Sunday 11 January 2009

The diverging complexity of art and science?

At one of many topics at ScienceOnline'09 later this week, we'll be discussing the relationship of art and science.
In my last post here about this topic, blogger Eva Amsen of Expression Patterns brought up an interesting point about the possibility of diverging technical complexity in both art and science. After thinking about this lucid point for a while, I've added it to the page on the conference wiki, and added some of my own thoughts. I've left my opinions out - for now!

Here is the question from the wiki:

The local apothecary was once a place to purchase medicinal ingredients as well as painter’s pigments, (and both share the same patron Saint as a result, Saint Luke the Apostle). In the Renaissance, the techniques of medicine and science and the techniques of artists were increasing in complexity.

Today, it can be suggested that fine art has largely decreased in technical complexity, while science and medicine continue to specialize and gain complexity. Nowadays, fine art can include whole animals in formaldehyde or casts of packaging, whereas in science and technology, we can manipulate cells or visualize planets orbiting another star.

Is the modern divide in technical complexity real?

If so, is it primarily responsible for the common notion of art and science as “two cultures”?

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Anonymous said...

Art has a special connection with science and always has had that connection. As for complexity, life, both philosphically and scientifically, surpasses them all as the MOST complex. Think about it.

Glendon Mellow said...

Oh, of course! Life wins. Thanks Raptor.

The complexity of techniques for art and science may be seen in some ways as having diverged. Often they are thought of as opposites.

Could technique be to blame?

a li'l bit squishy said...

Glendon, I love your blog, your artwork and the thoughtprovoking questions that your bring forefront for me. I am anti-lurking today which means that I am commenting on every blog I read to let the writers know how much they are appreciated. Keep up the great work and I'll keep reading!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks, li'le bit!

I can understand why you are drawn to this blog. I like to paint squishy things with squishy paint.

So, naturally!

Thanks for de-lurking! It means a lot to me to know people are looking. Working with Dale on his banner was a lot of fun as well. Great guy. Better writer.

If you happen to spot me in this Canadian city, don't be shy! I'm the guy walking around with the winged trilobite tattoo on his arm.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Glendon!

I've been trying to figure out how to phrase my reaction to the science vs. art question in terms of diverging complexity with no luck -- so I'm going to go all lateral on you. My apologies.

The whole question of science vs. art, that there should be some essential opposition between the life of the intellect and that of the imagination, is a strange one to me.

I think it stems from an interesting fluke of history. If you go back, there has always been a strong connection between the arts and the sciences. An interest in both has traditionally been considered necessary to a well-rounded mind -- hence the name of my blog.

I think that the idea of a division between the arts and the sciences is the result of the establishment of... whattaya wanna call it? The academy? A tradition of higher learning? The college system?

In the academic world there is strong cause for a division between the arts and the sciences. It's not that common for a teacher to work in both fields (as in I haven't heard of it, unless you count mathematician Tom Lehrer teaching classes in humorous songwriting).

So in that world science and art are quite literally divided -- and they are in competition with one another for funds, students, and prestige.

I really think that a lot of the things that have gone so wrong in the world of art spring from science envy -- the focus on theory, analysis, and critique to the detriment of the practitioner of the arts being the worst of it.

Intellectual analysis of art has its place; so does the aesthetic appreciation of science -- but when it comes to doing the work you've got to put the horse before the cart and let the intellect be an adjunct to the senses in the arts and vice-versa in the sciences.

Oh -- as an aside, I think that if another civilization looks our culture over the sciences will be regarded as a source of beautiful images and objects at least to the degree that the arts will. I'm just saying.

Glendon Mellow said...


I was hoping to hear from you before I hopped on the plane!

You've gone possibly right to the heart of the matter. There's little intrinsically different between art and science that keeps them more apart than say, science and physical education.

Practical constraints of academia and becoming an 'expert' in a given field would also give rise to different streams of study.

It's also interesting that you mention the things that have gone wrong - and science envy as a part of it. I fully agree there is a built-up jargon (having written 5 years of essays in it)that is to some degree, unnecessarily obtuse instead of precise.

I wonder, I much of artists defining themselves as free spirits, and counter-culture warriors leads many of our peers into pseudo-scientific beliefs and superstitions.

Sean Craven said...

I think you have a point about the rejection of science being regarded as part of the rejection of the conventional.

And there are some strong subcultures that see science as a source of evil -- they're poisoning the air and they made the bomb and they're real mean to monkeys, man.

But I think much of that is just representative of the overall anti-intellectualism of our culture. (I can say that, right? North Americans with TV reception, right?)

Last semester I was referred to in class as "the kind of person who's good at math" and it seemed as if everyone pulled back a little so as to avoid contagion.

And to some degree there are artistic stereotypes that do play out in reality. A lot of driven creative people are very intuitive and not strongly oriented toward analytic thought -- I suspect a higher percentage than you'd find in the population as a whole.

And the Asperger-ish scientist isn't a complete falsehood either.

But I think that a lot of the artists and scientists that I've met are actually more similar to one another than they are to your average car-ape. There's an interest in the world, an investigative liveliness and a sense of wonder that calls to mind the best aspects of childhood.

Yeah, I've known artists who were in opposition to science but I haven't met a scientist who was dogmatically opposed to the arts - although I have run across the asshat argument that fantasy is inherently juvenile and that the real world provides all the wonder we truly need from time to time and I suppose that is in the neighborhood.

But those are personal opinions. In the real world science and art are in constant service to one another. Technology provides improved materials and opportunities, science frequently relies on artistic visualization to record and transmit information. I just don't perceive a gap or a conflict.

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