Concerning Human Understanding Redux: Arguing against the term “artscience”


I have just read Nora Sorensen’s Vaage’s article “ On Cultures and Artscience; interdisciplinarity and discourses of ‘twos’ and ‘threes’ after Snow’s Two Cultures’

Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, Vol 3, Iss 1, p3.

I am sending it to her for comment and posting this draft here

Roger Malina
July 19 DRAFT

Essay Concerning Human Understanding: against the Term “Artscience”:

In response to Nora Sorensen Vaage’s  article “ On Cultures and Artscience; interdiscilinarity and discourses of ‘twos’ and ‘threes’ after Snow’s Two Cultures’

Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, Vol 3, Issue 1, p3. 2015

Vaage argues in her article ‘On Cultures and Artscience’  that the term artscience, in vogue for the past  few years , reinforces an old notion of a binary opposition between these two fields, and carries within it the problematic concept of a ‘third culture’. This promised synthesis she feels disguises the plurality of perceptions and approaches within and across fields, overemphasizes divisions and may ignore complexities and in some cases ‘leave out important parts of the picture”. She argues that the discourses both of ‘third culture’ and ‘artscience’ may ‘occlude the multiple possible constellations of practionners, roles and approaches and may be a potential limitation to interdisciplinary collaborations’. I agree.

Her article reviews some of the history of the two cultures debate beginning with T H Huxley’s  1880 Mason College Lecture “Science and Culture’ and Mathew Arnold’s 1882 Rede Lecture “ Literature and Science, and of course the discussion triggered by C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures’. She argues that this way of framing the issues relies on a false dichotomy. She  argues for a more complex model of the many cultures, in the arts, design, humanities sciences and engineering that need to be part of the picture, which the term artscience can mask, and quotes favorably Stefan Collini’s introduction to the 1998 edition of Snow’s Two Cultures who states” in place of the old apparently confident empires, the map (of the disciplines’ shows many more smaller states with networks of alliances and communication between them crisscrossing in complex and surprising ways’.

In many ways I agree with Vaage’s analysis and argumentation and that the term artscience is problematic. When I named my new research lab, at the University of Texas at Dallas, as the ArtSciLab I was clearly tying in to the contemporary discourse ( circa 2010). The shifting landscape of terminology in the broad ‘ art,science and technology’ community of practice has been constantly evolving since the journal Leonardo was founded nearly 50 years ago. The computer arts, electronic arts, interactive arts, digital arts, new media arts litter the landscape of art and technology practice. Similarly artscience is but the latest terminological fad in a shifting landscape of interdisciplinary practice. Kathyn Evans at UTDallas recently reviewed the literature on interdisciplinary practices and this literature indeed begins also in the late 19th century; that history is littered with terms such as interdisciplinary studies, holistic studies, integrative studies with new university programs appearing in decadal succession. In more recent years the terminology has complexified with the discussions on inter, multi and trans-disciplinarity. ( see Kathryn’s resource site )

A few years ago I was involved an NSF funded study led by Carol Lafayette and Carol Strohecker and with the Amy Ione, with the active collaboration of over 200 members of our community ( see the over 60 white papers at ). This led to the report was published this year as “Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation ” (MIT Press, 2015 ) (Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation ).  The title for this report reflects the very same discussion that is the focus of of Vaage’s essay and we also felt that both the “two culture’ and the “third culture’ terminologies problematized the discussion in ways that we felt were not productive and that we did not wish to promote or advocate.  The argument against the ‘two cultures’ metaphor was driven home in particular by Jonathan Zilberg in his SEAD meta-analysis  . Hence the report title “Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation.

We chose as the cover image Johan Bollen’s map of science derived from clickstream data (2009)  ( ). This ‘data driven’ representation visualizes the on line clicking behavior of researchers and we felt carried with it the metaphor that within which we wanted to embed our report. The network and ecological metaphor for the structure of knowledge systems, as opposed to the tree of knowledge metaphor, seemed to us be more appropriate to understanding communities of practice than organizational structures, such as exist in educational organizations. SEAD meta analysis author Francois Joseph Lapointe carried out out a network analysis of the 200 white paper authors that was particularly revealing :  and also revealed a population of ‘hybrid’ professionals with training in both a field of science and engineering and a field of art/edesign/humanities. These discussions reinforce the findings of researcher Loe Leyesdorff and colleagues ( see also  ) in analyzing incoming and outgoing citations to articles in the Leonardo Journal developed a similar network visualization of the community of practice that uses that journal as a place to document their work; he also produced an animation ( )  of the way that network of connections has evolved over the last 50 years showing that the community of practice has changed the focus of its activities and the connections it exploits between different disciplines. This dynamic network of disciplines metaphor seems to me appropriate to the current situation.

Of course however Universities remain tree structured, creating impediments to inter, multi and trans-disciplinary practice and as pointed out by Vaage , Snow’s gripe was first with the British educational system not with the structure of natural philosophy.

