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What's Art Got to Do With Science?


Photograph: Jana Chiellino, Guardian, 2015

In his review of Ryoji Ikeda’s new installation titled Supersymmetry at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media which was produced as a result of a residency at Cern in Geneva, Jonathan Jones, the art critic of the Guardian argues against the ability of art to properly deal with science or play a generative role in establishing a connection between these two worlds:

Ikeda’s installation Supersymmetry, staged in the darkened uppermost level of a multistory car park, is apparently what you get when you introduce an artist to the world’s most advanced particle research institute and its renowned Large Hadron Collider. A lot of sound and light, signifying nothing. Why does Cern want artists to respond to it anyway? On this evidence they have little to say about advanced science. Ikeda’s noisy, nervous, annoying artwork merely communicates what any layperson might feel if exposed to hardcore physics. This array of beeps, whooshes, dazzling strobes and light pulses basically seems to be rubbing its head and groaning: “Blow me, this is complicated stuff."

I strongly beg to disagree. On a basic level, if art is allowed to delve comfortably into politics, philosophy, anthropology, history, sociology and many other professional fields of knowledge and activity outside of itself, why shouldn’t it be encouraged to grapple with science?

On the other hand, even if we agree that restarting the rusty engine of collaboration between art and science might involve a lot of noise and seems pointless in the beginning, why should we deny art, with its potentials for making and spreading knowledge, a chance to get directly involved with sciences? Aren’t the huge gap separating the ethics and politics of our human world from those of the inhuman mathematical and speculative world of science the cause of the crisis that faces not just humanity but the planetary environment which has made human life and culture possible in the first place?

Don’t we really need to find out more about the complicated nature of sciences and who is more suitable than art for engaging in this demystification process?

Superconversations Day 20: Adam Kleinman responds to Mohammad Salemy, "Art After the Machines"

The collaboration between science and art is all but uncommon. Although the most obvious encounter, say, between mathematics and space has been the influence of mathematical explorations on art (Renaissance perspective and geometric abstraction and even computer art, to name the most obvious examples), we are relatively oblivious to other forms of cross influence. The ferment of great mathematical developments happens in a creative zone, not unlike that of art, frequently plagued with confusion and uncertainty. For instance: Space is greatly inaccessible to our senses, and is rediscovered though creativity. Infinite, imaginary, intangible. Incredible devices are constructed to observe objects near and far, stretching the limits of perception, but creativity accepts few boundaries. Derivatives, geometrical objects and algebraic structures, for example, are creatively conceived mathematical concepts. Mathematicians study space in an abstract way; human creativity allows them to study, without knowing limits, all the possible forms of space. The common points between art and mathematical are lie in their deep connections with human creativity, and whilst it is amateurish and naive for artists to try to mimic or explain precise mathematical ideas; art can be a great space for speculation and promulgating open thinking. Collaborations between mathematicians and artists can be of use if people believe in sharing and engaging the public in the great discoveries of science. The influence not only goes one way however: contemporary mathematical methodologies can be of great use for serious (and unprecedented) aesthetic research. If technological developments in neuroscience could potentially tell us about how the human brain is influenced and reshaped by aesthetic experiences, then I can’t understand why artists and scientists would be unwilling to collaborate.


@ManuelCorrea I would be interested in a specific list of collaborations—specific to late 20th and early 21st century art, say—you think have been fruitful. I imagine that EAT would have a place in a list. In general, let’s look at groups that have emphasized practical exchange and application of knowledge rather than the aesthetics of science.

As I understand it the author is not criticizing the project of demystifying science but Ryoji’s iteration of it. In fact, he specifically singles out Ikeda’s tendency to mystify as being the problem. I think your points are sympathetic to Jones’.


