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Is There a Distinction between Art and Science?

jrlewis's picture

Senior Seminar in Biology and Society

September 15, 2009

In order to better understand the role of biology in society, I would like to consider the relationship between science and other cultural objects.  Science and art are often perceived as opposing cultural objects.  These two disciplines are only superficially disparate.  At the core, they share a common moral and place in society.  The readings below are intended to help reveal the similarity between art and science by looking at examples of their overlap.  The first article is supposed to address how artist make use of recent scientific advances in their work.  The second reading addresses the issues that arise when art and science are using the same techniques.  The third reading explores art as an emergent property of scientific experiments.  Enjoy!

Some interesting quotes and images from the readings:

“The doctors, Stelarc said, were a little dubious that this was art. “They were overheard discussing, though, that perhaps they were really the artists and my body was just the canvas!” he said in an e-mail message.”

stelarc 3


stelarc 1




“Traditionally, animal breeding has been a multi-generational selection process that has sought to create pure breeds with standard form and structure, often to serve a specific performative function. As it moved from rural milieus to urban environments, breeding de-emphasized selection for behavioral attributes but continued to be driven by a notion of aesthetics anchored on visual traits and on morphological principles. Transgenic art, by contrast, offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context.”

“Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d'art, either inert or imbued with vitality.”

“Rather than accepting the move from the complexity of life processes to genetics, transgenic art gives emphasis to the social existence of organisms, and thus highlights the evolutionary continuum of physiological and behavioral characteristics between the species. The mystery and beauty of life is as great as ever when we realize our close biological kinship with other species and when we understand that from a limited set of genetic bases life has evolved on Earth with organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.”



“Above all, who is in a position to reflect on these questions, or rather, what disciplines have the tools to sort out these issues? Do we call on the artists or the philosophers, the anthropologists or the art historians, or do we turn to the proponents of hybrid formations like "cultural studies?" Do we rely on the genetic engineers and computer hackers to reflect on the ethical and political meaning of their work? Or do we turn to the new field called "bioethics," a profession that requires fewer credentials than we expect from a hairdresser, and which is in danger of becoming part of the publicity apparatus of the corporations whose behavior they are supposed to monitor—or as in the case of George W. Bush's Presidential Council on Bioethics, a front for the reassertion of the most traditional Christian pieties and phobias about the reproductive process?”

"Biocybernetics," then, refers not only to the field of control and communication, but to that which eludes control and refuses to communicate. In other words, I am questioning the notion that our time is adequately described as the "age of information," the "digital age," or the age of the computer, and suggesting a more complex and conflicted model, envisioning all these models of calculation and control as interlocked in a struggle with new forms of incalculability and uncontrollability, from computer viruses to terrorism.”

“Internet artists such as Lisa Jevbratt take quite seriously the metaphor of the Internet as a living organism.”

“Fused here in a single gestalt are the inseparable but contrary twins of biotechnology, constant innovation and constant obsolescence, the creation and extinction of life, reproductive cloning and the annihilation of a species.”

“My own view is that the present is, in a very real sense, even more remote from our understanding, and that we need a

"paleontology of the present," a rethinking of our condition from the perspective of deep time, in order to produce a synthesis of the arts and sciences adequate to the challenges we face.”

“Still another task is the re-articulation of what we mean by the human, by humanism, and the humanities, an inquiry in which all the things we have learned about "identity" and identity politics in the postmodern era would be applied to the ultimate question of species identity. Finally, there would be the question of the image, and the Imaginary, itself. If we are indeed living in a time of the plague of fantasies, perhaps the best cure that artists can offer is to unleash the images, in order to see where they lead us, how they go before us. A certain tactical irresponsibility with images might be just the right sort of homeopathic medicine for what plagues us.”


Brahm Devta's picture

Art and Science

Art is experience only but Science is first and new experience about(knowledge)

jrlewis's picture

Art is experience yes, great

Art is experience yes, great is new experience for both the artist and observer.  Great artwork exists in conversation with other great works of art.  This building up on knowledge is similar Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants".  The way that art and science done, the way in which the disciplines grow over time are similar.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

science/art continued

From discussion in the following Tuesday class ...

The emerging art/science interface

Art as the "attraction of what doesn't fit categories"?  But that so in much of science as well and, conversely, much of art does fit categories.  Maybe there is both "normal" and "revolutionary" forms of both science and art?

