Today, few artists explicitly use the scientific method, but that doesn’t impede the public from perceiving certain works of art as being more ‘scientific’ than others. To preserve the integrity of science, however, it’s necessary to spell out the terms we use to define it.
we should not fall victim to embracing red herrings which are dressed up like science.
Our definition of science at NAPA:
Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, hypothesis formulation, experimentation, documentation, and publication (Oxford Dictionaries). Furthermore, the term science is synonymous with ‘the scientific method’, and should be regarded as an act, not a field. In short, science should be understood as a mode of inquiry and an approach to the production of knowledge.
Based on these terms, disambiguating what leads us—the public—to readily but uncritically call art ‘science’ is a matter of testing our initial impressions against the scientific method.
This sentiment is the catalyst behind this first post of a three-part series on art & science that hinges on the premise: art that people claim to be a product of science should be accompanied by evidence that justifies that claim.
Adhering to procedure
We’ve all seen it before—a sea anemone vase, a charcoal drawing of cell walls, a work of art that claims to be science but is in fact just a work of art inspired by science.
The Canadian blog “Art the Science” reinforces the common misconception that art can be science without resulting from science in action. Each of their posts that features an interview with a creator opens with the same question: “Which came first in your life, the science or the art?” The responses reveal that plenty of artists who engage with science or work under its guise do so thematically but not necessarily methodologically. The likes of “Art the Science” prompt us to look for science in subject matter but not to question procedure.
Another “Art the Science” interview question discloses a second underlying assumption regarding the way science permeates art (even though the blog’s title suggests it will disclose the reverse). “Which materials do you use to create your artworks?” communicates that science can be found in media, or tools and technology. As a case in point, the “Art the Science” blog unintentionally shines light on some ways we’re tempted to settle for thematic and technological fragments of science in art, without the expectation of finding science itself.
What we need to remind ourselves is like every other form of knowledge, science is constructed through particular procedures. The next post in this series will address how science can be properly employed to create art, but, for now, let’s dismantle the very enticing trap of equating science with technology.
Calling technology into question
“Art the Science” is not an isolated example of editorial that potentially leaves readers feeling as though they’ve just learned about some great new piece of ‘scientific art.’ Take for instance, the article “7 Ways Technology is Changing How Art is Made,” published on Smithsonian.com in 2014. Here is an example it showcases:
Like the other six examples, this work gives off an air of being very scientific; it incorporates environmental stimuli, gadgetry, and data. These three things can, of course, be understood in scientific terms. But so can all other objects or media that we find incorporated into art. Paint can be understood in the scientific terms of chemistry, and yet this does not make the paint an indicator of science, as defined above. Thus, we should not fall victim to embracing red herrings which are dressed up like science.
All art created by means of technology can be said to reflect on or have been inspired by science. That doesn’t mean that it was necessarily derived from the scientific method. When Morozov shares the documentation of the prototypes that led to this working device and formulates a statement regarding what it makes evident about pollution in Moscow, then we can call his project both art and science with conviction.
A more classic example of this art/science/technology quandary can be found in the medium of photography. When it was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a technological wonder—artistically and scientifically.
Now, photography is an agreed-upon art form. And certainly, there is a science behind how the camera captures an image, but only a portion of photographs serve to interpret science in action.
Therefore, employing technology as a tool is not the same as using science as a method.
This distinction is wonderfully illustrated by the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, which follows the inventor Tim Jenison’s efforts to prove that the photographic quality of the 17th-century Dutch painter’s masterpieces could be attributed to Vermeer having mechanical help.
Even if the conclusion that Jenison draws in the film is correct (and it would seem that it is), calling Vermeer’s paintings ‘scientific art’ wouldn’t be accurate according to the criterion of communicating documented methodology. It’s haphazard to use the word science to describe the effect of technology upon art.
Science is a mode of inquiry
In Tim’s Vermeer, Jenison follows the scientific method when he replicates Vermeer’s approach. Jenison wonders how Vermeer was able to achieve such a photographic quality in his paintings. From reading David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera, he hypothesizes that Vermeer used a mirror to monitor parts of the picture. He then builds a prototype to test this theory. After he and Steadman produce impressive oil paintings of a vase using only the technique without any classical education in the fine arts, Jenison sets out to test whether he can reproduce one of Vermeer’s famous paintings using the same procedure. He recreates the physical scene with all its objects, and during the process of painting he is able to observe how the mirror produced some anomalies in Vermeer’s work that could only be attributed to its intervention. Analyzing the final painting, Jenison, Steadman, and Hockney all draw the same conclusion—Vermeer’s sleight of hand was aided by mirrors.
In light of this, we should begin to hold artists, curators, and critics accountable when they assert that artistic objects are scientific. Only what artists do—not what they create or what they use to create it—can be called science. Vermeer’s paintings are not scientific, but Jenison’s efforts to replicate them are.
The steadfast way to argue that a work of art can be categorized as science is not to evoke subject matter or technology, but to take account of whether or not the artist used the scientific method. Through Tim’s Vermeer, we see that science is a mode of inquiry and an approach to the production of knowledge that is made explicit. Moreover, as a form of research and knowledge production, science is defined in large part by its stake in experimentation.
The discourse around art generally lacks any reference to the scientific method, so in the remaining posts of this series I will demonstrate what experimentation looks like for artists and what we should expect documentation to entail.