Most amalgams of art and science end up being neither. Art that considers itself a species of scientific investigation too often ends up being second-rate investigation or a badly metaphorized analogue of the process; and the kind of art that some working scientists create as an illustration of their process ends up, too often, as a clunky type of kitsch that does more to create aversion than understanding.
In spite of this, there have been ample numbers of collaborative ventures in the twenty-first century, many of which have actually created viewer encounters in which direct experience amplifies or concretizes the implications of experiment.
Sean Caulfield and Timothy Caulfield have edited a collection of essays, Imagining Science: Art, Science and Social Change, that asks blunt questions (not about aesthetics but about the appropriate parameters of the art-science encounter in various fields of investigation). David Garneau suggests that art and science are antithetical systems that meet productively only in a third field that embraces both, namely, ethics. (And we may remember, though Garneau doesn’t cite it, Wittgenstein’s “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.”) Jim Evans puts forth a view of science and art that could be embraced by sociobiologists and anthropologists and traditional aestheticians alike, though not by a good many contemporary theorists. It is worth quoting in extenso for the sheer transgressive outrageousness of its limpid (but not limp) style: “At its essence, the purpose of art is to invest our lives with meaning. While strictly practical criteria define what is and is not science, art is not shackled by such rigid criteria; it is a pure product of the human mind and culture. Its only rules are that it must evoke emotion and resonance. The universe simply ‘is’ and science is our way of knowing it. But the universe of art is infinite, defined and limited only by the human mind. We define artistic reality, as Duchamp so elegantly demonstrated with his urinal cum art. … If, one day, we finally stumble upon differently evolved beings elsewhere in our galaxy, the idea that a Hopper painting or a Beethoven sonata will deeply touch them is as unlikely as the proposition that their fundamental laws of motion will differ from ours.”
This neatly phrased binary opposition is guaranteed to get the social constructionists up in arms, or some of them, to be more accurate. But this is because social construction isn’t adequately understood by the social constructionists. Anthropologists have increasingly discovered, for example, that aesthetics exists in societies famed for not having the concept: you don’t have to use the same word as we do to be performing a similar human activity. (Borges’ famed fable about categories for animals comes to mind: “belonging to the Emperor,” “which when viewed from a great distance look like flies,” and so on. What would be shared in that case is not the categories but the human wish to make categories for dividing up the world.)
I have to come to the defense of the sociology of knowledge on this score, since my old faves Berger and Luckmann were unfairly lumped into the camp of extreme social constructionists in John R. Searle’s recent review of Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (recent indeed; in the current New York Review of Books, Sept. 24, 2009). To assert The Social Construction of Reality as in their 1966 book isn’t to say that there is no physical reality outside of social categories; it’s to say that how we think about that reality is effectively modulated through our prior assumptions and received ideas. “Relativizing the relativizers” is the logical next step.
Searle, in fact, blunders as badly as Richard Rorty in his critique of Rorty’s phrase “Given that it pays to talk about mountains….” Searle goes on, “Why does it pay? Because there really are such things, and they existed before we had the word and they will continue to exist long after we have all died. To state the facts you have to have a vocabulary. But the facts you state with that vocabulary are not dependent on the existence or usefulness of the vocabulary.”
Well, no. Actually the relative usefulness of the vocabulary depends on how you think about the protrusions from the earth’s crust we choose to call mountains. As everyone knows (so that it seems quaint that J. H. Van Den Berg made such a big deal out of it) mountains seem to have been thought of in Europe mostly as obstacles to be overcome (even when they were spiritual and metaphoric mountains) until influential paintings and literary documents made them into sublime sights to be seen and enjoyed. Geologists may find the commonplace category “mountain” disagreeably imprecise, since it raises the issue of when a sufficiently old mountain has become worn down and soil-covered enough to count as a “very high hill.” We don’t think of the high islands of Fiji as mountain tops, even though they are; mountains, in our category of ordinary usage, have to extend far above sea level, so undersea mountains that start tens of thousands of feet in the depths are discomfiting.
But the protrusions from the planet’s crust are there, regarding of how we categorize them or think about them. The protrusions are not socially constructed. Mountains are. As every cliché-user knows, we can make mountains out of molehills if we put our minds to it.
But as we also know, the categories of contemporary scientific investigation came out of the evolution of worldviews that would make sense out of finding things out in just that way, and no other. There are ample quantities of empirical investigation in which the laws of motion or the growth and decline of mountains have been interpreted in quite different ways in spite of being descriptions of the same physical processes.
And that is why, in spite of its flaws including minor grammatical errors, we may find both instruction and delight in a new...in the U.S., still forthcoming—book that is likely to disappear very quickly.
Spike Bucklow’s The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages is the wide-ranging production of a scientifically literate writer who “prefers to avoid the modern world whenever possible.” In other words, he recognizes a chemical reaction when he sees it; he simply finds it more interesting when it occurs in the metaphysical and symbological context that the medieval artists and thinkers gave to it.
The book is likely to disappear quickly because the publisher, Marion Boyars, has declared its intention to quit business after publishing its autumn list, and so far only the top list of titles have been sold to other imprints.
One hopes that Bucklow’s book will find an ongoing distribution source, because his style is straightforward and agreeable, even if sometimes specialists may quibble with a few of his conclusions. He has done considerable homework, and his bibliography contains as many references to the Journal of Chemical Education and A Glossary of Greek Fishes as to Thomas Taylor’s translation of a Neo-Platonist life of Pythagoras and the Warburg Institute’s explorations of similar arcana.
Bucklow states his conclusions as baldly as Jim Evans states his in the previous citation, and it is worth quoting a representative passage to see his method at work: “The worlds of things and thoughts came together in recipes. Colour hovers somewhere between the two worlds and it has been approached in this book so far through its tangible sources; dyes, pigments and metals—or, in the case of the non-existent metallic blues—as if the sources were tangible. But to understand the artists’ intangible world of thoughts in more depth it is necessary to take a leap of faith. …Dragonsblood is made of the mixed, coagulated blood of dragons and elephants, This might seem unlikely but appearances can be deceptive. Unlike the non-existent metallic blues, with their apparently straightforward recipes, dragonsblood actually does exist despite its distinctly implausible recipe. One might consider the pigment’s alleged origins to be poetic packages for prosaic ingredients, instructions and rules. But the poetry is not peripheral—it is central to the traditional world view.”
It is central, yes, and it is central even to world views that also do not know their own metaphors as metaphors. I could go on to discuss Michael Taussig’s vertiginous views of anthropological topics in his relatively new What Color Is the Sacred? but this little review essay has gone on too long as it is, and I have presented preliminary remarks on that book in another location.
Suffice it to note that too recently to figure in anyone’s book, the world’s oldest textiles have been discovered, and they turn out to be woven linen threads dyed in bright colors even though they almost certainly did no more than hold together animal furs in a fashion close to the cartoonists’ vision of Early Caveman. Asked by the radio interviewer why anyone would bother to find bright dye for the world’s first version of string, the anthropologist being interviewed replied to the effect that we are color-loving creatures; given the chance, we go right to it.
And that takes us so deep into Taussig’s book, and to Bucklow’s in a different way, that I had better stop right this minute.