How Should Scientists Look at Art?

Ever since the days of me vaguely paying attention in school to literature studies I carried around the simplistic view of scientists being apollonians and artists being dionysians. Not to say that this was expressly taught, but having been presented with an aggrandised view on the virtues of knowledge by the power of metaphor, I proceeded to (mis)understand and retreat into my sand castle of scientific study. The Apollonian and Dionysian are in fact collections of fundamental traits in humans, and therefore found in members residing on either side of the science/art divide, and contrary to what a keen highschool teacher might have suggested, imply in no way one being better than the other.

On my journey of crossing from the science to the art side, I wanted to understand why would the proponent of one be often against, or at least ignorant about, the other? Having highlighted above that one’s nature does not direct one way or the other, I need to find another strategy for analysing this problem.

I would like to reference an analysis carried out by professional musician Adam Neely in his episode on ‘What does music mean?’, where he reviewed relevant historical background and then concluded in his eloquent and dizzying way that, in spite of music not meaning anything, it results from the power of metaphor to transform the physical basis of music.

I am going to take creative writing and the visual arts of painting and drawing to subject them to the same analysis involving the physical basis and the means of eliciting consumer response. I think the issue of message is fundamental to consider for understanding the scientists’ apprehension towards these arts, and I will include it as well. Scientific knowledge values the terse argument, the communication of immediate and comprehensive information on the topic under discussion. Failing to obtain this cognitive gratification, scientists divert attention and worse, sometimes, as the public in general tend to, develop a derogatory attitude towards art.

  1. Creative writing. I don’t think there is a physical basis here. Unlike music, which can be experienced through the recognition of sound, with the exception perhaps of musicians’ ability to hear music while reading sheet music, writing is only a surrogate for speech. It records auditory information in a visual fashion. As far as eliciting response goes, I don’t think creative writing is limited to the use of trope, because unlike scientific writing, it leverages the value of the body of writing. By stripping text of any superfluous content, all possibility for it to contain meaning beyond the explicit is removed and it thus becomes just a ‘skeleton’ of writing. Furthermore, I think well-written text offers the opportunity for vicarious enjoyment of existence: you become immersed in the action and briefly, and in a limited fashion, you live inside the writing. So, next time you are reading a book and are exasperated by the author describing the colour of the sky, remember these two things: you don’t have to try to assign meaning to the colour and if the author had failed to include enough detail to create a world, you would have been reading an instruction manual.
  2. Painting and drawing. The physical basis is the obvious use of colour and tone to record an image, which we can see because of the interaction of light with matter. There is no obligation on the author’s or artwork’s part to convey meaning: art can have purely decorative purpose. What matters is that by making clever use of visual elements, the artist manages to elicit a response from the brain of the viewer and its hardwired image recognition mechanisms: light/dark contrast, bright colours for food, dark colours for the unknown, smooth/ragged shapes for comfort/discomfort, etc. Use of symbols and visual metaphor in an attempt to convey more sophisticated information is optional, and would make use of the image recognition the viewer has learnt, rather than inherited.

Having argued my way through the fact that scientists and artists are people, and that art doesn’t have to have a meaning for it to be appreciated, I can now answer the title question: There is no way for you to look at art. Just look at it! And if you don’t feel anything, don’t believe that no one else will, or that another piece of art will not bring you to feel something.

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