brain”) science, and a few that appropriated the theme to explore personal issues such as mental illness. All of the works chose to explore a rather diverse field of topics or perspectives in regards to “the brain”; nothing that I saw there could be considered “Art in service to Science” I am not saying that such art does not exist, nor, that some sci-art exhibitions promote this approach (if only as an unconscious bias)…only that this is not what sci-art is (for more on my view of sci-art, see my comment under the topic ‘There is No Sci-Art’ on this blog).

Also: I would quibble a bit with the claim (above): “Most scientists just aren’t interested in understanding art in any depth”

Many scientists are in fact artists of some type (e.g., musicians, poets, painters, photographers) and many come from liberal arts (college) backgrounds before they chose to pursue their science degrees (so they do have some background in the humanities).

This view may unintentionally reinforce C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” dichotomy…when the truth is more fuzzy than that, and, increasingly, scientists (especially neuro-scientists like Dr. Anjan Chatterjee who co-curated The Brain exhibit) are seeing the tremendous value in exploring the aesthetic/poetic (and “epistemologic”) aspects of the sciences.

What is becoming even more clear (and crucial) is the need for collaborations between artists and scientists to do two main things: communicate science more effectively to the public (given the current rejection of science by the extreme political Right and Left wings), and, to “bridge’ the gap between what science is doing and what the public believes or understands about this activity (including addressing ethical concerns and future courses of societies in which science operates most forcefully). This collaborative approach may be all the more important given the advent of Artificial Intelligence and robotic automation that seems to be taking over our society.

Perhaps, if Art is “in the service of anything”…it is in the service of society, the public good…which ain’t such a bad thing, y’know?

4 Replies to “Comment from reader Michael Ricciardi”

  1. For some reason I’m having trouble with the link that takes you to the show itself. I can open the review, but I’d really like to see some images.

  2. Michael, let me first say that I absolutely love that last bit of your post. Hear, hear! I am all for more art in the service of society.

    And while I can’t legitimately opine on the show you mention (I still can’t open the link), I can nevertheless make a few general points.

    First, I’m always happy to hear about scientists who are interested in art. I acknowledge that they do exist, but it seems pretty clear they constitute a tiny minority. (This may be changing, and I hope it is, but right now I feel okay standing firm in that statement.) That said, I’m often disappointed when I discover that scientists who claim to have a more than superficial interest in art betray an understanding that is in fact rather superficial — or at best ill-informed. Take, for example, Erik Kandel, the neuroscientist at Columbia. As I’m sure you well know, he’s written extensively on the art-science nexus, most recently in his book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. While I applaud the effort to link the two different reductionisms, his knowledge about art betrays some disturbing holes. From what I can tell, he seems to think art was an all-male enterprise that ended somewhere around 1960. If he’s so interested in abstraction, you might think he’d have noticed that there’s plenty of it being made today that’s both fantastic and challenging — quite a bit of it being made by (gasp!) women. (And while I did enjoy reading his descriptions of brain processes, I find his thesis somewhat wanting, but this is another subject.) Similar betrayals of ignorance can be found in other popular sci-art books penned by scientists (e.g., Arthur I. Miller’s Colliding Worlds, Leonard Shlain’s Art and Physics). Don’t get me wrong — I’m sure these are all brilliant people. But my feeling is that anyone who’s spent his entire career immersed in science simply doesn’t have the time for an in-depth study of art. So if the scientist you cite is in fact deeply knowledgeable about art, he’s a member of a very exclusive club, and I applaud him for it.

    But here is perhaps a more interesting thing to discuss. As an artist whose work has been shown under the name of sci-art, I’ve thought long and hard about the issue of “content’ — and not without a certain amount of unease. The thing that troubles me is that I’m not so sure beautiful paintings of neurons amount to anything more than beautiful paintings of neurons. I’m not knocking beauty (I’m actually a fan). And I’m not knocking the pedagogical value of imagery that reveals the hidden structures of the world (we’re all especially fascinated by our own interiors – witness the fantastic success of mega-shows such as Body Worlds). But does it have the complexity and profundity you expect from great art? I’m somewhat dubious. It seems to me that if a work of sci-art is to meet the normal criteria for substantive art, it has to do more than show me what something looks like. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t pretend to. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves some of these difficult questions, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I’m immensely grateful for your contributions here, Michael – this is exactly why we’re here!

  3. I think there is a difference between being “interested in understanding art at any [apprecible] depth” and being willing to discuss one’s relationship to it. Not to cement the differences in perspective between science and art, but I believe it’s important to recognize the difficulty. It’s much easier when speaking with one’s partner to address someone else’s relationship than to address one’s own. In the same way, a scientist and an artist who have traditionally operated under different ground rules must look beyond their own practices. How does a scientist who must adhere rigorously to the scientific method open up to the possibility of learning from art?

  4. I’m quite sympathetic to the problem, Chris! It’s very difficult for anyone to reach beyond their cognitive habits and natural temperament to do *anything*. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I guess what I find puzzling is the presumptuousness of certain scientists when it comes to this issue; as I said somewhere earlier, it’s one thing to be interested in something foreign and to walk that shaky bridge, but quite another to presume to speak authoritatively on the subject. I’ve always been interested in neuroscience, for example. But as much as I know — and it’s got to be terribly little! — I wouldn’t dare write a book about it claiming to be some kind of authority. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were going to write that book I’d get a neuroscientist on board as my stalwart co-author.

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