Science and art rule the world. Without them the world, especially human life, would be not just a duller place. It would not function. A year ago when I started writing about art and science it was hard to find popular work on the subject. Search now and you will find abundant material. But I'm a bit worried about where that effort is headed.
There is so much popular enthusiasm for linking, combining, and conflating art and science. There's nothing wrong with current concepts about art-as-science or science-as-art. But I sense the lack of a philosophical basis for these activities. Science isn't art nor is art science, but they do have many commonalities, especially in the way they approach problems. This idea has been wonderfully elucidated at the MIT List Center exhibit, "Man in the Holocene," which runs for a couple more weeks. Thank you Julia for encouraging me to go and see it!
Without the conceptual basis laid down in that exhibit, in year or two when the excitement has subsided I'm afraid we'll be right back where we started, an intellectual paradigm where science and art are seen as polar opposites, neither informing the other.
So many people right now are confusing art and science. A beautiful scientific image, a sumptuous map, or a brightly colored microphotograph do not, in my opinion, comprise a work of art. Nor do artists' works depicting nature or what they perceive as scientific phenomena actually inform science. Instead of these approaches, I have been exploring subjects related to the "Holocene" exhibit. How do we circumscribe a set of approaches that are common to both art and science? I think I am getting close in what I describe broadly as an "aesthetic" approach, something you can read in my recent previous posts.
Can we take the aesthetic approach further and unlock the way it works in a scientific context? I think we can.
Consider this. Composition, volume, proportion, and dynamics are abstract signals, properties within which we make and critique art. They are combined to create an aesthetic, which makes “sense” out of random signals, and through which we can understand the work of an artist. They hold the code that is translated into an aesthetic, which leads to an interpretation of reality. These signals are the carriers of meaning by which we organize abstract perceptions into articulated concepts, into a system of understanding. They do not have "meaning" on their own but combined and translated they can be transduced into artistic meaning.
From a scientific standpoint these carriers of meaning are like cellular ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA delivers an abstract code (a sequence of nucleotides) to a submicroscopic body called the ribosome, where the code is translated into protein. The nucleotide sequence by itself does not have meaning. It has no function other than conveying a message. Only when the message is translated by the ribosome into a protein does it "make sense."
Proteins subsequently “make sense” of cellular activities by mediating all of the biochemical behaviors of the cell. Certain proteins act as pumps for other molecules, using energy to transport substances from one part of the cell to another. Other proteins behave as gatekeepers, allowing certain things into a cellular space and keeping others out. Proteins also function as electron transmitters, guiding the process of energy utilization (metabolism) in the cellular environment. Many proteins are classified as enzymes. In their role as enzymes, proteins are the "chemists" of the cell. They add to, take away from, or change the shape of other molecules.
To take the aesthetic-protein analogy further, these same abstract properties of composition, proportion, volume, and dynamics determine protein function. Proteins need to be a certain shape (conformation) in order to function. Protein conformation, folding, and affinities for other molecules are the basis of protein function similar to the way in which aesthetic principles determine to "function" or meaning of a work of art. Art has to have guiding principles of aesthetics. In the same way, proteins are defined by their ability to behave in certain specific ways. If proteins did not possess these characteristics they could not function in the cellular environment.
I would be interested to hear what you think about these ideas, and whether they have introduced you to a new way of thinking about art and science.