Thursday, January 05, 2012

Art Is Like Science? NOT!

Why do people want to "justify" something by equating it to science or physics in particular? We have seen this "physics envy" in economics, and we have seen many crackpottery and pseudosciences that try to validate themselves by claiming that physics "explains" whatever it is that they believe in. Now along comes the practice of art!

This "practicing artist" is equating what she is doing as being similar to being a scientist.

As a practicing artist I see a lot in common with my scientific counterparts. My studio is my laboratory where I'm constantly experimenting with new materials and subjects. I wear a really messy version of a lab coat splattered with paint. I 'publish' my findings in the form of exhibitions. I even conducted an experiment on myself while painting to dissect the the creative process, which I determined to have eight stages, in one my earliest essays for HuffPost. Of course whether or not my art is predicting the next major breakthrough in physics remains to be seen.
Of course, she's only making a comparison at the superficial level here because she doesn't see things underneath that. Let's dissect this carefully, shall we?

1. My studio is my laboratory where I'm constantly experimenting with new materials and subjects. The artist is experimenting using new materials and subjects. That's the extent of it. A scientist is performing an experiment to figure out what Nature is trying to say. A scientist's experiment must produce a set of results that are REPRODUCIBLE, meaning the result is not subjective. And practically ALL scientific experiments are subjected to not only the accuracy of the instruments, but the accuracy/statistics of the results. When was the last time one sees such criteria being imposed on art?

2. I wear a really messy version of a lab coat splattered with paint.
Ignoring the really stupid statement being made here, I could also easily say that she has a lot in common to a butcher (messy coat, splattered with blood). So how come she doesn't make that comparison? And how many experimental physicists do you see wearing lab coats anyway? I don't even own one, much less, wear one!

3. I 'publish' my findings in the form of exhibitions.
This is laughable, that she would compare an art exhibitions to a scientific publication. Just think of (i) the refereeing process, (ii) the reason for a science publication (scrutiny, reproducibility by independent sources, etc..) is way different than having an art exhibition.

4. I even conducted an experiment on myself while painting to dissect the the creative process, 
How is this even similar to what scientists do is anyone's guess. We don't do an experiment on ourselves. This is not a common practice.

5. Of course whether or not my art is predicting the next major breakthrough in physics remains to be seen.
Oh, I can answer that easily. There won't be, and I'm 100% certain of that.

All of the above comparison done by the artist is based on a superficial appearance of what she thinks a scientist does. There is no attempt at understanding the what, why, and how. It is like she can't tell the difference between a mallard duck and Sesame Street's Big Bird ("oh, they both have what looks like feathers!").

People should not try to piggyback on top of science to justify what they are doing, especially when there's no justification for such comparison.



afb said...

Science is our attempt to explain nature. But explain to whom? Not just one's self. It's about influencing people. Why is source theory out of fashion? Is it fundamentally unsound? The great artists developed great technique (especially in drawing: van Gogh appeals because the drawing under the color is so good) in order to influence people. The natural world, which is the subject of science, includes people-strange creatures that we are -and the true test of understanding is influencing. The universal appeal of Rembrandt's Anna Reading her Bible is as valid statement about human nature as Dirac's equation is about electronic nature.

Heads up, Dude.

afb said...

The universal appeal of Rembrandt's "Anna Reading Her Bible" is as profound an insight into human nature as Dirac's equation is into the nature of the electron. Don't be fooled by physicists' dependence on numbers; they're just a means to an end.

Or don't you think humans are part of the natural world?

ZapperZ said...

Er.. WHAT?

Who is arguing about the value or worth of Art? I wasn't!

You seem to have missed the point of my blog post completely. I have zero interest in defending what I didn't argue.


peter-w-morgan said...

I think your point 3 is weaker than the others. Finding a gallery that will take an artist's work for an exhibition is somewhat comparable to finding an editor who will publish a paper or book. It's certainly not something that most artists find immediately easy. Although there is to my limited knowledge generally no formal refereeing by peers, gallery owners might at least be compared with journal editors. Gallery owners (and journal editors) can be idiosyncratic, but they will accept new work partly on their assessment of how it places itself relative to the existing literature and art as well as of whether they can sell it.

Just as in art, I don't take reproducibility of results in the latest PRL to be a major goal of Physicists. It's true that important experimental results will be reprised, but mostly only on the way to constructing a new experiment or as a step towards engineering, not as a goal in itself. It's only if a repetition of an experiment is different in accuracy, in methods, or in some other interesting way that we would expect to see it reported in PRL (and there'd better be the right citations). I think copying of art is not totally different.

I take an element of the scrutiny of art to be to ask whether the material and conceptual tools used by the artist represents some part of the truth of the human experience in a way that steps outside the commonplace. Some art is better than others, and to more people. There are, so to speak, equivalents in the art world of PRL. Of course truth gets harder as complexity increases.

On the whole, however, I largely agree with your take on 1, 2, 4, and 5.

ZapperZ said...

