Session 1

Leonard Shapiro/

Thoughts on the Art and Science Worlds. Is the separation as great as we think?

Artists inhabit a domain, a world they call the ‘art world’. Scientists inhabit a world they call the ‘science world’. Each of these domains has a specific language associated with it (for good reason) and the people who occupy each domain use this language to communicate with each other. However, while a particular language serves an important communicative and descriptive function within each domain, these languages can unwittingly serve to alienate those who are not familiar with the other’s domain. It is generally perceived that scientists view artists with suspicion and vice versa; a myriad of art vs science jokes and jibes attest to this divergence and ‘othering’. Artists are viewed as ‘laid-back’, ‘weird’, ‘alternative’ while scientists are viewed as ‘hard-nosed’, ‘matter-of-fact’, ‘down to earth.

Even as some scientists and artists follow a current trend to make the effort to approach each other for an embrace, they do so with the suspicion that the ‘other’ will never really be able to fit into and understand their respective domains.

Having myself inhabited the ‘art domain’ for most of my life, and still do, (I studied fine art and practice it), I more recently stepped into the ‘science world’. It was actually more of a transition that began in 1991 when I came under the influence of a philosopher who taught logic, and speeded up 4 years ago when I began teaching a multi-sensory observation method that involves haptics (touch) and drawing, to medical students to supplement their anatomy studies. I was amazed to find highly creative and quite ‘way-out’ people in this world; with the important difference that unlike many (but not all) artists I know, these scientists had their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Scientists are rooted in a discipline and universally accepted way of verifying and measuring that focuses and guides the creativity of their hypotheses that result in experiments, the conclusions of which can be replicated and applied to predictable effect in the physical world. The world of science demands (thankfully) a quantitative rigour and this is a pre-requisite for participating in it.

Artists are more rooted in science that they realize; an oil painter mixes precisely the right amount of mineral turpentine into their paint in order to achieve a specific paint viscosity. Jackson Pollock flung or dribbled paint, of various viscosities from specific distances and speeds, at his canvas to achieve a specific splatter. His paintings look haphazard and yet are more calculated in their execution than one sees at first glance.

A solution to this ‘drunken conversation’, and the beginning of a more sober one, would be for art and science to stop talking at and past each other and do something with each other. Some (not all) artists and scientists might find that they have far more in common in their ways of thinking than they previously thought they had. A more ‘sober’ exchange between art and science will require those artists who wish to contribute to the pursuit and discovery of knowledge with scientists, to apply scientific thinking and method. This is not something that all artists may wish to do, in the same way that not all scientists may wish to explore the kinds of discoveries that take place when artists explore a subject visually.

What science and art have in common is ‘creativity’; a creativity in thinking and in doing, and these are linked. Artists and scientists apply their minds (their thinking), creatively. An artist may be guided in their creative thinking by social, political, economic, environmental issues. Artists might offer commentary on these issues or solutions to these issues. If an artist works closely with a social scientist or an environmental scientist, so much the better. Alternatively, the artist would have conducted close research on a particular issue before making artistic commentary on it. On the other hand, in the painting of a traditional landscape painting on canvas, creativity in this case will refer to creative thinking around the (scientific) use of materials in the reflecting of what is observed. In science, creativity can refer to the thinking that contributes to the formation of an hypothesis to be tested.


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