Art meets science: Reuniting the severed cultures
Liz Else, associate editor
Art and science have increasingly come to inhabit walled-off worlds, but now the two seem to be forging new links. I asked art historian Martin Kemp what he makes of it
Unusually, you’ve been involved in both art and science for some decades. What has changed?
When I started out 40 years ago, scientific research into art and anatomy or art-science was seen as interesting but out of the ordinary. A history of art-science collaborations in the intervening years would show substantial activity around the Wellcome Trust, NESTA and a few very motivated artists and scientists, running alongside an explosion in the number of popular science books. The relatively high level of funding available now in the UK for such collaborations is unusual. My friends in the US lament the fact they don’t have equivalent funding streams.
(Image: John Baxter)
The public seem to like such collaborations. Why?
Many intelligent, motivated people were interested in art and science but found that a lot of art didn’t relate to their lives, and that a lot of science was mightily obscure. There has been a change from the time when art was about formal aesthetic values: painting was about painting, and sculpture about sculpture. Scope for addressing social issues – including science – was very limited. But over time, artists began to feel that art about art was increasingly sterile. They stopped talking to themselves and the critics, and began to tackle real-world issues. Spend a day at London’s Wellcome Collection learning about art and the brain these days, and the science becomes more accessible because it is “real” in relation to the art, not about abstract data on cortical regions. At their best, collaborations reunite things that have become radically severed.
How did art and science become severed?
If Galileo was doing cutting-edge mathematics or physics, he was clearly doing things the average artist couldn’t do. Equally, Galileo couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel. But there was a sense that he and the artists of his day inhabited adjacent territories within a continuous landscape of visual activities. Galileo was a terrific draughtsman and a member of Florence’s art academy. By the 19th century, however, a desperate desire to define art, design, engineering and the sciences as separate professional entities had set in.
Aren’t they connected at a deep level?
Yes. Some aspect of structure is involved in all the deeper dialogues between the arts and sciences. I call this shared quality “structural intuitions”, referring to the resonances between our mental structures and nature’s patterns of organisation. There are examples everywhere, from Galileo’s moon drawings to Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures.
What are the important ways in which science and art differ?
An image in art is a field for interpretation. Try as they may, artists cannot control the openness of the act of viewing. Scientists, however, try to cut down ambiguity in published work. Even if you put a work of art and a work of science in an art gallery, their functions, ultimately, are different. You can turn a “science work” into a field for viewing and interpretation, but it is very different from the intention behind the conscious making of an artwork.
What can science gain from art?
Science can derive relatively simple answers about, say, which regions of the brain are activated when we listen to music and how those regions interact. But the musician can also introduce great complexity and subtlety which give the scientist a greater sense of humility about what science can achieve. It is good for a scientist to encounter something outside the current range of testing.
Do collaborations give science more freedom?
There is definitely a virtue in transporting the scientist and the artist outside their normal constraints. But there are dangers. At its worst, you can let scientists off the leash and end up with them rushing around in a demented way in the arts, thinking they can get away with anything. I have seen scientists making statements and doing things they wouldn’t tolerate in their own area – things they would think devoid of method, sloppy, unsystematic. The freedom for the scientist and the rigour for the artist are terrific, but the artists cannot do their work the way the scientists do, nor should the scientists think that anything goes.
Are there other pitfalls?
One of the older ones is the “cuddliness syndrome”, where scientists and artists who don’t normally have much contact find they get on well when they work on a joint project. Eventually a body of work is produced, they say goodbye, go back to their other activities, and the fact that it has been warm and cuddly disguises the fact that the project, while achieving a little, does not leave a lasting impression on their lives or anybody else’s.
Can artistic creativity help us understand the nature of science?
We live in an age where science is justified by its product – a scientific world we all benefit from – while art is seen as something we don’t have to have. I feel this is part of a perverted view of both science and art. Great science comes from a burning desire to understand. The thing that gets you in the gut and makes you need to understand gets lost in the idea of scientists as servicers of a modern economy. The passion, an element of primal creativity, which exists uniquely in humans and is shared by artists and scientists, disappears.
How do artists benefit from collaborations?
In terms of the humility needed to do good art or science, the artist can learn that going into science is very demanding. There is definitely value in placing the artist in a system where, if things are done properly, the why and how of something sensory is scrutinised mutually, with great rigour. It’s also good for artists to see that while appearing as a dry set of objectivities, science is deeply imaginative, social, partial and extraordinary.
Are collaborations really about new ways of looking at the world?
There are signs that some people in arts and humanities see that. But to achieve it, we must rein in pressures on scientists so that projects like the genome project – which produce insights as vital as those from Newtonian dynamics – don’t have to resort to misleading, market-style propaganda to get funding. It would also be good if research councils had to assign some of their budgets to collaborations with at least one other council. More radically, we need to go more fluidly in and out of university during our careers. In a world where knowledge changes fast, we must get away from monolithic three or four-year degrees.
Martin Kemp, emeritus professor in the history of art at the University of Oxford, studied both art history and natural sciences. He has written and broadcast on art and science from the Renaissance to the present day, and is an expert on Leonardo da Vinci. His books include Seen/Unseen and The Human Animal in Western Art and Science
Read more: Art meets science: When worlds collaborate