@dxb I believe Ryoji’s work is not mystifying anything, It just shows us the complicated nature of his endeavor. It is a very complicated task. We need to understand that artistic and material practices update at a much slower pace than what we are used to seeing with scientific explorations. Lets not forget that around 90 percent of the practice of mathematics has been developed in the last 40 years, parallel to that, some people believe art has been at a standstill for the last 20 years. There is even an incredible gap between artistic theory and artistic practice, specially now, forums like this one are creating information at stunning speed, and it is very unlikely that practice will catch up soon. Also I believe that in order to fully embrace a collaboration between contemporary art and science, artists would have to accept that there will be things that they need to give up. The mystification of practice (or objects) is related to an outdated modernist idea of genius.


Art and science can be intertwined into a single model. Art can come up with seemingly useless forms for future scientific purposes, allowing scientist to formulate hypotheses. Conversely, modern arts would not have emerged without the prior scientific revolution.


Aside from the pre-Socratic use of techne and the distance it registers from the modern instrumentalization of science and technology under neoliberalism, the most interesting theoretical resonances between art and science were those introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche in La Gaya Scienza, where he argues that:

science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science ‘without presuppositions’… science [is] a long-range prudence, a caution, a utility… the question ‘Why science?’ leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are ‘not moral’? …it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?

Despite how it might sound though, Nietzsche’s approach was not anti-science in the slightest, but favored a demoralized, poeticized, “Godless” science - a gay science, or joyful wisdom - in which conventional models of causality would be discarded, yet without doing the same to still-imperceptible quasi-causalities emerging from an undecidable network of multiple forces, micro, macro, and otherwise. Ikeda’s music, because it is microtonal rather than macrotonal, functions in an aural/non-aural zone (and in his visual work as well, there are many analogues) that is similarly imperceptible to that which remains so for conventional science, as Nietzsche suggests - so that many of the sounds it introduces only register “after the fact”. This registration in the future anterior however, is one that properly speaking, is passed through but not experienced directly, much as one might pass through radiation at Chernobyl but not experience the radiation at that precise moment.

Jones wants to know “Why does Cern want artists to respond to it anyway?”, when artists supposedly have so little to offer - and yet, not only are Cern’s activities centered primarily in zones that are unprecedented and thus historically unexperienced for human beings, but further, both art and science are principally concerned with artifice, the creation of the new, of the inexperienced, where it did not previously exist to be experienced at all. Aside from the fact that the LHC is a scientific artifice that reveals aspects of physics that were not previously perceptible (and one should recall here the historical definition of aesthetics as that which is fundamentally concerned with perception or the lack thereof), anyone who looks into it will quickly discover that it is also the largest single machine in the world, which itself has implications. As Virilio has deftly noted:

Technology is the vector of progress and I would say that there can be no art without criticism. An art lover is at the same time an art critic, since a taste for art implies a certain quality of judgment… for me, a technological object is first and foremost an art object: a Concorde is no different than a Cézanne painting. Until we widen this culture of technological art and its concomitant art criticism, we will not have democracy but idolatry, submission to ‘divine’ technologies… Criticism, as I envisage it, is the freedom to love… [and] there are few critics in the sphere of technology precisely because technology is not really loved: it is too dominant for that

So, with the unprecedented scale of this technological art that is the LHC, much as with the unprecedented speed and unique form of the Concorde, how do we engage in a way that treats it first and foremost as an art object, one open to engagement? How do we develop Virilio’s art criticism of technology further, so that we may be free to actually love it precisely because and perhaps only because we are free to criticize it and interact with it, to take its implications further and also to diverge from its implications - musically, visually, or otherwise? If anyone is doing this sort of thing right now, it seems perfectly clear that it is Ikeda. Jones may not understand the intensities of relationships between art and science, but that’s no excuse for simplistic denunciations of what no one else is doing quite like him, or exaltations of the great wisdom of scientists and the absolute ignorance of artists: the greatest scientists have always begun from an assumption of ignorance, of not fully-knowing, but still seeking to - which is the only reason there is anything to test, explore, or experiment with in the first place, whether in science, or in art, or otherwise.


