Monday 24 January 2011

Visual art leading research - it's not happening.

Can the production of and inspiration by visual art lead to new areas of scientific research?
It's not happening. At least not often, and not in any organized sense.

Anthropometry, 2009 © Glendon Mellow. Ink on latex gloves.

A couple of years ago while attending ScienceOnline09, I spoke to the group about my not-yet-fully-formed ideas on this matter. I said that visual art ("art", for the sake of brevity in this post) was largely parasitic on science.  It takes a lot of cues and inspiration from science, but seldom do sculpture, painting, drawing, collage or even photography give anything back.  

Some in the room were not having any of this: they cited the inspiration of film and movies, and of children's book illustrations as being catalytic to becoming interested in science in the first place.  Scientific illustration aside - and leaving aside the grand inspiration from film, which is not the type of visual art I am referring to- the field of science-art may contribute heavily to the cloud of inspiring the next generation of scientists, but it doesn't shine down, illuminating new areas of research. 

At the time, I put out a sort of open call to anyone who could think of specific examples of art leading to a new field of research.  

I've really only received one example, from paleontologist Andy Farke: 
In fact, it was art that led me down a very productive avenue of my own research. I had seen depiction after depiction of horned dinosaurs fighting each other. . .(a rendering by Bill Parsons sticks out in my mind, in particular). . .and this got me thinking. What evidence actually was there for such behavior? Could Triceratops even physically lock horns? I used scaled sculptures of Triceratops skulls (artwork in their own right) to test this idea. . .the results were published in Palaeontologia Electronica. This in turn has led to other projects (all ultimately inspired by those artistic restorations).  (Comment made here)

Since then, there have been other examples from literature, from film again, from science-fiction novels, but not visual art. And thanks to everyone who has provided these examples; it has people's minds ticking, and I appreciate that.  I so-o-o appreciate that.

I've briefly raised the issue at each ScienceOnline I've moderated a session at ('09, '10 and recently #scio11) and each time at least a few people tell me they can't let go of the idea. It's intriguing isn't it?  

But perhaps some of the fault is mine. You see, in my recent post for Scientific American's Guest Blog I criticized the idea underlying a symposium discussing "Art as a Way of Knowing".  I said that art is more a Way of Exploring. It doesn't provide new knowledge, only creates new, imaginative, metaphorical links between areas of knowledge.  And that really isn't the same as creating new knowledge, it's more a kind of visual noise, albeit a provocative, fun and challenging type of noise. 

I put wings on trilobites in my paintings. That isn't new knowledge, but it raises questions we can explore. Trilobites were aquatic arthropods that lived before wings.  Could they have evolved them? Does it recall the hoax of the Fiji Mermaid? If animals had a Creator, why are the forms only explainable through evolution? Bat wings on trilobites seem more Creator-ish.

Just because you can put two things together in a composition, doesn't mean you've created new knowledge, any more than saying "tension along the Afghanistan/Michigan border" has created new information in a sentence.

Trilobitlepidoptology, © Glendon Mellow 2008. Pencil on bristol.

Let me jump tracks for a moment.  I devour atheist blogs, and love reading about the tension between science, truth, atheism and religion.  And something that comes up a lot from both theists and atheist accommodationists is the idea that religions can provide us with special knowledge, different from that of science. Most atheists, myself include, decry this idea, it's kind of silly.  Any real knowledge found in religious scripture is either blindingly obvious from the human experience or else there by cultural artifact or accident.  

Yet so many religious sites (looks askance at BioLogos) would like to be able to claim to provide Knowledge as Important as that of science.

And so I have to ask:  am I guilty of doing the same thing?  In my quest to find and perhaps one day, create visual art that leads to new areas of scientific research, perhaps I am overestimating art as a stimulus tool. A stimulus tool able to pique working researchers to drop what they're doing and pursue a notion they had while browsing some science-art.

It may be that science-art will remain a curiosity, an homage, fanfic tributes on canvas. Contributing to lay people's curiosity is a noble thing, but I still harbour hopes that art inspired by science will one day rise to become a catalyst generator for research.  Maybe we artists don't try hard enough yet.

I could write my feelings about science-art's potential off as science-envy. Showing art is about hearing stories on what thoughts and feelings the art generates.  And hearing stories about the thoughts and feelings my art generates amongst scientists and science enthusiasts nurtures selfish noble hope that I'm somehow contributing.  

Slate fragments, © Glendon Mellow 2010.  Oil on slate.
But I want to find a way to contribute more than fragments of ideas, more than droplets to the science-inspiration cloud.

- - - - - - - - 

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow


Anonymous said...

I forwarded your question to a previous professor of mine, "Have there been any instances where art has directed the course of scientific research?"

Her response:
"The first thing that comes to mind is the context of Romantic biology
(Goethe in particular), one of many contexts in the history of science
wherein the boundaries between art and science have not been terribly
distinct, and (if we do accept some form of boundary) the realms
shaped one another mutually."

Feldspar said...

