On teaching art to scientists

The band Art vs. Science, Courtesy www.artvsscience.net

This July, I’ll be teaching a course I developed on the intersections of contemporary art and science, for Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). My students are advanced high schoolers, attending two-week courses on physics, robotics, aerospace engineering, and biology, among other lab sciences. Many of them have had no academic art experience. We begin the first day by discussing where the boundaries might be between the two disciplines, listing responses to “what do scientists do?” and “what do artists do?” Experiment, create, observe, invent, analyze – they quickly realize that there are many overlaps, but no clear divisions.

Walmor Correa, "Ondina," 2006. Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 76x51".

Mark Dion noted in Art:21 Season 4 that humor, irony, and metaphor are tools artists have that scientists don’t. Or, as a recent New York Times review of the exhibition Dead or Alive at the Museum of Arts and Design (New York), put it – “artists are allowed to make stuff up and scientists really shouldn’t.” Is truth, then, the burden of scientists? This has been fertile ground for contemporary artists like Dion, Walton Ford, Alexis Rockman, and Walmor Correa, among many others. Their work challenges both the authoritative scientific voice and the structure of its presentation.

I’m interested in raising this question here, as I do in my classroom, because it continues to be a point of debate in the academic community, as it relates to practicing and teaching the two disciplines. Over and over again in current discussions about education, an interdisciplinary approach is stressed, and the Renaissance is held up as the ideal academic environment, a time when intellectual pursuits were not as narrowly defined. Leonardo had it made, we’re led to believe, because he could work fluidly between what we now know as art and science.

2009 was the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s influential lecture “The Two Cultures,” which brought about a fresh round of debate on his claim that the communication breakdown between the sciences and humanities was to blame for global problems. Ironically, Snow’s lecture is often blamed for widening the disciplinary divide. David Ng, editor of the Science Creative Quarterly, wrote in Seed Magazine last year that “it’s not really about two cultures, those two distant columns of knowledge representing art and science. It’s just about ‘people liking different things.’ Many people are frustrated by this, but many people celebrate it. Perhaps most importantly, everybody knows this to be true already.” Could it really be that simple? Author Martin Kemp would seem to agree, suggesting that, “We can be students of the visual – rather than concern ourselves with distinct categories called art and science.” Perhaps my favorite salvo on this topic comes from a comment on the science/culture blog BioEphemera, where reader arvind noted, “I wish more people would understand that the scientific enterprise is merely the most difficult and constrained artistic enterprise ever embarked upon by humankind. When I hear the words ‘art versus science,’ it feels like a nonsensical statement — like saying ‘art versus the most creatively draining art humanly possible.’”

Futurefarmers, "Lunchbox Laboratory," 2008.

Thinking pragmatically, perhaps one of the most crucial reasons to keep artists and scientists coming together is the wider audience that naturally follows interdisciplinary projects, paramount for the global scale of today’s concerns (C.P. Snow was at least correct on that count). You can preach about the benefits of environmentalism, for example, but maybe experiencing Chris Jordan’s photography or Brooke Singer’s Superfund365 archive or Amy Franceschini’s Futurefarmers projects (all on the syllabus), will not only inspire action but new methods of acting. I hope to show my students examples of makers and thinkers who approach the lab as a studio and the studio as a lab. These boundary-crossing practices can open up discussions about how we learn, think, approach problems, and process information – in short, how we navigate our surroundings.

League of Imaginary Scientists — Dr. Schleidan conducting research from inside a black hole

The League of Imaginary Scientists, “a non-exclusive society for creative scientists, mechanically-inclined artists, absurdist inventors and self-proclaimed quacks,” is one model for interdisciplinary inquiry that I present to my students. “In pairing science and art, the League seeks to formulate new methods for data expression, embodied through interactions that produce physical artifacts and accompanying scientific residues. League projects provide opportunities for the exchange of knowledge among collaborators, present and implement a methodology of “art as experiment,” and transform the process of intellectual inquiry into an interactive medium.”

