Response to Suzanne Anker’s question about “sci-art”

Taney Roniger/ Suzanne asks: “There is much discussion that references the term ‘sci-art.’ Where does this term come from? What is its origin?”

My understanding is that the term first appeared in popular parlance around the year 2000 in relation to the Wellcome Trust’s trailblazing sci-art program that ran from 1996 to 2006. Apparently it had been coined in the 1960s by an American artist and scientist named Bern Porter, but didn’t really catch on at the time.

I find it a somewhat problematic term. Others have been proposed (e.g., art-sci, art-science), but the main idea is the same. I often find myself wishing we could replace it with something else — something a bit less misleading — since language is notorious for perpetuating misconceptions. Perhaps someone will want to take a stab at that here?



5 Replies to “Response to Suzanne Anker’s question about “sci-art””

    1. Thanks for posting the link to the Wellcome document, Dan. Having read about the project over the summer, my impression was that a lot of the artists involved felt dissatisfied with how the scientists they worked with perceived them and, consequently, the work that was produced. A lot of them felt they’d been invited to make art *in the service of science* — i.e., as part of some kind of PR initiative geared toward making science more friendly and accessible to the general public. This is of course thoroughly consistent with some of the other art-science collaborations cited in this forum. (Jim Elkins has suggested that the problem is irreparable. Most scientists just aren’t interested in understanding art in any depth.) That said, many artists don’t seem to have a problem with serving as the handmaiden to science. Witness the recent New York Times article that was widely circulated (and lauded) among artists:

      (Perhaps it’s telling that the article appeared in the Style section?)

  1. Perhaps the debate of 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 why 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’ []. 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?

    1. Hi Michael, I think you make a great point about art working in service of society. However, there is some difficulty by the larger public in understanding the value of art past its economic merits and the general idea that it is humanity’s prime discipline for “creativity”. I keep linking the problem of not understanding art to a persistently archaic educational system that seems to be designed to generate workers rather thinkers, or “critical thinkers” for that matter.
      It is true that scientists do like art and they often have an art hobby but it seems more so, in its habitual inclination, focused on an appreciation of skill. Some scientists do make the effort to cross over and force themselves to understand art from a philosophical perspective. When in conversation with astronomers about potential projects and collaborations they do seem to grasp my artistic gibberish, but with an almost sense of surprise, as if they weren’t expecting art to go there, as in past representation or a common use of symbolism. Interestingly enough, Einstein apparently was very much a fan of the arts but strictly in the classical tradition, both music and painting. When confronted about Cubism he didn’t think much of it, despite some attempts during his time to link Cubism to the theory of relativity. The theory of Cubism to Relativity is quite fascinating to me, and if at all far fetched it still makes a great argument about Cubism being significantly more in tune with the emerging science of its time, Relativity in particular, than any other movement, especially in how the cubist picture generates a quasi tangible experience of time on the two dimensional surface. A few years ago I became very curious about the flawed perception of Cubism even by the art community which often views it as a kind of default shattered mirror effect, and less so for its deeper dimensional implications. Perhaps Picasso painted too many vases!…I’m not sure, but that story told me that it was not going to be simple to get scientists to truly grasp the abstract arts past any initial aesthetic allure. On the contrary what’s interesting is that artists do get science when it comes to its deeper quest. For some artists (like myself) the challenge is getting past the language of mathematics, but when science is discussed and presented in more philosophical terms most artists understand where that experiment or scientific theory is headed. So perhaps while scientist might be interested in art as an attitude it’s rather clear that art looks to science for a deeper understanding of nature.

  2. Hi Suzanne, good question. I didn’t know the answer so I began an internet search and so far, while my search is not conclusive, the evidence points to an old British publishing company called Sci-Art Publishers, out of Cambridge. From what I can see some books date as far back as 1927 and cover topics such as science fiction, Freudian psychoanalysis, and secularist philosophy overall. Nothing so far about the visual arts, at least as far as the book covers show. It could be a question of collective consciousness. The term may have been in the air waiting to be forged by different entities not necessarily aware of themselves? As a child I thought about the image of a melting clock several times, then I went to art school and found out a famous artist had already done that. Bummer!

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