On Synthesizing Art and Science by M. Pitter

It is particularly evident that art and science do not easily coalesce in thought and practice. Rarely do we link them or allow for an interaction to occur between them. These two disciplines seem to represent two opposing ends of a spectrum where the ways of thinking and practicing are understood to be fundamentally different and incompatible. Many of us are acquainted with the apparent feud between the ‘left brain’ and the ‘right brain’. Science as an activity places the observable universe on graphs, tables, in graduated cylinders, within the dull green neon of longitudinally rectangular calculator screens, structures and apparatuses that hold information based on experience and experiment. Art as an activity places the observable universe on or within media of expression such as rolls of film, canvasses, body movement, within the angles of sculpted molds, in collections of sound waves or on worded pages, entities that hold information still based on experience and experiment. Science tends to interpret the world quantitatively while art tends to interpret the world qualitatively. The two disciplines clash at the common perception that because art is understood to be fueled by creativity – driven by the imagination, by the seeming distortion of normal ‘reality’, by the cathartic efforts to communicate a sentiment to a wider audience (whoever will listen) – the principles by which artists operate cannot in any way find complements in the world of scientists, of empiricists who study nature’s phenomena, phenomena that tend not to waver from chemically or physically favored pathways, pathways composed of patterns governed by the fluctuating conditions found in nature, fundamental truths regarding the mechanisms by which our ecosystem operates.

'Calculating the Magnitude of a Magnetic Field within a Certain Area'.  credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses
‘Calculating the Magnitude of an Induced Magnetic Field within a 3cm Radius of a Circular Capacitor’. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses

What is unusually observed are the ways in which art and science deviate from their common superficial classifications. What might be seldom realized is that artists often follow certain formulae, ordered systems in the production of their work while scientists apply an art to their work through their ability to intellectually contain and communicate the logic behind the spontaneously occurring natural processes found in the physical, chemical and biological world. Scientific mechanisms can be elusive while artistic methods often follow strictly formulated pathways. This growing elasticity in how we define art and science and the approaches of involvement within the two disciplines, this emerging blur of the boundaries between art and science makes manifest the possibility of a solution capable of linking the two in a relationship or a sort of union – a union of the human effort to understand and analyze the world within which our species has become especially eminent.

 Thought and Practice in Science and Art

Art and science differ mostly when considering the thinking methods ‘required’ for each field. The overruling perception is that there is a necessary exactness in scientific thought whether the specific context be quantum mechanics, metabolic pathways, stereochemistry, polymerase chain reaction or genetic mutation. The formulation of ideas and solutions within the technical structure of these concepts requires that every single ordered detail – the details necessary in describing how these certain concepts are manifested in nature – be accounted for and that nothing is overlooked, assumed or ignored. The artist, by virtue of his or her trade, is granted a certain liberty in formulating the ideas necessary to precede the actual production of a work or the ideas necessary in analyzing an exhibition of artistic work. As each artist and scientist certainly varies from one to the next, there certainly exists this general notion that artists and scientists generally and evidently think differently when going about their work.

Professor Ruben Savizky, an alumnus and currently an associate professor of chemistry at The Cooper Union, an institution in lower Manhattan famed for its free tuition, extremely low acceptance rate and its historically missioned convergence of art and science, reckons (as most of us may) that “both scientists and artists are trying to understand the world around them and express themselves through their work” even though art may be more “subjective” while science more “exact”.  He roots the ongoing discrepancy between the two subjects in the approaches taken in introducing art and science to learning children:

“When we are growing up in school, art and science are taught very differently. For the most part, in science classes you are expected to learn the scientific method and approach ideas very methodically and logically. In art class you are expected to ‘just draw’ and then you are critiqued on your style. I think the implication is that science can be taught and art is more inherent – either you are a good artist or you aren’t.”

The way people are oriented to understand art and science shapes the cognitive methods by which they consider art and science in thought (and practice).

