La science n’est pas l’art, Jean Marc Levy-Leblond, Hermann Editeurs, Paris 2010 ISBN 978-2705669409. [The publication is in French.]
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the age long debate about the connections between the arts and sciences.
In this book, really a diatribe in pamphlet form, Levy-Leblond attacks the emerging Art-Science movement as fundamentally mistaken and full of false promises. Levy-Leblond is well placed to make the attack. A physicist and long term editor of Alliage, a prominent French inter-disciplinary journal, he knows (and loves) the contemporary arts well and he understands the deep epistemological underpinnings of science.
In a previous review, http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/apr2011/levy-leblond_mandelbrojt.php, Leonardo Co-Editor Jacques Mandelbrojt provides a first analysis of Levy Leblond’‘s book alerting readers to the frontal attack of some of the premises that have been the foundation of the Leonardo organizations.
Levy-Leblond attacks art-science on several fronts. First he articulates clearly that art and science have differing goals and ways of evaluating success, and that any hope of a ‘new syncretism’ is profoundly misplaced. He thinks that the call for a ‘third culture’ that would re-unite the arts and sciences in a common enterprise is hogwash, a romantic nostalgia based on misunderstandings and mis-analysis of intellectual history in both the arts and sciences. Rather he argues that the interest in art-science interaction arises from the plurality of approaches, the areas of difference and tension and in particular in areas of conceptualization rather than in art-science practice.
He, in my view, successfully dismantles some of the widely discussed areas of art-science convergence.
In some circles he states, for instance in some discussions of neuro-aesthetics, beauty is advanced as a transverse ordering principle that applies both in the sciences and the arts. He disputes these arguments pointing out that in the contemporary arts “beauty’ no longer is a dominant aesthetic value, as it often was in the nineteenth century, and that the scientists who explore this terrain a largely ignorant of the history of art and contemporary practice. In addition in science many very beautiful ideas or theories in science and mathematics have been proven to be profoundly wrong by subsequent investigations.
With great relish he attacks the popular fascination with imagery created from fractal mathematics as ‘techno-kitsch” and their claimed beauty both as art and mathematics. Quoting the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota, he deconstructs the scientist’s idea of ‘beauty’ rather as a psychological enlightenment, or awe at the power or efficacy of an idea, when an idea proves to be applicable to a wide range of situations. He quotes Huxley to great effect: “..the grand tragedy of science: the massacre of splendid theories by miserable facts.:
He attacks the idea that mathematics can be a useful uniting territory between art and science. He demolishes with gusto the never ending discussions of the applicability of the ‘golden ratio’, and other over-arching principles in art and science (such as those advocated by E.0.Wilson with his concept of consilience). Levy-Leblond has no truck with analysis of Pollock through fractal or complexity theory. He deconstructs the fascination of some artists with mathematics as mistaken elaborations of ‘signs without meaning’ and they are rather just the use of elaboration of variations as methodology for developing artistic series of interest.
He lambastes the current fashion for art-science that involves the transposition of scientific phenomena or imagery from the laboratory to the gallery, pointing out (correctly) that the most beautiful images from the Hubble Space Telescope played absolutely no role in the discoveries made by astronomers using that amazing instrument, and claims that the resulting artworks are usually poor in their impact compared to the work of the best contemporary artists.
He is ruthless on the claims by some scientists that they can inform art criticism with scientific approaches whether from experimental aesthetics, cognitive and neuro-sciences ( Changeux, Ramachandran and Zeki not withstanding).
Finally he is devastating on new-media art and the endless techno-gadgetry that many artists are obsessed with. He dismisses realism in computer arts and the current hype on 3-D systems and immersion The best he can say is that it’s a time for experimentation and later we will evaluate ( with discussion of how most new technologies have proved culturally sterile, illustrated with the time it took for photography to embed itself as a serious art medium).
Yet there is a burgeoning art-science professional community of practice, long promoted by the Leonardo organizations. Centers such as Symbotica in Australia, Arts-Catalyst in London, X-Node in Zurich, Le Laboratoire in Paris, the Dublin Science Gallery in Dublin, are churning out art-science work that is shown internationally in galleries and festivals. The European Union, the French Agence National de la Recherche, The US National Science Foundation and US National Academy of Science are helping fund and disseminate the products of art-science practice. Can it really all be hogwash?
Having demolished the work of thousands of art-science practitioners around the planet (and associated funding agencies), he proceeds to set his own, modest but optimist agenda for the interactions of the arts and sciences.
For decades Levy Leblond has talked with and thought deeply about the work of contemporary artists from Francois Morellet, to Piotr Kowalski to Yves Klein, James Turell, Brigitte Nahon, to Joseph Beuys. He has published numerous texts about the interactions of the arts and sciences in his journal Alliage. The last third of the book is an articulate, and sometimes poetic, articulation of why he is deeply committed to what he calls “brief encounters(“breves rencontres”) between individual scientists and individual artists , or their art works. He is willing to concede, and even advocate that such “crossings of the paths” can be of benefit both to science and to art. He therefore encourages such brief encounters, as the personal initiatives of thoughtful scientists, but resists their institionalisation.