Saving the world and having fun doing it? If I can impart this lesson to my high schoolers this summer, that’s no small success. Ultimately, what I hope to convey is an expanded way of seeing and thinking. I hope the art vs. science debate rages on — not to keep the fences up, but on the contrary, to continue the dialogue. As the League has said, “finite results are not the creative objective. These artists and experimenters are not merely propelled by curiosity, they are compelled to connect.”


  1. Nettrice says:

    I am an artist. My mother was a computer programmer/analyst & my sister is a chemical engineer. Growing up I was exposed to the art/science dichotomy. We excelled in the sciences (mathematics not so much for me), literature, as well as art. Being exposed at an early age to both science/technology and creativity is key to gaining 21st century skills.

    Innovation exists somewhere between art/creativity and scientific inquiry.

    Both art & science areas begin with “process”. Modern art emphasized concept over traditional aesthetic & material issues. Conceptual art installations (ex. Sol LeWitt) could be constructed by anyone simply by following a set of written instructions. During the late 19th cent. symbolist painters explored myths & dreams, investigated the psyche. This extended to the surrealists like André Breton who was trained in medicine and psychiatry & helped launch an art movement partly based on scientific inquiry.

    In virtual 3D worlds art & science is even more closely linked. What defines human consciousness is the ability to imagine other “realities,” starting with the nuances such as sound, inflection, pauses, gestures, and other subtle signs. In immersive 3D space, these feelings create varying levels of emotional bandwidth. In other words, art in virtual 3D worlds can activate real emotions.

    Reply

  2. Elle says:

    This sounds fascinating! Is the syllabus for this course available online?

    Reply

  3. Victoria says:

    I agree with Nettrice. The new kids on the block are now or need to be artist and scientist. I who graduated college in 2005, am whole brained (both right and left strong). Logical, scientific, artist, free spirited. It’s like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in my brain but I’ve learned to manage both and have them work together to benefit my career. I have wider range of skills than my counter parts because of this.

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  4. Liz Sheehan says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone. I’ve been hearing a lot about people’s individual experiences, and what is becoming clear – as @Nettrice mentions – is that it’s not just the responsibility of educators to teach both art and science together, but our parents! What we’re exposed to growing up gives us the foundation to remain open to all perspectives and the confidence to ignore the boundaries of discipline.

    The syllabus is not online but when it’s finalized for this summer, I’d be happy to share it. I can post it on my website.

    Reply

  5. Whitney says:

    Great post! This is a topic I am researching and developing for my graduate thesis in arts administration. I would love to take your class and see the syllabus you have created!

    Reply

  6. Rosey says:

    It’s so important what you’re doing. As a former Massachusetts high schooler, I can say how much I would have liked to have taken your course!

    I recently heard a talk by weaver and UCLA professor Jim Bassler, who described teaching weaving techniques to college students who had never worked with their hands before. To help them grasp the idea of the art of weaving as a necessary early technology, he took them back to being hunter/gatherers and posed the question, “How would you carry the berries you’ve collected? How would you bring it home to feed your family?” Another weaving example students might relate to is the jacquard loom and how it was a precursor to computer programming.

    An interesting documentary that might apply to your course is “Proteus”. The central figure of the film is biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel, who “found in the depths of the
    sea an ecstatic and visionary fusion of science and art.”

    thanks for letting me share thoughts and all the best in your summer endeavor!

    Reply

  7. Capt. Suz Wallace, MFA says:

    If you really want to see fully-integrated folks of AMAZING skills and imagination, take a look at the GNSI (Guild of Natural Science Illustrators)http://www.gnsi.org/ and the AMI (Association of Medical Illustrators) http://www.ami.org/

    Reply

  8. Liz Sheehan says:

    Thanks Rosey and Suz for your input. I know Hackel’s work (it is stunning) but am not familiar with Proteus, I’ll check it out. Suz – I include a lesson plan on scientific illustration (and its stylistic codes of authority) and discuss, among others, Dr. Frank Netter. Thanks for the links – I’ll share them with my students.

    Reply

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