To translate thought into a familiar visual like the movement of fluid, let us imagine scientific thought as the flow of water through a complexly branched irrigation system used on some Monsanto-owned farm : regulated, meticulous, ordered and absolutely controlled. Thinking artistically could be visualized as smoke traveling through and then leaving a chimney: channeled towards a certain direction (upward) however, then, given permission to further occupy alternative locations in the space beyond the perimeter of the chimney opening. From the original route of upwards, the smoke can then drift upward and outward in a great variety of ways. This variety as seen in works of art is especially manifested in the differences between paintings portraying the Madonna with Child, for example. While each artist presents the basic blueprint, the image of Baby Jesus and Mother Mary, the diversity of representations reminds us that art as a craft allows for a multiplicity in appearance and delivery. The distinctions between the movements of water through an irrigation system and the movements of smoke upwards and out of a chimney are clear as visuals demonstrating the traditional concepts of ‘strict science’ vs. ‘free art’ respectively. However, within both of these metaphoric models, we can begin to see that there exists elements of both the seemingly highly structured and the seemingly undisciplined. While linking art to the chimney image may lend to Art characteristics of disorder and undisciplined folly, consider the networked complex of a smoke stack system of an industrial plant as a visual for the trajectory of artistic thought as well. And while linking the modern time-automated branched pipe irrigation system image to scientific thought lends to Science characteristics of tightly calculated certainty, picture a simple ancient Egyptian basin irrigation system to represent aspects of scientific understanding as well. As art and science are both broader topics and require broader approaches than what Western popular culture allows, let us begin to notice how amorphous our preconceived notions of each field actually tend to be.

The Science of Art and the Art of Science

As there is an ever-present technical component to the production of art, we can also see that within the structured nature of science as a subject, there still prevails an element of the capricious therein that must be matched with the necessary elastic thinking of a scientist. In a chemical reaction, the reactant itself has the potential to follow various trajectories towards a multiplicity of products depending on the conditional pressures to which the reactant is subjected. These pressures come in the literal form of electrostatic gradients of varying magnitudes and identities (positive or negative), which govern the kinetics and the ’behavior’ of a given reactant towards some intermediate and then to some product, all based on the interaction of a reactant with its environment. The multiple destinies available for a reactant to reach and the ease with which any given reactant can proceed one way as opposed to another, introduce a wild component to the manner in which chemical processes occur naturally. Loosening the notion that science follows plainly a rigid logic allows for its elusive character to be observed which might further allow people to identify the art in understanding scientific phenomena. This assertion will require a relative definition of art.

*I link elements of the capricious, the wild and the elusive to art because while these adjectives often come to describe art as an activity, the factor of genius within respected productions of art cannot be (if at all) accurately predicted or calculated, since this element of genius marks a strange deviation from the familiar. *

Before I introduce the notion that components of thought and experimentation within the realm of science require skills in artistic cognition, I will briefly introduce some technical components of producing art (‘the science of art’) and the designations of what constitutes art so that we may fit science within these designations (as a thought experiment).

Considering the ‘science of art’ is fairly simple when lending the scientific aspects of art to the systematic discipline and the measurements necessary for artistic expression. In poetry, there are stanzas, cantos, or saris, patterned in meter. Novels are divided into chapters that contain portions of a story that itself is organized as having a beginning, middle and end, with conflicts, character development, twists and the dénouement. These elements separate a written record of some random, unspecified passage of time from a complete narrative. When we listen to music there are verses, choruses and bridges positioned within specific time patterns creating a sequence that contributes to the ‘beauty’ of the song or the pleasure that it provides to the listener. This is what separates music from noise and cacophony. Even in the more avant-garde musical compositions, there is some aspect of regularity, an oscillation of chord progression(s) or some tonal element(s) that ‘come(s) and go(es)’ contributing to the structure of a ‘rhythm’ within the song affording the song the status of being considered music. (Refer to songs such as Treefingers by Radiohead, Stars by Brian Eno, Spin Cycles by Flying Lotus and After Class by Atlas Sound). Recall MC Esher’s tessellated prints, how they are completely based in geometric precision and symmetry while often distorted by fantasies of the surreal. Amidst the many genres of artistic expression, there tends to be formulas in place.

