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Art is not science

Michael Blowhard hits a very important nail on the head with this:

In fact, art and science have little in common. However much science is influenced by such factors as personality and culture, it’s empirically based; it’s testable. The powder goes ka-boom when a match is touched to it or it doesn’t. Actual progress is made; disputes between rival views are finally adjudicated. If you understand the science of today, you basically understand all of science. (And let’s set aside for the moment the kind of babble about “uncertainty” and “chaos” that art intellectuals love to indulge in. As far as I can tell, they’ve got no better a grasp on the scientific meaning of those terms than I do.)

In art, none of this is the case. Testable? Well, the success of “Star Wars” certainly demonstrated something about what movie audiences were ready for in the mid-’70s, but “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” has probably meant more to actual filmmakers. A lost weirdo painter (Henry Darger) is discovered and causes a sensation; a previously unknown art tradition (Tuva singing, for instance) gains notice. A prominent artist – Longfellow, for instance – is forgotten.

In the field of art, all this is normal. In science, it wouldn’t be. A great discovery remains a great discovery; and no one’s reviving the theory of phlogiston.

There were various comments afterwards trying to say that science is more like art than people think. But people (and Michael) are right and these commenters are wrong. Science is all about communal progress. Art is all about individual responses. Scientific theories compete according to which of them, in the collective opinion of the scientific community, constitutes the most progress. That science progresses, in the words of one of these commenters, “one funeral at a time” just means that scientists can be stubborn idiots, not that science is a matter of subjective individual whim. Truth, in the end, is a communal matter. The truth is what you and I and everybody else who is paying attention have, in the end, to agree about. Artistic excellence on the other hand …

One commenter even suggested that Michael Blowhard ought to read more Feyerabend. This comment is my nomination for the silliest and most potentially disastrous blog comment of the year 2002. Michael Blowhard’s brain is an important blogosphere resource, but although I’ve never met him I sense that he’s the sort of person who would read Feyerabend, just because some twat anti-philosopher of anti-science had suggested this on Blowhards. Michael might emerge from the experience mentally unscathed, but the downside risk doesn’t bear thinking about.

The importance of all this, as Michael himself explains very well, is that if you do accept that art “progresses”, then you immediately install a “taste mafia” in power who are there to tell you where art is just now, and where it’s been, and where it’s going. After all, if art is like science, that means we all must all defer to the art scientists, doesn’t it? And a vertical third finger to that. Or maybe the second finger also, Agincourt longbowman style.

Tomorrow I hope to be meeting with my Little Man who will be installing my Cullture Blog for me. So far the operation has resembled the sad time about ten years ago or so when I tried to install a shower. While this worked, it had the two standard British shower settings: Far Too Hot and Far Too Cold. Then it stopped altogether. I do hope that my Culture Blog grief is all happening now, and that soon it will start and then just get better and better the way a British shower never would.

The Blowhards have both inspired me and relaxed me about this project. They have inspired me by their very existence, and they have relaxed me by doing a proper culture blog so properly that I don’t have to worry about doing that myself and can just have some fun with my one, as and when I feel inclined.

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13 comments to Art is not science

  • The real question becomes: when and why did we allow the “NannyState” system to take over a field that has nothing to do with social contracts. Art must exist solely for individual perception.

  • Science differs from Art in that it assumes a reality that exists independent of the observer; ie, believing differently will not change the force of gravity. However, the process of individual scientific discovery may have more in common with art than scientists admit. There is certainly a creative element in placing new facts next to one another and creating a new connection between them.

    One big difference is the discipline. The scientist cannot leave facts out to create an effect. You ignore gravity at your peril if you are studying flight. The other difference is emotion. Muddled Marxist theory aside, the artist is striving for an emotional effect, and if you weep or laugh he has succeeeded. In Science, you just want the damn thing to fly.

  • Crosbie Smith

    if you do accept that art “progresses”, then you immediately install a “taste mafia” in power who are there to tell you where art is just now, and where it’s been, and where it’s going. After all, if art is like science, that means we all must all defer to the art scientists, doesn’t it?

    Hold on! What if I substitute ‘science’ for ‘art’ in that?

    if you do accept that science “progresses”, then you immediately install a “truth mafia” in power who are there to tell you where science is just now, and where it’s been, and where it’s going. After all, if science is like science, that means we all must all defer to the scientists, doesn’t it?

    Don’t much like the sound of that!

  • Defer to the scientists- I like the sound of that.

    Daryl the Mad Chemist

  • Yes, art doesn’t progress in any meaningful way. Science certainly does. As an example, I’ve tried to read mathematical texts from the 19th century, and found them practically unreadable. Everything was so inelegant, and some of the approaches were obviously pointless blind allies. This was the work of geniuses, but from my position, it looks like the work of a poor high school student. This is in no way the fault of Poincaré, Gauss, Cantor, Hilbert and all the rest. They were geniuses, but math has moved beyond them. Art, on the other hand, from 200 years ago is just as good now as it was then. Of course we don’t see the bad art from that time, but I would imagine that it’s just as bad as the bad art now.