Anatomy was largely explored by artists simultaneously with science. There may be some cases with math and geometry being inspired by art although I'm not familiar with any specifics.

I guess the best example would be psychology of perception being inspired by optical illusions (eg. Escher).

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Michael: I'll have to look into Goethe and other Romantics. I thought for the most part, staying away from science was a part of the movement, but admittedly I know little about that period, other than some of the sublime landscapes being created.

Feldspar, absolutely, scientific illustration, especially the early kind was intimately related. Perhaps poor drawings and guesses prompted new research? Good one. Would love to dig out some specifics.

Escher; interesting. Thanks!

I'm working on another post compiling the few specific examples I know.

Glendon Mellow said...

At a glance (on Wikipedia) it looks to me as though Goethe influenced art with science, which is a much, much more common occurrence that led to my comments about art being a parasite toward science a couple of years back.

Glendon Mellow said...

Hmm, Escher may be the same thing: heavily influenced by mathematics, and his work later helped illustrate principles to new generations, but no examples in the quick glance I gave his history show that a piece of his art inspired a new area of research.

Marco Meredith said...

What about Da Vinci and his anatomical studies? Their always travelling round the world in art galleries, did they influence modern day medicine at all?

Glendon Mellow said...

Da Vinci may have had some influence - though I suspect much of it was limited to influencing his own work.

His anatomical explorations no doubt played a role in aiding his art, which is again, backward from the kind of influence I'm searching for.

Still, da Vinci is an intriguing figure. I'll have to go back and read some more of my art history texts. Pretty neat link of his Top 10 here.

Thanks Marco!

comandantedavid said...

This whole debate seems to hinge on the prestige that "knowledge" enjoys in a technologically sophisticated civilization. In the university setting, I've encountered lots of talk about "knowledge production", usually with the idea that every program or department is somehow contributing to this overall project. Arts and humanities often want to get on the knowledge train, usually for the sake of well-funded initiatives.

I'm with you: art doesn't lead research or produce knowledge, at least not scientific knowledge. I might argue that we have only relatively recently restricted the word "knowledge" to empirically demonstrable truths. But that etymological argument would quickly become epistemological, so...

Instead of getting into an argument about the meaning of "knowledge", I'd prefer to recuperate other categories that complement knowledge in a reciprocal relationship: understanding, reflection, and self-awareness for starters. My students always want to come out of class with a list of facts they now "know" that they didn't know before. I'd like them to be more patient readers, careful observers, and respectful dialogue partners. If I can achieve that, it will serve the goals of knowledge, along with other good ends.

Here's where I sort of disagree with you: you're choice of the word "parasitic". If the arts are parasitic, then they are beneficial parasites. Where the arts are suppressed, marginalized, or de-valued, science won't endure for long (although technicians might keep things going for a while, in the absence of proper scientists). Where the arts flourish, the spirit of inquiry and imagination that drives science (but which you rightly distinguish from knowledge as such) will also flourish.

I think this won't satisfy you (any more than the examples from film and art inspiring science have satisfied you) because you seem (like many non-scientists who admire science) to have elevated efficient and material causation over formal and final causation - not only for scientific pursuits (where I would follow Bacon and allow that prioritization) but for life in general. You say you would like your art to be a "stimulus" for science. Why a stimulus? Why not a muse? Or an invitation? Or an occasion? Should I send you a stimulus to come to my house for dinner, instead of an invitation? Do you need a good stimulus to get up in the morning, instead of a reason (coffee jokes aside!)? Do your friends represent so many stimuli, rather than sources of joy and comfort?

Well, the answer is "yes". All of those things are stimuli, IF we are doing science. But sometimes we are not doing science, and then we need other language to capture our experiences. Science is one among many human activities. It's a pretty great one, but it's not transcendent. Let yourself do art that is not "in awe" of science. Awe isn't even a scientific attitude!

"Show me a man who is NOT a parasite, and I'll say a prayer for him," said Bob Dylan.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments, David! Prestigiously knowledgeable. ;-)

I think you are closer to the mark about whether art is parasitic on science or not - I've changed my tune somewhat over the last couple of years since I first made that statement. I can see the value of art contributing to an overall cloud of inspiration toward the sciences.

I like your invitation analogy. Art certainly can be an invitation, even if not often a stimulus (or catalyst, or whatever) toward new research. Visual art can have a lot of impact when it helps us to reflect how we feel as a society about science.

(Dang, I was hoping to keep this blog a "no Bob Dylan zone" on the intertubes, but I'll let your comment stand...)

Stan Hughes said...

After teaching High School Science for 40 years I think art does paly a roll in keeping complex ideas in our minds to feed the emagination. It is the chicken and the egg thing. Which came first, science or art? For me it was science, now it is art.

Glendon Mellow said...

Sorry for the delay in your comment appearing, Stan. Any posts older than 7 days go into moderation due to a higher than normal amount of spam since 2011 began.

Interesting: I agree art does add to the 'cloud' of inspiration in science. But I still contend that direct inspiration into research is very rare for visual art.

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Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

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