credit: Amanda Charchian of World Wide Women/In Parentheses
credit: Amanda Charchian of World Wide Women/In Parentheses

I will now site historically respected pieces of Western literature to emphasize the presence of technicalities within. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to begin comically and end tragically such as Romeo and Juliet with the two servants in the beginning spewing out bawdy banter in slander of the House of Montague and then with the two “star-crossed lovers” at the end dead in each other’s arms. Our famous playwright’s comedies begin precarious and end joyful like the Tempest when in the opening, a violent storm drives a ship to wreckage on virtually deserted island and in the end Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, marries Ferdinand, one of the shipwrecked mariners. Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, though strange in delivering the series of events and details (strange in comparison to the prominent predecessors of the Canon) often follow a certain method earning the literary madman the moniker: The Master of Suspense. In Poe’s ‘The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether’, where the narrator finds himself at the doorstep of a private insane asylum in the south of France, he begins to notice certain characteristics in his environment that gradually hint more and more that he will soon find himself in the midst of a maniacal frenzy. From noticing the “restless brilliancy about [the] eyes” of a female within the house whose sanity is questionable upon meeting her to the eerie music playing in the background at the dinner scene to the affirmation that “there was much of the bizarre about every thing [he] saw”, the narrator finally admits in the text that “a scene of the most terrible confusion ensued.” To amplify the formulaic structure within Poe’s works, I bring to the forefront another work of his entitled ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The atmosphere is grimly set in the very first sentence:

“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood.”

Following this, Poe introduces more elements of the bizarre as a method in building suspense. This construction of suspense is done systematically such that shock and awe is indeed timely achieved and made apparent to the reader. He adds that in the mansion where the masque would take place and where the Prince and his guests remained safe from the Red Death:

 “There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards [in the corridor], and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite.”

The timing and the nature of the details that Poe introduces to readers, contributing to the technical structure of the literary piece of art, create an eerie atmosphere that slowly grows in intensity until the grotesque! blooms forth on the page, satisfactorily inducing horror and/or delight in readers. Poe and Shakespeare’s strategies in story telling are quite organized and they allow for an effect to be placed on the reader which could not have happened if there wasn’t that technical skeleton supporting the prose and plot in order for its relevance to be observed by the reader. A close review of prominent works of art across media reveals that “there are limits to what the artist can do, and if he goes beyond them, his work loses validity.”[i] To further quote painter Rico LeBrun: “There is a point beyond which the human image refuses to play ball.” Returning to the chimney image as a description of artistic thinking, the imagination has liberty to flutter but only within the necessary restraints needed for someone’s artistic expression to convey ‘meaning’ to viewers. The impact of an artist upon a generation is measured by the skilled and balanced matching of creative fervor with practical application.

"bathers". watercolor on paper. 8.5"X11". Painted by X. Robles de Medina.
“Bathers”. Watercolor on paper. 8.5″X11″. Painted by X. Robles de Medina.

Now, I would like to explore the ‘art of science’, the notion of fitting science within the framework of art. To do this we must understand what composes this framework in the first place. Approaching the great human question What is Art?, I will only go as far as reducing Art to two important components: the artist and the effect of the art work. Through these components, we can see how science plays a role therein.