Exactly, and it is this inhuman interface where we will find the interstices of the weird in science, more Lovecraftian than Einsteinian as the LHC and its multiplex of Hadrons reveal even more opaquely the insolidities of our “World”.
Studying medicine the art of Frank Netter and his medical illustrations and dissections were and are still held in high esteem. Taking it further the daily interpretations of brain and spine MRIs although. Mundane to the neuroradiologist could serve as a basis for delving into the anatomies of pain, morbidity, normalcy, macro, micro.
By art do we mean the visual and auditory, mainly?
Cuisine, with 3d printing, previously inconceivable dishes could come to the mind. Tastes and textures paired delicately in a dining environment of light and sound. POD Restaurant in Philadelphia steps towards this synesthetic experience.
More importantly, the interface of maths, music and science: the influence of tonality/atonality on neurobiology and psychological states. The explorations of xenharmonics presage a construction of musical forms that will do just that.
Redefinitions of space, more importantly, from the Cartesian spaces one customarily sees, one questions is the world predestinated to be seen flat, or is this the property of a Cartesian world view?
Finally, a deconstruction of the scientific method can best take place from collaboration of art and science: questions arise about the nature of this divide itself, the positivism of scientific understanding, and Quine’s attack on it via “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” open the door to quantum logics.


very hard to get the two working together, and the barriers are mostly social, not theoretical. If you as an artist have an intervention to make it’s very hard to get a hearing from scientists. But you can’t really blame the scientists for setting up professional barriers (math is a big one) because when they talk about art they are usually so far off base you are forced to put up your own.

I think Anton Ehrenzweig was on to something when he suggested there is a deep antagonism between art and science, which is not canceled by the good intentions of many scientists.
If anyone reads the post, for Ehrenzweig, artists heroically stand up against guilt and shame.


In one of the Facebook conversations about this post an older friend suggested C. P. Snow’s title: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution

This is the publication of the influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow. Its thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into the titular two cultures - namely the sciences and the humanities - and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Published in book form, Snow’s lecture was widely read and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, leading him to write a 1963 follow-up, “The Two Cultures: And a Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.”


As they stand, I believe Art mainly works with mediated images and representations while Science tries to actively analyze and change the reality that surrounds the world. Art, in this sense, is more a work towards touching the sense-perception of a subject, while Science has teleology that goes beyond sense-perception. I believe both are critical towards understanding the world in complexly different ways. This is where Jones’ review could be called unfair. Collaboration between disciplines does not just come out of thin air, but is a process that the sides involved have to actively cultivate. I think @rlinsley is right on his account of the barriers being more social than theoretical. In a sense, it reminds me of the continental vs analytic divide. Where one side takes the other to be trivializing their work (think Derrida vs Searle on Austin). It is less a matter of in the two accounts actually fit or if the appropriation of one by the other is productive and more a matter of reputation and dull territorial discussions about the nature of one’s own endeavors. In any case, the productive outcome of this comes from the synthetic approach that unites Art and Science instead of taking them as two distinct spheres that have no contact whatsoever. This “mediating” role takes the form of the discourse surrounding these endeavors, so it is automatically assigned to “critics” whose own take on the subject has to have a bare minimum of polemic (sometimes for the sake of it, not saying Jones is guilty of this, just that it happens in clickbait culture) and, more often than not, no theoretical backbone, which is crucial for analyzing the collaboration between both disciplines productively instead of polemically.