    That’s about where the difference ends. Art and science are both creative enterprises, and facts only enter into the picture as a way of winnowing out and creating theories. Theories themselves are vulnerable to fads and such.

    Petronius writes, “The scientist cannot leave facts out to create an effect. You ignore gravity at your peril if you are studying flight. The other difference is emotion. Muddled Marxist theory aside, the artist is striving for an emotional effect, and if you weep or laugh he has succeeded. In Science, you just want the damn thing to fly.”

    This is just false, plain and simple. Every aeronautical engineer has left out facts which could be very important in a different situation (the volatility of the solvent used in the paint on the wing, for example). If a scientist were to never to leave out facts, then he would never be able to get any work done. He’d be curve-fitting to noise. As Henri Poincaré (a great physicist, philosopher of science, and mathematician) said:

    “The historian and the physicist himself must make a selection of facts. The scientist’s brain, which is only a corner of the universe will never be able to contain the whole universe; whence it follows that of the innumerable facts offered by nature, we shall leave some aside and retain others.”

    The lack of emotion is science is a myth. The fact is that science (and especially mathematics) is an aesthetic enterprise. We try to get an aesthetically pleasing theory (or theorem) to explain the data. If we can’t do that, then the paper doesn’t get published. To paraphrase G. H. Hardy, there is no place in the world for ugly science. You can’t untangle aesthetic appreciation from emotion. Mathematics is even free from the check of the real world. We can, much like poetry in verse, do whatever we want, as long as it fits certain rules, and pleases our aesthetic. Sounds an awful lot like art to me.

  • Art and science do have much in common on many levels. However, in their ultimate goals and mechanisms of operation they are utterly different. The same is the case for pure art and artisanry (i.e. manufacturing). Different goals, different methodologies, different mechanisms. Art is very much an individualistic enterprise. As much as there are broad trends, lots of borrowing and influencing, and artistic movements it ultimately comes down to individual interpretation and individual effort. Each artist has their own techniques and styles, they adapt and learn from others in ways which suit them, taking or leaving those elements of other artists’ techniques and subjects which they chose depending on their personal aesthetic. Science on the other hand is a much more collaborative process, the work of others is appropriated and passed around in whole and added to or modified according to an external aesthetic (experimental evidence). The end result of science is an ever growing collection of “scientific fact” which is “proven” with ever growing certainty.

    The process of science “embraces and extends” existing scientific work, whereas the process of art “remakes, mutates, reworks, and reinvents” existing art. Both techniques have their merits for differing needs, but the process of science is definitately much preferred for determining (as much as is possible) physical truth.

  • Indeed, art is not science.

    Though I dipped my toe into the commentary on the 2Blowhards’ site, I had no desire to wrestle at length with fans of postmodernism’s facile nihilism.

    And if I may restate the point I originally tried to make there, art history (i.e., history of art) and art criticism are really two very different enterprises: the former is a pursuit of objective truth in a way the latter is not (obvious human limitations on objectivity notwithstanding — something good historians have appreciated since long before the French made it into a cult).

  • Art progresses, but by improved techniques rather than by making individually better works. Perspective isn’t going away, even if it isn’t used for all paintings any more. Once upon a time, fictional text had to have an excuse (letters or diaries by the characters), but now it’s possible to just dive into a novel.

  • Philip Chaston

    Most of the ground on this subject has been covered well by the above commentators.

    In the article on 2blowhards, it is stated that the aesthetic response is as objective as the external facts of the artwork. This statement does seem to downplay the context within which the artwork is placed and views the response of the spectator as equally valid.

    This statement does seem to suggest that the virtuous circle between knowledge of the artwork and aesthetic appreciation does not exist. I think the author, based on the rest of the passage, did not foster this interpretation.

    The whole posting is powerful in analysing the problems of po-mo art appreciation and importing a scientific discourse.

    What alternatives are available, without employing problematic terms like objective, can be used to express these interpretive exercises? Presumably, not Gadamer’s hermeneutics?

  • “Truth, in the end, is a communal matter.” Yes. And that statement is true, and can only be true, if truth is objective. Science is “objectivist” not in the Ayn Rand sense but in the sense of, that it presupposes an objective reality that is communally shared.

    Only communal endeavors can be progressive; for individuals die.

    Conversely, art is both subjective, and individualistic. Art can never be progressive for this reason.

    There is a certain irony in “libertarian” being the label applied to objectivist, progressivist thinkers; while “progressive” is applied to subjectivist stasists.

  • Brian, I agree that science and art are fundamentally different, my ‘one funeral at a time’ comment was meant to cast a little reality on the overly rosy view of scientific progress Michael portrayed (It’s only The Truth that matters, not peoples careers!!)

    I didn’t mean to come off as using that as an argument that it is ‘like art’, just that it’s not the happy-shiny place many outside of the sciences like to think it is.

    And I’m all opposed to the ‘taste mafia’ that Michael decries.

  • I’m the idiot who recommended Feyerabend, who is emphatically NOT a facile postmodernist. I’ve explained myself at http://www.felixsalmon.com/mt-blogfiles/archives/felixsalmon/000118.html.

  • I watch big brother