His arguments advocating art-science interaction fall onto two categories: what I would group under the general category of creativity theory, and second the feeding of the cultural imagination that helps us make sense, make meaning, of the world around us.
Scientists get their ideas from somewhere, and Levy-Leblond values the “otherness” of the perspective of artists which forces scientists as a potential source of ‘creative friction”. As a result he is particularly interested in conceptual arts which involve the embodiment or instantiation of ideas. Some of the artists, such as in Art Povera, he thinks can help stimulate scientific thinking. He is averse to the technological arts in general, intrigued by abstract art and contemporary sculpture. For instance he discussed the work Nahon that for him explores of the idea of Meta Stability leading him to think about the stability of scientific explanations, or understanding the underlying connections that make an explanation hang together. He is intrigued at the way some artists resurrect “archaic’ ideas (for instance the way that nineteenth century science re appears with the fascination with electromagnetism in the work of some artists today). He sees the way that artists have used randomness as a sources of creativity, such as Ellsworth Kelley, as examples of ‘passerelles” or fragile bridges that can connect shared approaches exploited by both artists and scientists such as “abstraction, simplification, experimentation, structuring…”.
His second general argument relates on how artists help scientific ideas become cultural re-appropriated, and then feed back into the imagination of scientists. He argues that it is a necessity today “to re-establish the link between the concepts constructed by science and the reality from which they were abstracted”. He calls part of this process “dis-abstraction”, or ‘re-thickening” a science that runs the danger of becoming esoteric and distant from the very phenomena that gave rise to it. This thickening, that occurs through the process of translating the scientific ideas back into cultural arena of the arts leads to a re contextualising with meaning making, including issues of ethics, by reconnection ideas with experience. Elsewhere I have called this the process of making science “intimate”. Here he admits, “art can come to the help of science:.
So does Levy-Leblond succeed in demolishing the ambitions of the growing international art-science movement; well yes, and maybe, and not at all.
I share with Levy-Leblond his attacks on discussions of beauty, the golden ratio, fractals, the excesses of neuro-aesthetics and the sometimes disappointing results of artists residencies in scientific laboratories. Indeed the Wellcome Trust discontinued much of their art-science funding after a similar evaluation.
I also share with him his horror of a proposed syncretism of art and science in some mish=mash of a third culture. I don’t believe that inter-disciplinarity is a discipline. I agree that there are very good intrinsic reasons why the arts and sciences have diverged, independent of cultural or organizational imperatives. Artists and Scientists may both be trying to makes sense and meaning out of the world we live in but their underlying epistemologies are distinct.
I of course agree with Leby-Leblond of the value of art-science encounters in the context of creativity theory and cultural theory.
Where I part ways with Levy-Leblond is the assessment of the importance of the art-science movement and its potential value both to the science and the emerging planetary culture of the future. The ambitions for art science interaction that Levy-Leblond advocates are ‘homeopathic’ not “systemic”. There are additional reasons that motivate a more ambitious art-science agenda. There include rationales through innovation and invention theory, though the need to create new modes of public engagement in science (such as citizen science) that change the scientific agenda itself, such as how to couple scientific knowledge to societal change ( for instance to confront climate change), and even to change the way that the scientific method itself evolves ( as it is doing as it integrates the methods of complex simulations and new scientific approaches brought about by the epistemological inversion of ‘big data”. Helga Novotnik has referred to the development of a ‘socially robust” science . Scientists and engineers have different objectives and there are good reasons to keep them separate; but there are good reasons also to bring them together in systemic ways. I think the same is true for artists and scientists.
Finally, it seems to me that Levy-Leblond has a very reduced idea of what the arts are about in human society today, and their importance to human survival; this selectivity serves his arugments: he focuses exclusively on the visual arts, ignoring the performance, sound and literary arts; his examples are all from the closed world of art galleries, and not in popular arts and culture. He illustrates this reductive view of art with what he outlines as “fundamental divergences” between scientists and scientists with the following list of dichotomies:
Artists: Personal Activity
Scientists: Community Activity
Artsits: Individual Practice
Scientists: Collective Practice
Artists: Self Employed
Scientists: Employed in Institutions
Artists: External validation
Scientists: Community Validation (peer review) (art critics, exhibitions)
Artists: individual sales
Scientists: research contracts/industrial economy
Artists: value of work
Scientists; millions to billions of euros 0 to millions of euros
I just don’t recognize the emerging art-science community of practice in this description.
Just as he I think rightfully attacks art science arguments from scientists with nineteenth century ideas of what the arts about, I think he is is choosing to attack the parts of art-science practice that rely on idea of the fine arts that are specific to the visual fine arts in the last half of the twentieth century and not the new emerging artforms that cross link to the sciences.
I think that the “brief encounters” between artists and scientists that he advocates rather should be become “frequent encounters” that change the way that art and science are done in the emerging century. Rather than viewing art-science as the occasional crossing of fine artists and fine scientists, the art-science movement is participating in the development emerging “networked knowledge” culture that systemically identifies and cross links different disciplines that need, have no choice but to be to be deployed together on topics or issues that must mobilize both the arts and sciences.
In any case anyone interested in the emerging art-science movement should read this book.