Art and Science

During a recent trip to Bilbao, Spain, to teach on a course, we were treated to a guided tour of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s a spectacular building that first brought my wife and I to the city 12 years ago. Frank O. Gehry’s building stands up well and has catalysed a welcome revival of Bilbao, which was previously a run-down industrial city.

Our guide was evidently highly intelligent, and like most people of an artistic background, knew next to nothing about science (despite professing an interest). No bother, the two cultures noted by CP Snow are still in place. He liked the fact that we were scientists, and, by way of introduction, told us that he thought scientists were amongst the most interesting guests, because they come with an open mind. Well, I could vouch for the opposite at times but more pertinent, he said “I think that art and science have a lot in common, because they are both forms of investigation”. His initial compliment was well received (we all knew that we had open minds, thank you for noticing) but this proposed unification of our goals fell flat. It was only later, that I stopped to consider why.

It’s a truism. Art and science are both forms of investigation. However, it’s the scope that matters. Much of the modern art that we saw, for example, Richard Serra’s giant steel labyrinths and corridors (which I love) depends on the reaction of the observer. The pieces exist physically, but on an investigative level, they are trivial, relative to most science. The artist made a minor investigation during the construction of the piece. For most art, in general nothing physically new is attempted. In Serra’s piece, some knowledge of engineering and Newtonian physics is required to stop them falling over, and Serra also used a special type of steel that goes rusty but doesn’t decay in the long term. There’s chemistry there. The pieces were factory made and therefore interesting rather than groundbreaking in a technical sense. The “investigation” entirely depends on the observer, or the participant. In this way, visual art is like psychology, or worse, psychoanalysis. These are not sciences, but instead, subsections of life science and a construction at the boundary of literature and imagination respectively, that deal exclusively with the emotional and rational responses of the brain.

More significantly, the topic of the investigation for art would generally not exist without the participant. In science, most topics under investigation exist, and would continue to exist whether the scientist chooses to examine it or not. DNA still mutated, and the universe interacted readily with DNA, before we knew what it was. It’s not a feeling, or an emotional reaction. I don’t really care if you are frightened by spiders, by the way. I’m not. But you can’t have an emotional reaction that is relevant to base pairing.

Say what you like about art. I love art. It is ephemeral and wonderful, it speaks to our condition and moves us greatly. But it lacks the scope and rigour of science. As others have noted, the grab-bag of pop-science that has been co-opted by artists is generally trivial. Art is limited, parochial, and it deals only with what matters in your mind and that of the artist. Personal experiences are very important, but art can only discuss our reaction. Art cannot investigate the universe or much of the contents thereof. Not in the way science can.


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