**Historically, art has developed as a ‘necessary’ human construct, as ‘necessary’ as science or the quantitative study of the natural world from the perspective of humans. Both art and science have come to be the “two main thrusts of our developing change of our ways of organizing reality.”[ii]  The ‘necessity’ of both of these activities lies in the value they each have in nurturing and accommodating the complexity of the human mind. The complexity of the human mind has manifested itself most clearly in the form of cultural movements which were shaped by the innovation of those who had the capacity to create new ideas via some medium of thought whether that be art or science.**

As aforementioned, I will briefly define key components of the artistic process as an effort to nestle science with art, aligning similar components apparent in both dimensions of thought. Art as a human activity requires an artist and an effect. The artist has interwoven within his/her abilities the capacity to re-reveal the observable universe to a population. The artist evaluates reality and responds to the evaluation through the creative assertion of remodeling the experience:

  “Art introduces us to new ways of perceiving and reacting to the world. The artist knows that there is no one correct way to perceive. He searches for new ways so that we may see the world differently. He seeks new and different views of reality, and when he is successful in his search, the culture learns to perceive with his new view.” [iii]

The manner in which an experience is remodeled depends heavily on the culture within which the artist finds him/herself. A medieval artist differs from a Renaissance artist who then differs from a post-modern artist in merely the sense that the history from which they each were sprung had prepared for them different ‘organizations of reality’. Different time periods in history contain artists who wanted to represent particular realities whether they were driven to reproduce religious or spiritual reality, earthly or natural reality or the cryptic inner reality of our consciousness. The product of the artist will then have an effect to reverberate for years, something for culture to consume and include in its ‘lexicon’ for generations to come.

'Fishes and Scales'. A tessellation by MC Esher.
“Fishes and Scales”. A tessellation by MC Esher.

Now I will discuss science as a human activity much as I have for art in the previous paragraphs. Science however is a bit more complex when considering the very agent of this activity or the entity/entities generating it. As Art has The Artist to generate material for cultural consumption, how can we understand science in this way? Yes, we have scientists to contribute to the body of progressive environmental knowledge that we call science, to organize nature with measurements, concepts and categorizations, but the very phenomena upon which science is based, the natural processes of our world, to whom or to what do we attribute this? To whom or to what do we attribute the prodigious and incredibly delicate intricacies of an embryo’s growth into a fully developed human? To whom or to what do we attribute the mysteries of how exactly genetic mutation chooses its path in maintaining the standard of micro and macrocosmic evolutionary variation within our ecosystem? Some would say God, some might say, Nature, while some would refrain from making any claims at all.  I will not attempt to answer this question, since I do not yet have the equipment to answer it. I will focus on the scientist. We have the scientist and the effect.

'Velocity, Acceleration and Jerk'. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses.
‘Velocity, Acceleration and Jerk’. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses.

The effect of scientific findings on a culture is quite similar to that of art. A culture must accept it as a comfortable approach to ‘organizing reality’. In the medieval Western Europe, the theological sovereigns approved only of religious art that:

“portray[ed] a world in which all major questions are theological ones: a world in which Christ was the Perfect Man and all human endeavor is a striving toward and falling short of emulation.”[iv]

In Europe, during the pre-Renaissance years, the respective culture’s limitations affecting art, monitoring what painters, writers, architects or sculptures depicted, also affected the pursuits of scientists to understand and explain the natural world. Because these pursuits threatened to challenge God and Christian logic as the truth behind all of the earth’s natural mechanisms, scientists too were controlled. We understand why Galileo was imprisoned. Moving ‘forward’ in history (towards the present), we come across the Renaissance where art and science expanded within the cultural domain since there were no longer the strict theological limitations of past generations. Figures such as Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci are, to this day, prominent, because of the fact that the culture within which they found themselves agreed to consume the knowledge that they created and agreed to appropriate this knowledge as an appendage of the culture itself. Fast forward to age of Darwinism and how powerful of an effect it had on not just biology as an emerging science but also on sociology and the way the West viewed and treated the world’s people. When we think of science, we largely think of its effect, the aftermath or reverb of the scientific findings that gives a population within a culture a map to understanding how the natural world operates.

