Somewhat improbably, in the thick of a political climate that has both art and science under threat of irrelevance, something of a renaissance seems to be happening at their intersection. Indeed, the last several years have witnessed an unprecedented eruption of publications, programs, and websites dedicated to “sci-art,” and the number of university art departments offering courses on the subject seems to be doubling by the year. And yet, with all the talk of the “art-science convergence,” there’s been curiously little in the way of real critical discourse around the movement. While grand claims are being made on its behalf—the forging of a new epistemology, for example, synthesizing the strengths of both fields—sci-art as a genre remains woefully ill-defined. Going by the name, one might expect it to be some kind of aggregate of the two fields. But if this is so, why isn’t it being incorporated into science curricula too, let alone with anything of the zeal with which college art departments have embraced it? And if indeed it is a branch of art and not science, who, exactly, is its intended audience? What do its practitioners hope to accomplish?
As an artist whose work has been associated with the movement, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by these questions over the last few years. While a prospective partnership between the two fields is tremendously exciting, I’m somewhat dubious that today’s sci-art is living up to its implicit claim—namely, that it merges a new art with real science to the benefit of both fields. Last spring, while nursing a bad cold and feeling particularly ruminative, I posted something on social media expressing my uneasiness, speculating that perhaps art’s reach toward science might be a misplaced longing for some other kind of connection. Given the lack of criticality around the subject, I expected no response. What I got was a deluge. Apparently scores of other science-inspired artists had been harboring their ambivalence in silence, reluctant, perhaps, to challenge the institutions supporting their work. The way forward was clear: what was needed was an opportunity to engage in extended dialogue.
That dialogue finally began early last month. In partnership with the CUE Art Foundation, we hosted two live events and an online symposium featuring a group of distinguished artists, writers, curators, and scientists. Throughout the online component, readers contributed spirited comments. I also invited selected participants to submit essays for this issue of the Rail exploring their thoughts about the art-science movement. The range of responses was enormous—from impassioned statements in support of the movement to expressions of the deepest skepticism—and much of what awaits the reader here challenges many of my assumptions.
The nagging question at the center of sci-art:
While proponents of sci-art are given to citing the commonalities between the two fields (the primacy of curiosity and imagination, the thirst for disclosing the invisible) and their ostensive original unity, the impassable fact is that the two represent fundamentally dissimilar epistemological approaches: one that aspires to objective knowledge, and the other whose meaning derives from the production and transmission of tacit, or implicit, knowledge. While accuracy, precision, and discursive reason are indispensible to the one, the other tends to become sclerotic in their presence, relying instead on ambiguity, multivalence, and internal contradiction for its power. With such vastly different approaches to meaning, how can what’s essential to each remain intact in a synthesis?
The nagging question at the center of sci-art, then, is twofold. First, with the claim of “convergence,” is it really a synthesis of the two fields that’s being proposed, or something more like a complementary relationship? And if it’s the latter, what does each truly stand to gain from the partnership? On this there are some facile answers, but none withstands much critical scrutiny. On the side of art, the ostensive gains are clear: with its wealth of imagery, new technologies, and ever-more fantastical discoveries, science presents as an endless source of timely and relevant subject matter. But the images, instruments, and paraphernalia of science are no more themselves science than the trappings of an artist’s studio are the work made there. On the side of science, the superficial attractions are equally suspect: with artists’ propensity for visualization, art can serve as a powerful aid to scientific pedagogy and public outreach. But aestheticized information is not art, and most artists would balk at the idea of playing public relations specialists or “interpreters” for any field. If this is sci-art, one can’t help but ask: Whither the art? Whither the science?
But as our conference made clear, there remains much reason for hope. What makes sci-art so interesting to me—and why I care about its future—is what I believe it represents. First and foremost, it is a rejection of postmodernism, for which all truth was relative and science just one of many ways of knowing. It’s also very clearly a move back to sincerity, as irony and cynicism are almost wholly absent from its corpus. But most promising, it seems to me, is its move out into the world—its re-engagement with the real—in search of a more influential and authoritative role in culture. After decades of self-imposed hermeticism underwritten and perpetuated by an impenetrable language, art longs once again to matter in the world. The cultural authority enjoyed by science may be part of the attraction, but no real partnership is based on emulation. If symmetry of benefit is what sci-art genuinely wants, it will have offer more than didactic art about scientific concepts or beautiful images of scientific data. It might begin by asking itself what it does that nothing else can, reclaim that thing, and then exult in bringing it out into the world.
In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), E.O. Wilson suggests that our century will be the century of synthesis, one in which the arts and humanities will be unified with the sciences toward a common purpose. It’s an ambitious claim. But with art’s tremendous power as a vehicle for tacit knowledge, it could certainly have a role to play in the transformation of our culture. And while Wilson’s vision may seem pie-in-the-sky, its urgency is well-founded: by many indications this ship is going down, and art has too much to offer in the way of wisdom to just stand around watching it happen.
To read the symposium transcript and contribute to the dialogue, please visit: strangeattractors.cueartfoundation.com. Many thanks to the staff of CUE Art Foundation for co-organizing this symposium. Corina Larkin, Executive Director of CUE, also helped edit these essays.