Art as more "intutive"?  But science and art both make use of the intuitive, and sometimes challenge/alter it.

Paul Grobstein's picture

science/art as distinct categories, a continuum, or ... ?

Among the things that struck me as worthy of further exploration ...

Like with male/female, there seems to significant cultural pressure to treat art and science as distinct categories, at least in our culture.  Its worth paying attention to these, both for what they may or may not tell us about the activities themselves as well as because of the problems abolishing a distinction might raise in our culture:

  • social capital is much more readily made available for science than for art
  • science is much more readily felt to yield something "useful" than is art
  • science is much more identified with "progress" than is art
  • scientists are more held to a "social obligation" than are artists

Some of this, interestingly, is not only culture specific but time-specific within our culture.  In many cultures, for example, art is seen as playing an important social role, often greater than science, and art and politics have in the past been more closely related in American culture (for some contemporary discussion of this interface, see Art and Politics and Guernica).  While much of contemporary perceptions treat art as local and idiosyncratic, Ernst Gombrich's classic Story of Art emphasizes "a continuous changing of traditions in which each work refers to the past and points to the future," a characterization not so different from one that might be made for science. 

If science is not about "Truth" but about observations and stories, does that bring science and art closer together?  What about the distinction between individual stories and group stories, could one make an argument that art is more about the former and science the latter?  What about a distinction between elucidation and edification, with science more concerned with the former and art with the latter?

The physicist Brian Greene recently wrote "We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."   An implication of his ambition is that we do indeed need to think differently about both science and art, but that there is still some meaningful distinction between them.  Perhaps like male and female?   Perhaps we want to replace a cultural story of sharp distinctions between art and science not with one of an equivilence between the two but rather of a spectrum between poles?  If so, what purposes what such a new story serve?  and what would the poles be? 

ttruong's picture

Usefulness of spectrum thinking

If we sit and enumerate all the differences and similarities between art and science we will come up endless lists of them. What makes them feel distinct to me is not that their differences outnumber their similarities, but that most of their differences carry more significance than their similarities. An individual can change an artistic story to suit her own interpretation of the external world or her own internal forces independent of the external world. Science cannot do this. A scientist interprets the external world; they cannot individualize those interpretations because they are dependent on the external world. On the other hand, art can simply conjure up something internal that is entirely independent of the external world. Others might "get" the artist or might not, and it's still okay. In science it is not okay. Other people must be able to see the same results if they follow the same procedures. I think there are some differences that are so important that they overshadow the similaries, putting distance between the two disciplines.

With that being said, I still think that it's effective to present the two disciplines as entities in a spectrum so that the similaries can still be accounted for. It is helpful to think about them in this sense so that students do not feel that practicing one field of discipline precludes them from success in another. You often hear people say "I'm more of a science person" or "I prefer art and creativity, so science is not for me." I think there is a misconception that by enjoying and succeeding at one discipline, one is inadequate at the supposedly opposite discipline. By thinking about art and science as entities in a spectrum that uses different degrees of various human faculties, students will be less likely to limit themselves to one or the other.

jrlewis's picture

Thanks everyone for the great

Thanks everyone for the great conversation in class this week.  It definitely helped deepen my thinking about the parallels between art and science.  One of the strongest objections my thesis that I heard was the fact that science stresses reproducibility and art originality.  However, I think it is possible to provide instances of reproducibility in art and originality in science.  For example, professional ballet dancers are expected to be able to consistently produce high quality movements.  The number of fouettes (a type of turn) that a ballerina can perform before falling shouldn’t vary significantly.  Some experimental manipulations in science require extraordinary skill and can not be easily reproduced, even by other scientists.  An experimental embryologist, Hans Spemann, used instruments constructed out of baby hair to manipulate dividing cells in vivo.  So perhaps there is an art of science and a science of art?

Lisa B.'s picture

reply to "another way science and art"

Another way art and science have fused together is in early education. One of the first science activities I remember doing in elementary school was studying the different shapes of snowflakes.

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

Another way science and art

Another way science and art have somewhat fused together is in biomimetics--the study of how structures found in nature could be extrapolated and applied to fields such as architecture, engineering, design, etc.  An article I found in Wired Science proposes a futuristic bridge structure inspired by conch shells.