My own take on the subject is: let them develop. The task here is assembling a narrative -or an account, if you are so inclined- of the collaboration between Art and Science. A timeline here, an analysis there. Productive work will seldom come from a mostly polemical review on The Guardian. I believe Art has the right to touch on every subject it wishes, promiscuity seen as a virtue rather than a defect.


this reminds me of the word that has stayed with me from Sontag, ‘sensibility’. She, I think quite successfully points out the absurdity of all those claims which favor and mock one culture over another and basically sees the roots of the problem in industrialization ( as Flusser would suggest all these ‘universalist’ generalizations are symptoms of print industry, for most of us who don’t see nominalist side to it)

And consequently if curiosity is an item which functions in science and for many artists, what has brought us to a state which we cannot imagine two outcomes of curiosity come together. But to be honest the specific example which Guardian has chosen to me looks like one of the successful failures of collaboration of art and science. I want to imagine what is the reaction of the employees of Cern, are they supposed to feel they don’t understand why this is how it is (since all the time we were reading philosophy and looking at art they were reading maths and geometry), should they feel excluded? Do they mock it? What about a review by them on the piece?


More on the social barriers between and mutual incomprehension of scientists and artists:


As to the OP, as far as I am concerned this criticism of Ikeda’s work is symptomatic of the occult scientism which dominates much of contemporary discourse. That the author would question why Cern would want artists responding to their frightening world-historical project at all means to me that the author believes that science is the single truth-tracking mechanism in existence whatever, and that art is of little or tangential import. In some sense it is the same hoary slander of modern art my mother might come up with, along the lines of ‘well I could do that’. Ikeda’s work here depicts the horror of an utterly alien futurity, an impersonal and disturbing world of total technological abstraction, coldly proceeding into a radically uncertain space. Reminiscent in some ways of the 1st “Alien” film, the clicks, beeps, and frightening lights the author finds sophomoric indicate to me the total distance from the human of contemporary physics. Ikeda gets how terrifying Cern is, and is attempting to communicate it in visuals that average humans can grasp, not just quantum physicists. I think at bottom the author is a little insulted the art isn’t more celebratory, and focuses instead on just how disturbing it is.


Where is the motion in the still?


Oh my dear Jonathan Jones, you silly, silly lad.

You ask, why does CERN (it’s all caps by the way, so much for fact checking) want artists to respond to it, but then, instead of doing a little bit of journalistic leg work–that is, asking the very scientists, or the ground staff, or whoever the writer is invoking, but not engaging–you jump immediately to an overly generalized, and somewhat unqualified, value judgment. Oops…

Instead of empty rhetoric, (loved how you also alluded to Macbeth so as to use art to say art is useless, classic) wouldn’t it have been enlightening to not only to find out ‘why artists’, but why Ikeda, and more over, what the people at CERN thought of working with Ikeda, and likewise of the final work? Maybe they loved it, hated it, whatever, but maybe they also actually thought about it and can articulate an informed response? Yet all we get is your little rant.

I’m not at CERN, so I will not try to speak for ‘those’ people, —who are, what, dumb to want to look at art according to your sweeping statement?—however, I will speak from experience.

I have been lucky enough to work with preeminent scientists in several fields, even your beloved ‘hardcore’ physicists, whatever hardcore is supposed to mean. Some are Nobel Prize winners, some are supposedly tapped to win one, and others work at places like NASA—my uncle was the most senior scientist in astrophysics there, and I spent a lot of time in the Goddard Space Flight Center growing up. Most of the scientists I’ve spoken with are not only interested in art, they collect it, debate it, seek the company of artists, and so on. For example, a friend runs a genetics lab at Rockefeller University, which is by no means a slouchy place. In his very office, right next to his lab, is a painting about influenza; he looks to it for both inspiration and conjecture. Over lunch once—in tow with a Noble Prize winner, who is strangely married to an artist for some very odd reason, can’t be her mind, right?—he posed the question: why in America (he is from the Ukraine and was schooled in Germany), are intellectuals not interested in each others’ work no matter what discipline they are in, why are they not together discussing as they do in other places? It’s a good question, and it speaks to a desire that maybe the folks over at CERN might have—and I don’t think it’s just for passing fancy…

For another example, I worked with one of the worlds more esteemed paleontologists and evolutionary biologists on the relationship between Duchamp and Poincare, he was curious: did Duchamp really figure out something about non-Euclidian geometry? Whether or not Duchamp did, the act of questioning the work and looking at it actively created new and interesting problems for him.