I still don't see it as being anyway similar. Gallery owner doesn't need to have any training to "judge" an art. He or she only needs to "like" it, or sees merit in showing it. This is unlike the requirement for a referee. You don't referee something you don't have any knowledge on.

Furthermore, I can do my own exhibition. Now, you can argue that this is no different than crackpots posting their stuff online, but crackpots doing such garbage is not part of the standard practice of science, whereas artists having their own exhibition is.

Art acceptance is subjective, and often based on the masses. In science, mother nature couldn't care less if the masses accept something or not. If it isn't valid, it isn't valid. There is a right and wrong answer.


sudheer s. said...

I dont think the writer is trying to "justify" anything here. .If indeed she is justifying something ,then I dont understand what she is justifying here.She is just drawing an analogy between scientists and artists.
"My studio is my laboratory where I'm constantly experimenting with new materials and subjects"
there is nothing too wrong with her statement.A scientist does constantly experiment with new materials .If you take up polymer chemistry and study the history of how various polymers like teflon .
,or vulcanised rubber were prepared ,you would see that the chemist had used indeed experimented with lots of chemicals to finally arrive at the right combination of monomers needed to create the desired polymer.
"I wear a really messy version of a lab coat splattered with paint."
physicists may not wear messy coats ,but experimental chemists , biologists, even guys like us working in engineering labs like transportation engineering labs ,where we have to work with a variety of materials from sand ,tar ,bitumen (not to mention their innumerable grades) get their coats too messy sometimes.

"I even conducted an experiment on myself while painting to dissect the the creative process,"
ok this is something not commonly done by scientists!!!

"Of course whether or not my art is predicting the next major breakthrough in physics remains to be seen."
art predicting physics breakthrough????

I think a good artist should not good science.Thats what leornado da vinci also said.He carefully studied the complete morphology of the creatures he painted.if you dont understand how the flight muscles work,how does a bird balancce itself in air,then how can u draw a flying bird accurately???how can you draw shadows accurately the science of light???
IN a way,the working of a good artist is indeed similar to the work of an scientist (if we ignore her last two statements)

ZapperZ said...

But the similarities are SUPERFICIAL!

In physics, our experiments must have an underlying theoretical understanding. You simply don't just explore something new without any kind of understanding of theoretical principles. I can shine light onto a piece of new material and get electrons out. But I need to know about the physics of the process, and the physics of the detection, to be able to interpret CORRECTLY what I'm measuring. If not, they are nothing more than stamp-collecting.

Again, that's like saying a duck and Big Bird is similar. If you are a 1-year old child, sure, they might be. But they are fundamentally different if you go beyond the naive, superficial understanding of a child.


sudheer s. said...

similarites are indeed superficial.Then similaritites between any two things like art and science can only be superficial. Even the writer may be saying that same thing.She was simply trying to draw an analogy.Not completely branding artists. Every good artist should have complete theoretical knowledge about art.If he doesnot know if a particular type of paint would work well on a type of paper or surface,(the w ay the paint reacts with the surface,will it blot??would it spread evenly??yyou cannot use water colours on newspaper or tissue paper!!!)h e is obviously not a good artist.
and yes,we are trying to say that the duck and big bird are similar. a one year would never isay that they are both similar .he would say-they dont look the same.the big bird doesnt quack.h it has large wings.its beak is stronger.
but we wouldknow they are fundamentally same.see, they both are birds.they both have gizzards. they both lay eggs.they both had the same ancestor-one flying reptile.they dont have hair on their body.they both are endothermic. etc...

ZapperZ said...

Er.. I don't think you know what a "Big Bird" is. Have you ever watched Sesame Street? Big Bird is a MUPPET! It is FUNDAMENTALLY different than a duck! A 1-year old often can't tell the difference since they are superficially similar. A 12-year old should know enough to realize that they are NOT similar!

Doing art is not the same as doing science. They are fundamentally different based on what I've argued. It doesn't diminish the importance of art, or its perceived value.


rob said... least she didn't mention the word "quantum."

Tim Cordova said...

Ahhh, more psuedo-ish relations to science for the sake of, more credibility I suppose.? At least this person sees scientists as a credible source which is more than I can say for half the "experementalists" on You tube touting claims the government and other scientists are not letting into public domain. Nice analyzing of her article.

samintheoc said...

I usually hear more often of the natural sciences as being compared to the arts. In that it is kind of a selfless endeavour. Trying to achieve perfection. My dad is an working artist. I am an aspiring physicist. He is an adamant purist. He hates commercial art. His income is solely from art. He struggles but he wont "sell out" or release a piece of work to the masses if in his eye it is unsatisfactory. And that goes beyond a bad technique. I think it is producing the ideal product or the pursuit there of regardless of the obstacles is what brings these two differnet human endeavours together.

an east coast (soon to be western) family said...

Perhaps, in addition to an analogy (or instead of), the author was using metaphor? I took the reference to be playful, lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, not at all serious. She is, after all, an artist. Take it in stride and look at the playfulness of her post. Life's too short, no? Then again, maybe you're just playing with all of us!