The subtitle of our report was :” Enabling new forms of collaboration among sciences, engineering, arts, and design” which in part was a historical accident as SEAD was the title of the funding grant received from the NSF by the PI Carol Lafayette. As we worked with our colleagues it was clear to us that the community of practice was not captured by either the terms “art and science”, or “art and technology”. Rather the ecological landscape of disciplines had disciplinary practices centered in the arts, design, the physical sciences, the social sciences and humanities, engineering and technology; dangerously this seemed to encompass a large fraction of all human knowledge !.

The term STEM to STEAM emerged within this process advocated in particular by John Maeda then at the Rhode Island School of Design, a term which tied the discussion to the politically and industrially driven ‘STEM’ discussion within science and engineering university programs and the claimed need of a shortage of graduates in “ Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’’ ( there is an active research literature that disputes the claimed STEM graduates shortage eg ).  *Integrating the arts and design into STEM teaching has become a movement with the acronym taking hold even though the term A in STEAM doesn’t capture the variety of practices that bridge the range of arts and design but also the other sub ecology of arts, social sciences and humanities.  Amazingly 67 US congressmen and women are now part of the US Congressional caucus for STEAM: ; thats probably more congresspeople that agree on anything these days !  For more discussion of currrent vocabularies see Kathryn Evans ( )


In recent years the STEAM discourse has also taken hold in funding and political structures with an interesting chain of connections between “artscience”, ‘art, design and technology’ linked to creativity  and innovation discourses then connected to job creation ( as often  is the STEM discourse). The US National Academies are sponsoring this November where artscience is viewed as an emerging frontier of scientific research. The NAFKI Futures conference titiled :    Art and Science, Engineering, and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization.  see  The European Union Europe 2020 funding program has recently announced the STARTS initiative for Science, Technology and the Arts : . Their recent report  makes clear that the focus is the technosciences rather than the basic sciences, and design and technology rather than the fine arts with the argumentation tied to the creation of new economic sectors and  near term employment. The foundation of STARTS is art and design couple to Information and Computing Technology.
The good news is that the ‘art, science and technology’ community of practice is growing by any figure of merit. The bad news, as emphasized by Vaage is that there is conceptual and terminological confusion. Thirty years ago Leonardo editorial board member Roy Ascott advocated that we stop using the term ‘art’ because it tied us too closely to the very conservative, generally anti science and technology, art establishment at the time in art schools, university art departments and art museums. Today culture has integrated digital culture with the born digital generations having little time for the debates of the two cultures debate and the term ‘art’ now encompasses many of the art forms that were first developing in the art, science and technology community of practice 50 years ago.


In the discussions among us as we finalized the SEAD report it became clear to us that the now dominant discourse on art and technology/creativity/innovation/full employment economy (one that C.P Snow also argued ) also tend to confuse means and ends. Creativity and Innovation are not ends in themselves (and nor is full employment), we felt, but are means to creating healthy and vibrant human communities in which we want to live. In the 13 processes we identified our final process for enabling new forms of collaboration between ‘science, engineering, arts and design” was entitled “Thriving “and viewed SEAD ingredients as essential contributors to healthy communities with process 12 being “Foregrounding Ethics and Values” and process 13. “Promoting Well Being and Joyfulness” !!.


I am currently working on an essay with French physicist Jean-Marc Levy Leblond for publication in a special issue on Digital Culture guest edited by Annick Bureaud for the French publication MCD. In our discussions a number of concerns have been developed; first that the artscience movement tends to over emphasize the physical sciences and not sufficiently the social  and human sciences, second that art and science often under the hood is art and technology rather than the basic sciences, that the humanities are marginally present,  and finally that the discourse connecting artscitech to creativity, innovation and employment insufficiently raises the critical questions of how science and technology are embedded in certain economic models of societal development. C.P. Snow himself in the Two Cultures books was particularly insistent on the possible role of science and technology in helping raise the standard of living in the developing world ( Eisenhower’s warnings about the possible risks of the university/military/government complex were recent when Snow wrote) and and the 1970s, uncomfortably prescient, arguments on the ‘Limits to Growth’  were being developed by the Club of Rome.  How do we develop ‘artscience’ as one of the components to helping develop sustainable, full employment, healthy, joyful, human societies  ?


That’s a lot to pack into a discussion provoked by Vaag’s useful essay deconstructing the term ‘artscience’ and its current popularity and political correctness. She is right I think that the term “artscience’ feeds into to C.P. Snows  misleading ‘two cultures’ debate and its false dichotomy, and third culture cousin. I suspect in 50 years the term artscience will have disappeared, as will have equally conceptually confused terms such as the “new media” community ! Let the philosophers, taxonomists, ontologists, terminologists and experts in ‘translation studies’ get to work !
I welcome comments !