Those ‘hardcore’ physicists at NASA, all they would want to talk about was fiction, theater, and cinema—you know, something about that thing called speculation. At dOCUMENTA (13) I worked with several scientists and science historians who all, in turn, worked with artists and discussed art ravenously and often collaborated with several artists through their own initiatives. Historically you can point to Einstein (who was a musician), Von Neumann (who was overly cultured), Konrad Zuse (who was a painter) and countless others… Bringing it back to today, many scientists I’ve spoken with are deeply concerned with questions of a funny thing called representation (which you botched Mr. Jones) as well, and well, you know to who they look to to think with and about that subject?

I can tell you one thing that several scientists have gripes about, and it’s not art. It’s a thing called overspecialization and the frankly dangerous idea that forms of knowledge are totally discreet and have nothing to say to each other. Likewise, many of them talk about the commercialization of knowledge, and how their research is negatively effected by stupid concerns for the market…hmmm, what other field is also concerned with that and could join with these thinkers to provide a larger and more useful critique of how we live today? Oh, I’m sorry, that would be prescriptive.

In closing, let me just say how I love how you admit that you don’t know much about the ‘language of science’. By extension, it’s obvious you don’t know much about scientific culture either…so please don’t bore us with your ignorance.*

*By the way, that is how you are supposed to use rhetorics… :wink:


Reading this Response evoked my graduate school days, lying in bed with my partner after a night of drinks, sex, listening to Jazz and discussing Fourier transforms and how these reflect each other. My mentors had all been pianists, cellists, molecular biologists, toxicologists. Each had collections of art, each well travelled, each a poet. Today I mentor, I have a collection of pieces I have curated in my travels, I have my musical and poetical avocations, as do my peers. While in my discipline personal testimonial is not regarded as strong evidence my experience would tell me that a strong scientist and a good physician has at heart an artistic foundation.

There is elegance: there is the elegant proof, the elegant experiment, the elegant analysis, the elegant diagnosis. There is an artist within each scientist, a poet in the soul of the physician.


What science can offer art is the idea that perhaps the essence of humanity is not the human as known, defined and presented by art.


While agkleinman’s post is a brilliant and efficient defence of the relationship between art and science, it seems to me that the main concerns Jonathan Jones put forward were not of an incompatibility between these two fields, nor of an impossibility of comprehension of the workings of art by scientists (and vice-versa). While a sentence like “Why does Cern want artists to respond to it anyway?” can admittedly look that way, it seems that we should perhaps examine his real accusation, which seems to be something along the lines of ‘Is there any value to art superficially imitating the chaotic surface apparence of science without engaging with it’s realities?’

(I apologise in advance for any syntax errors/misreading of previous arguments, english is not my native language)


^This much is true, and a prescient point, AA (thanks for the kind words btw)…certainly worth unpacking. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t give Jones too much credit to quickly–his writing in general has a twinge of conservatism/elitism. Take a read, and if you read him like I, this current review should be likewise read within the context of his ‘project’.


In a comment under a Facebook conversation, Rory Rowan had this to say about the original post:

This produced an interesting discussion but Jones himself, it should be remembered, is a dreadful reactionary when it comes to aesthetics and the epistemological and political liberating dimensions of most art since the postwar period. He self-consciously seeks to position in himself in a dreary line of anti-modernist/anti-utopian curmudgeons who perpetuates an essentially anti-intellectual populism in the guise of a conservative traditionalism that laments cultural decline. This doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be engaged, indeed, it is one reason why he should be given the platform the Guardian affords him, but it should be born in mind that he is interested mostly in cultivating his own image and has chosen a path of mild-conservative reaction to do so.