Art or science. . . or both?

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

Science and art may be processed in different parts of the brain, but there are aspects of life where they may meet in mutual benefit

‘SO GIVE ME five good reasons why I should host an artist-in- residence in my department.” The professor of neuroscience at a major London university was able to give me only a brief window in his extraordinarily busy schedule. I was offering him money for nothing, but he wasn’t sure it was worth it. Here he was, involved in a continual quest for funding essential to the important research they were undertaking – into children’s brains – and, backed up by some of the younger members of his department, here I was suggesting they take in an artist. I already knew that many scientists engaged in arts projects or even in science communication often deliberately leave this off their CVs, lest they appear frivolous and unfocused on their careers. Art? You do that in your leisure time.

So it was with some doubt that I started listing the benefits as he might see them: umm, an artist might produce images and impressions for a . . . display . . . that would elucidate the work you do, perhaps through a small exhibition . . . education activities . . . an accessible publication . . . and thereby attract public attention, and approval, and this would, indirectly, lead to a higher profile, greater understanding of the value of your research, which may, indirectly, assist your bids for more funding. An artist might produce work for your department, its reception, work rooms, to . . . er . . . enhance the ambience of the place? Visitors to your department would associate the work you do with a “cool” modern attitude, an awareness that scientific research is part of culture . . . This might attract (rich) private funders. The presence of an artist might offer you or your staff some kind of cultural grounding, a sense of perspective about the research they are engaged in, its relevance to the wider world. And as artists are, of course, visually acute, they might offer new ways of looking: at data, at images, even see things that others might not.

That was five reasons, but he didn’t seem convinced – and to be honest, neither was I. As I spoke, a series of negative examples floated through my mind – artworks engaging with science that were obscure or overly conceptual, with the capacity rather to mystify than elucidate; artworks that in a gallery might beautifully, amusingly, even disturbingly challenge the whole practice of science – the works of Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers sprang to mind – could be thought to undermine the seriousness of the work being done, offering to cynical eyes simply a weak and obvious knee-jerk irony.

Then there was actually little to see in a contemporary science-research facility: banks of computers, rows of identical Petri dishes, screens of artificially mediated data of phenomena far beyond the normal range of human vision and needing specialist knowledge to read and interpret. An artistic visual acuity might not be of much use among a constituency of expert decoders. And while many artists are bemused by the rituals of the laboratory, there is only so much satirical comment that anyone can take. If you want a considered anthropological approach, read Laboratory Life by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. Education work? Science communication? Best done by professional educators, copywriters and designers. And as for importing a bit of glamour to the place, well, visitors would be more impressed by the sight of new scanning machines, by the serious bustle of staff in white coats. And nothing could compete with the evidence of impressive results, a breakthrough in research into stroke in children, in this case.

Just for the record, however, the professor gave me the benefit of the doubt, and the residency went ahead. If it succeeded it was because the artist was intelligent, self-reliant and sociable and got a lot of support from the younger staff. The work she produced did none of the things I had promised, though it probably made a significant contribution to her personal artistic development, interested and pleased subsequent viewers and even made a small contribution to the consolidation of a new strand in arts practice. All the same, I was delighted when I learned a few years later that when there was to be a new building extension to the department, the professor had insisted that new artworks be commissioned for both public and work areas.

Was it something I said? And I wonder how he justified it to his senior management. I think in terms of the inverse question: what’s in it for the science? This is because it’s the question I am often asked and find the most difficult to answer: what do scientists get out of art-science collaboration? As an arts funder, of course, my interest has been focused on the benefit to the artists and, through them, to the wider world.

When I first became obsessed with reading science books and discovering that they were attempting to resolve the questions I had always thought belonged to “us” in the arts – Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (as in the title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting) – I wanted to expose artists to the fact that there was a whole constituency that looked at the world in a different way. Two cultures! Two opposing epistemologies! But it did not take me long to realise that many artists were already fascinated by and often extremely well informed about contemporary science – its ideas, imagery and technologies, its promises and threats – genetics and stem-cell manipulation, particle accelerators, nanotechnology, the paradoxes of quantum theory, to say nothing of environmental concerns. Fortunately, at an early stage in introducing Gulbenkian’s new art-science initiative, I started to work closely with the Wellcome Trust, then developing its SciArt programme. I was impressed not only by Wellcome’s access to some of the cleverest scientific minds but also by the fact that from the outset it employed as officers and consultants some of the cleverest minds in the art world, to ensure not just that nebulous idea of “quality” but also to make it clear that artists were not to be simply the handmaids to science. This was surely in the tradition of Henry Wellcome himself, a tribute to his wildly eclectic interpretation of “health” and “medicine”, as evident in his extraordinary collection of cultural artefacts from around the world.

WHERE DID SCIENC END and culture begin, or vice versa? Both arts and science emerge from a single human mind, though they may be processed in different compartments of the brain, areas that respond to subjective experience as opposed to objective thinking, to the need for order against the pleasure we get from disjunctive associative memories, so we can’t see both at exactly the same time, like those optical illusions where you can make out the rabbit and separately make out the duck but cannot merge the images simultaneously. And there is a profound epistemological contrast that derives from two visions of “reality”. These hark back to classical times via individuals such as the empiricist Francis Bacon, the Enlightenment philosophers (Locke, Berkely, Hume); Kant and the German idealists, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and so on. Fundamentally, these differences concern whether distinctions can be made between the act of perceiving and the object perceived. On the one side is the school of neorealism, which posits that objects and phenomena exist in themselves and can be studied rationally and empirically, independent of one’s mental state. There is an immaculate universe “out there”.

The mathematician Marcus du Sautoy describes finding consistent mathematical patterns that form palindromes, reading the same from left to right as right to left. “Knowing that a zeta function has palindromic symmetry would not be so amazing as a result in itself. It’s more that it is evidence of some deep and subtle structure at the heart of my subject which I don’t yet understand. If I can understand this palindromic symmetry I am convinced it will go hand in hand with revealing a huge vista of structure that we are currently too blind to see.”

By and large, mathematicians and physicists, even given quantum indeterminacy, hold reason-based Platonist views of an idealist universe waiting to be discovered, and while biologists operate more through Aristotlean empiricism – that we approach nature through the evidence of our senses – and Darwinian evolutionary theory, with its recognition of the happenstance of random mutation, they still believe that an ultimate coherence exists in nature.

Over in arts and humanities, however, we are much influenced by the postmodernist and phenomenalist contentions that one cannot distinguish between objects of knowledge and objects as one perceives them. Linguistic philosophy examines how basic epistemological words such as “knowledge” and “perception” are used. There is no room for an absolute here. The artist’s experience of life is unco-ordinated, dislocated, contingent, incomplete. “Art does not belong to the order of revelation,” wrote the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas. It is “the very event of observing, a descent of night, an invasion of shadow”.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” declared Theodore Adorno. Knowledge itself may do little more than reflect our capacity for persistent self-delusion, Foucault claimed. Reality shifts; it is always conditional. So much for art elucidating science.

All the same, it is possible to see both the duck and the rabbit as plausible interpretations separately, if not merging, and we should acknowledge and be pleased that we can flip our viewpoints. Such a facility may well be essential to human survival, and it is a quality that artists have in abundance: the ability to see differently according to circumstance, to interpret uniquely, radically questioning the idea of an ultimate coherence or an absolute truth.

This is a shorter version of a talk given at Imma last week by Siân Ede, author and arts director of the Gulbenkian Foundation UK

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