''Introduction to the Genetics of Viruses.' credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses
”Introduction to the Genetics of Viruses ‘. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses

The scientist has the capacity to observe nature (just as the artist), to recognize the physical, chemical and biological patterns therein, to test his/her knowledge in these patterns and to communicate these findings to a population in the form of intellectual sense or what we call ‘logic’. The scientist has a great responsibility in conveying this logic such that it may become apart of the respective culture’s ‘lexicon’ or an appendage of that culture. In other words, this logic must eventually become an acceptable explanation to a generation for why the totality of physical, chemical and biological reality presents itself in nature as it does. This is highly expected of the scientist. Validating such prospective truths requires an experiment: the re-creation of a natural process or perhaps the novel arrangement of reactants and reagents to explore the possibilities of what can occur in nature. For example, an organic chemist can take cyclopentene and react it with hydrobromic acid (HBr) in an ether solution to yield bromocyclopentane or she can react the same cyclopentene with potassium permanganate (KMnO4) in a hydronium (H3O+) solution (or acidic water) to yield glutaric acid. These reactions begin at the same place with the cyclopentene but then progress towards fundamentally different products. This active synthetic transformation of one chemical to another characterizes a large component of the organic chemist’s occupation. Witnessing this in the laboratory after numerous trials sows into the fabric of human knowledge the confirmation that if at any moment in any location on this planet a person arranges for these reactions to occur with the same exact reactants, reagents and solutions, the same exact products will result. If the organic chemist chooses another reagent such as meta-Chloroperoxybenzoic acid, a completely different product will form and so on. Through experiment, humans can gain insight into how hydronium, for example, interacts with organic compounds or into how hydrobromic acid behaves in the presence of an alkene (like cyclopentene). These very specific and esoteric situations can be applied across most pursuits in chemistry such that after experimentation comes the increased awareness people have of their natural world.

 Synthesizing Art and Science

Configuring a template upon which art and science can coalesce or collaborate begs the questions:

(1)  In what way could we do this?

(2)  For what reason?

Let us briefly recall the activity of the artist and the scientist. The artist presents reality to a population in a manner that allows for a varied or subjective re-evaluation of reality. Providing reality for re-evaluation and permitting the questioning of perceivable reality, requires taking into close and intimate consideration the physical and situational limitations in our universe. This cognitive approach – maintaining the awareness of nature’s physical limitations – is similar to that of the empirical scientist. The scientist presents reality to a population such that the seemingly chaotic and mysterious processes observed in nature can be given regularity and logic. In order to step into the wilderness, gain mastery in how it operates, connecting form with function and quantifying it all, one must preform critical and comprehensive thinking nearly to the extent of considering anything to be possible. This cognitive approach shares close resemblance to that of the artist who, as mentioned before, “knows that there is no one correct way to perceive.” We can see now that art requires science and science requires art in the minds of the artist and the scientist respectively. Thus, art and science are already involved in the development of expanding human awareness of the observable universe both in the physical and metaphysical realms. The progress and evolution of each of these two human activities often depend on the progress and evolution of the other such that “a change in artistic comprehension of reality may herald a change in the scientific world-picture, or vice versa.”[v] Essentially, both seemingly conflicting disciplines achieve the same end and aid each other in reaching it. Professor Savizky asserts that:

“Both can be quite expressive and fulfilling. The mindsets [within art and science] have traditionally been different but I don’t think it has to be. It is certainly true that scientists with “out of the box” ideas – ideas that shouldn’t work  – occasionally make amazing discoveries.”

German painter Paul Klee remarked that: “The artist does not reproduce the visible; rather he makes things visible.”[vi] This is an already accepted responsibility of the scientist: to reveal the truth behind the things that we can see but cannot understand. We can begin to see now that we learn from both art and science.  As each approach follows a different path towards education, people are educated nonetheless by both art and science. The very progression of history from past to present reveals to us that “each new development in art [and science] implies change in the constructions of reality available to us [such that] we should expect that each new development would modify our perceptions of those that preceded it.”[vii]

Further syntheses of the two disciplines could occur in a plethora of ways if we use our imaginations within the inevitable confines of physical and chemical truth. Professor Savizky attempted to implement an academic common ground between the art and science students but unfortunately to no avail:

