Saturday, July 19, 2014

On Art and Science: Prospects for an Intersection

Earlier this summer, the online magazine Sci-Art in America issued an open call inviting artists, scientists, and other interested professionals to submit their views on the nature of the relationship between art and science. Below is my response, an excerpt of which will be published in the magazine’s August issue. I want to thank Julia Buntaine, Sci-Art’s intrepid editor, for posing the question, and indeed for welcoming the wide range of (possibly contentious) responses she is sure to receive. As editor of Caldaria, I intend to pursue the question more thoroughly in a longer essay to be published here in the fall.

On Art and Science: Prospects for an Intersection
by Taney Roniger

On the face of it, art and science seem such vastly different enterprises as to appear antitheses. On the one side is a discipline fundamentally rooted in discursive reason, where, fueled by accuracy and precision, the twin engines of observation and experimentation power toward ever-greater knowledge, prediction, and control. On the other is art, a distinctly non-rational vehicle which necessarily traffics in ambiguity, mystery, and contradiction, and which depends for its success on the perpetual deferral of meaning. Both are legitimate approaches to knowing; why forge an intersection when two divergent roads seem the more natural course?

Proponents of sci-art often cite the primacy of beauty in both fields and their mutual interest in visualizing the invisible as the common denominators, and indeed as ample justification for dialogue. But perhaps the deeper link lies elsewhere. For, speaking as an artist, neither beauty nor visualization alone is what draws me to art, but rather their invocation in the service of insight.

The faculty of insight is no stranger to science. Ask any scientist and she'll tell you that it's not in the conscious work we associate with the scientific method that you'll find the genesis of scientific novelty; it's in those rare “aha” moments when, the conscious labor having prepared the house, a gift suddenly arrives at the back door of consciousness. As far as I know, no scientific account exists to explain how this happens. The unconscious (dare I say irrational?) plays no smaller role in the progress of science than it does in the arts. The wellspring of creativity is a deeply mysterious place, and one that may ultimately prove impervious to discursive reason.

The nagging question at the center of sci-art is what science stands to gain from the discourse, art's benefits being more readily apparent. Perhaps a shift in focus toward the common means by which insight is gained (i.e., the little-understood intelligence of subconscious mentation, including that of the body) might be one way to proceed, crucial as it is to both enterprises.

But let's not fool ourselves: the epistemologies of art and science are fundamentally dissimilar, and their differences should be preserved at all costs. The world needs more discursive art about as much as it needs more poetic cancer research. Rather than a merging or synthesis of the two, then, what I'd like to see develop is a mutually informed dialogue between two potentially complementary disciplines. But first: to stomp out the ignorance, for much exists on both sides.

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