Art and Science

More than a decade ago I had a great time studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute for a postgrad diploma career break year.  My “extended essay” was entitled From Science to Art: The Influence on Cubism of ideas of the Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry (so there).

Re-reading it recently, I realised that the concluding paragraphs said something that lingers with me about the relationship between art and science, and an earlier part of the essay describes a framework for thinking about science in art which also stands the test of time, in my head (!),   and justifies me in my continuing belief that art has barely come close to scratching the beauty of science – the only time I can see that it has done, it appears to be accidental.  Anyway, I’m turning those two parts into a  blog here, now.  For anyone remotely interested I’ve put the whole essay up here.


A Framework for the Influence of Science on Art

It is useful to classify the ways in which Art can utilise the theory and practice of Science into four types: materials, images, ideas and insights.


The first way in which Science influences Art is in providing materials for use.  The development of coloured pigments and stable media, and technologies for reproduction without the need for expedients such as woodblock carving have facilitated the creation and development of art.  I shall not discuss this further here as the mathematical ideas under discussion in this essay do not result in new materials.  However, this category is a key element of a generic framework, as is illustrated each time an artist-in-residence at a scientific institution uses the materials of Science as a part of their work[1].


The next way in which artists can be influenced by Science is by a borrowing of the images of Science.  The fascination of artists for scientific discoveries of the human body was demonstrated recently by the exhibition Spectacular Bodies[2], for example.  Images of the graphical displays from particle accelerator experiments and photographs of cells have been modified and displayed, by artists, as artworks – for example Sandra McQueen’s Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994 (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Microscope slide of a fragment of the organ of Corti – a sensory cell in the ear (left) with S. McQueen, Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994, vitreous enamel on copper (right).

Science can add to the repertoire of images, deployed as aesthetic objects in their own right.   Where Science adds to the repertoire of concepts deployed by Art, we encounter one of the last two types of influence: ideas or insight.


Discoveries of science often, through popularisation, enter the common vocabulary as metaphors or analogies.  Chaos Theory’s description of a butterfly’s wing beat causing a hurricane on the other side of the world has entered the common vocabulary as an example of the interconnectedness of things, such as global stock exchanges[3].  In fact, in Chaos theory the butterfly’s wing beat was invoked to illustrate the extreme sensitivity of dynamic systems to their initial conditions – a different point than that of interconnectedness.  This example illustrates the fact that concepts, particularly in the popularisation of science, may stray some way from the scientific point originally being illustrated.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but such straying is highly relevant to Cubism, as we see later.

Further, an issue common to Chaos Theory, Catastrophe Theory, Complexity Theory, and even Relativity Theory is that the common understanding of the theory is unduly influenced by the English word used imperfectly to describe it.  We need to remain conscious that the idea deployed is the idea of common understanding, often re-interpreted a number of times, rather than necessarily endowing the validity of the scientific idea onto the result because we happen to use the same label[4].

I have called this category “idea” for want of a better word.  In using the term in this essay I need to exclude one possible interpretation of the “idea of science” from this category – the interpretation where the true concept of the science is deployed.  To distinguish it from the imperfectly applied idea as presented in this category, I call this “insight”.


The final way in which science can influence art is where the art exhibits a genuine scientific insight.  Simon Patterson’s Untitled of 1996 (Figure 2) depicts a periodic table of the elements with conventional symbols but with element names replaced by cosmological entities, Beryllium (Be) is replaced by Betelgeuse, for example.  This expresses a scientific insight of the connection between the very small and large, and the fact that, despite the enormous scale of the universe, it is all made of the same constituents[5].  It is interesting that this artwork is popular with scientists.  Their aesthetic response is not formalist or art-historical, it is a science-aesthetic response, and I return to this idea in my conclusion.


Figure 2.  S. Patterson, Untitled, 1996

[1] For example, I recall an artist-in-residence at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) speaking at a public meeting and telling of how he used in his sculpture a new metal alloy originally developed for use as a component of scientific apparatus.

[2] Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, Hayward Gallery, 2000-1, exh. cat. ed. M. Kemp and M. Wallace

[3] For example, A. Wileman, ‘Butterflies in Bangkok’, Management Today, May 2001, p. 91.

[4] Numerous examples of where this semantic misunderstanding has occurred for even quite highly-regarded thinkers are listed in A. Sokal and J. Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, Profile, 1998.

[5] There is evidence to suggest that this specific insight was accidental, rather than intentional: for example, Patterson has also produced works based on the periodic table where the element names are replaced by names of film stars.  In his juxtapositions of commonplace frameworks with unusual elements Patterson provokes many interesting interpretations and reactions.


Reflections on the Science/Art Interface

Science and Art are both disciplines which depend heavily on an aesthetic sense, and which create constructs of enormous beauty.  This is not immediately obvious to many, especially in the case of Science.  However, it is worth remembering that this is not obvious to many when applied to art also – particularly non-representative, or “difficult” art such as Cubist art.  Science, and much art, require for their appreciation a patient accumulation of ideas and insights, expressed in new vocabularies.  As a traveller in the foothills of both summits, occasionally glimpsing the wonders of a higher part of the mountain, I know that there is much to be gained from both disciplines.

There is an attraction, therefore, to situations where Science and Art seem to have combined in some way.  Can such combinations create a greater beauty than either discipline alone?  One such area of apparent combination {Picasso, cubism, non-euclidean geometry – Ed} has been considered in this essay.  What can we learn from this case?

Firstly, it is clear that the impact of this science on this art is relatively peripheral – it was not a central driver for the development of Cubism.  This is not a case where the art has captured scientific beauty to a great extent.  However, an appreciation of the science context augments appreciation of the art.  There are examples where the exact reverse of this situation is true, ie of science-aesthetically wonderful works which are augmented by a small amount of artistic input[1].

Secondly, the role of Princet is important.  It is increasingly common for workplaces and science institutions to have poets-, or artists-, in-residence.  Princet was a “mathematician in residence” for the bande a Picasso.  This may be an idea that has wider applicability – where are the interpreters of the wonders of Science and Mathematics for the artists of today?

Finally, I conjecture that there is an as-yet unrealised deep beauty from great art that utilises the insights (rather than just images, or analogies) of great science.  The conceptual, rather than perceptual, nature of modern art seems key to this, however it may not be possible – the beauty in Science may be inexpressible in the language of Art.  What I am seeking may be analogous to someone who appreciating the literature of his own language, and having striven to become fluent in another language the better to read the literature of that language, requests that poems be written combining both languages to achieve a higher beauty than can be expressed in either language alone.

Yet I feel that the twin summits of Art and Science, so enormous when seen from the foothills, are tiny compared to the contexts they share.  Specifically, they exist in a shared universe, share a common humanity to discover and appreciate them, and they share a common aesthetically driven approach in their development.  I am reminded of a work by Henry Moore (Figure 11).  To me the strong outer structure of this work symbolises the profound underlying connection between the fields of human endeavour, with the two small constructions, representing Art and Science, coming from what appear to be opposite sides, and painfully stretching across the interior space without touching.  If only we could connect these beautiful entities.  What a void we could fill.  What surprises we might find.


moore oval

Figure 11.  H. Moore, Oval with Points, 1970

[1] I think here of the production of fractal visual images of the Mandelbrot set and other entities uncovered by studying the rate of convergence of simple functions in the complex plane.  The level of appreciation of such items is hugely enhanced by an understanding of the underlying mathematical process.  The contribution of artists to this work has been in providing aesthetically appealing colour schemes for the display of such images – a relatively small artistic contribution in this case.

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