“Several years ago I met Pedro Cuni, an artist who was interested in chemically analyzing encaustic art. He had not been successful in finding chemists who would be willing/able to work with him, and had an even harder time convincing artists that science could be used to prove that some paintings are encaustic and not fresco. My colleague John Bove and I found some undergraduates and graduate students at Cooper Union who wanted to work on this and we published our findings about two years ago. During the course of the investigation, I thought it would be fun to teach a course called “The Art of Chemistry” (technically “The Chemistry of Art” would be more accurate but it didn’t sound as good to me) which would be open to all students at Cooper Union. I should mention that all of the students at Cooper Union are engineering, architecture or art majors. I wanted engineers to learn more about styles of painting and how chemical analysis can be used for conservation and verification of authenticity, and for artists to see how science can be used in their field. The course was never offered for a number of administrative reasons – figuring out how many hours the class would meet and how many credits it would be worth, so that it would work for students in different schools, proved to be very challenging.”

I will suggest another possible synthesis that involves music, visuals and precipitation reactions.  A basic precipitation reaction in chemistry is the simple formation of a solid from the interaction of two or more particular liquid solutions. Mixing salt water or liquid sodium chloride (NaCl) with silver nitrate (AgNO3) will yield a white solid or precipitate called AgCl or silver chloride. At the very moment that the solid forms, there occurs what looks like an explosion or the rapid growth of a nimbus until all settles and we are merely left with the solid and the remaining liquid (the supernatant). There are many other precipitation reactions involving different reactants yielding different colored precipitates. Consider projecting such a reaction onto a wall – via some specialized projector that could hold the beaker (where the reaction would immediately take place) and that could transmit the activity through light onto a wall – for people to behold and to respond by creating improvisational music in an ensemble according to how the reaction proceeds visually, representing, for example, the explosive formation of the solid with perhaps a great crescendo or a forte. Here, the chemical reaction is the composer and its activity is represented through sound art. (Recall images from the 1960s psychedelic liquid light shows that would accompany performances of music. In these cases, however, the musicians are the composers and the only link between the music and the science of the colored liquid substances is the psychedelia of the warped mixtures of color and movement. Go onto YouTube and search the 1969 Liquid Loops by The Joshua Light Show.) Such experimentalism has the potential to further augment how people view the relationship between their capacities to create and the natural world within which we find ourselves.

'A Visually Warped Photograph due to the Over Exposure of Sunlight.' credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses
‘A Visually Warped Photograph due to the Over Exposure of Sunlight upon Film.’ credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses

Question #2: Why would we want to do such a thing as synthesize art and science in such proactive way? I will answer this question with the naïve and rudimentarily argumentative response of Why Not? I rest this attitude on the idea that “any boundary that separates also connects.” Perhaps a new or modified form of human expression can emerge from the active collaboration of artistic and scientific thinking in both the fields of art and science. Perhaps a more ‘mature’ era of artistic science, scientific art and coalescence of both awaits us, a prospective period of time where human beings will have reached a presently unbeknownst mastery of understanding and presenting the natural world in a multitude of dimensions and perspectives. As we know, we cannot know unless we try.

Concepts of what The Future entails are worthless unless we transcend the apparent constraints of the present to color the world with innovation, fearless of whether or not it makes complete sense at the moment. This is the very nature of experimentation. Experiments beget experience and experience begets knowledge. It is 2014. The Future might as well be now.

***(I chose to site Eurocentric examples from history and literature not because I especially revere this epistemology but because I am aware that most of my readers are well acquainted with this body of knowledge. So, because of this assumption, I use these examples as a method to more smoothly push my points across.)***

(The cover image is a still taken from a liquid light show.)

[i] Leshan, Lawrence and Margenau, Henry. Einstein’s Space & Van Gogh’s Sky: Physical Reality and Beyond. Collier Books: New York, 1982. pg 190.

[ii] ibid pg.188

[iii] ibid. pg 189.

[iv] ibid. pg 185.

[v] ibid. pg 188.

[vi] ibid. pg 172.

[vii] ibid. pg 188.

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