Roger Malina




  1. Comment response from
    Nora S. Vaage
    PhD fellow
    Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT)
    University of Bergen

    Roger Malina kindly invited me to comment on his blog entry, which responds to my article “On Cultures and Artscience”. Therefore, a few reflections:
    I welcome Malina’s blog entry as it importantly expands my argument into areas that, primarily for lack of space, were left out. Although I was familiar with the SEAD report Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation, by Malina, Carol Strohecker, and Carol LaFayette, it was published at a time when my article was already in the process of publication.
    I do believe that discourses on interdisciplinarity and attempts to span disciplines are as old as disciplinarity itself. If it is a human impulse to categorize, it is also a human impulse to attempt to go beyond the established categories, as new problems emerge and boundary issues arise. The ways in which this is done, and the language involved, is of great interest and importance. The points I was making in the article are, when summarized, two simple ones:
    A1: Terminology matters. What you call something affects not only how it is perceived but, in the last instance, what it becomes. Terminological confusion, and lack of good terms describing what is actually occurring, is not just a question of semantics (in the vernacular sense). As Andrew Yang (2015: 319) commented in his Endnote to the latest issue of Leonardo, “A term such as “sciart” may itself betray the poverty of our language and current imagination to make conceptual sense of something that is neither quite this nor quite that”.
    I have sought to point to the current insufficiency of language to adequately describe complex activities, events or objects and, concurrently, the resilience of established idioms as explanatory presences. In other words: Terminology sticks! Which brings me to
    A2: Attempts to overcome a binary division may, paradoxically, reinforce it. I argue that there is a real danger of this being the case within “artscience”, and that the idea of the “third culture” may well be a contributing factor to expanding perceived gaps between the involved fields of “art”, “science”, and others. For artscience comprises much more than ”art and science” or ”art and technology”. This point is also made by Malina in his blog entry and in the SEAD report; as he observes, the activities they discuss seem ”dangerously” to ”encompass a large fraction of all human knowledge”.
    There is a pragmatic opinion, among many of the actors I have discussed this with, that artscience is useful as a descriptor for their activities not because it is necessarily the best term that could be found, but because it is, as Malina remarks, ”the latest terminological fad in a shifting landscape of interdisciplinary practice”. We do need descriptive terminology to help us structure our understandings of the world and allocate professional authority. This is important, not least, for forming funding practices, educational programs and expert communities. However, as Clifford Geertz argued in Local Knowledge (1983: 7), when “these rubrics are taken to be a borders-and-territories map of modern intellectual life”, they may “block from view what is really going on out there”. Language, because it matters, may be a hindrance to practices and to understandings – just as easily as it may be an aid.
    The STEM to STEAM effort, the STARTS platform, and similar initiatives do show a promising future for the community of practice-based researchers, but, as implied by Malina, the focus on ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ as core values is a discourse not without problems of its own. Innovation, in particular, carries the strong implication that the innovative product will be of societal use, mostly meaning that financial gain is to be had. Many artscientists retain the ideal of the prerogative of art to remain apart from the requirements of the world for “useful” knowledge. I personally think that a different approach to meaning and value is an extremely important function of art, which should not be let go by interdisciplinary practitioners. This may be an argument against Roy Ascott’s proposal, thirty years ago, of losing the term “art”.
    Malina’s suspicion that in “50 years the term artscience will have disappeared, as will have equally conceptually confused terms such as the “new media” community”, may well be correct. However, we may need to help the process along by offering real terminological alternatives. My emphasis on terms such as ‘hybridity’ or ‘integrated collaborations’ was intended to do just that. I do not see them, either, as ideal descriptors, but being broader, they may better contain the multifaceted reality of a very heterogeneous, complex field. Depending on how a “network” is defined, I do believe Malina et al.’s proposal of a “dynamic network of disciplines” is one of the better suggestions.
    However, I am not convinced that any of these idioms are sufficiently evocative to supplant such a neat, tidy descriptor as ‘artscience’. We may need a completely novel term, not a compound of familiar ones, for the activities currently covered by the idiom of ‘artscience’. Suggestions, anyone?

    Geertz, C. Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
    Yang, A. That Drunken Conversation between Two Cultures. Leonardo, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 318–321, 2015.

  2. —————–
    From Stephen Nowlin
    thanks stephen
    Certainly the term artscience does not entirely embrace the meanings and practices that have emerged under its umbrella. At first I thought it far too flat-footed a descriptor, and able to capture neither the breadth of interdisciplinary networks claiming it’s masthead, nor suitably expressive of the poetic and artistic significance to be found in combining these two stereotypically distant domains.

    However, some important threads within the artscience ecology have emerged to engage a broad public audience, one consisting not just of academics but potentially, over time, of global masses. For these important threads, I believe, the focus of the “artscience” term on a simple binary contrast is both necessary and helpful.

    Much of the audience upon which efforts in artscience settle still believes, in the 21st century, in the existence of what is essentially an aether — the space beyond what is known and thus filled in with fantasies, the higher supernatural realm pictured in diagrams of the Ptolemaic pre-Copernican universe. In modern times, this aether — the supposed realm of gods that pull on puppet strings to operate the universe — has just been moved further outward from its position two thousand years ago at the circumference of our solar system. But with different trappings and imagery, supernatural belief of today is simply, nonetheless, the same old imaginary aether.

    This astounding fact — that so much of the planet’s population remains guided in its most fundamental perceptions of existence and social/cultural unfoldings, down to minute daily decisions, by a delusional belief that it is magic and not physics or human biology that shepherds the course of human events, is among the most critical meanings embodied and awaiting excavation in the nascent artscience discourse.

    The potential humanitarian reach of artscience — and critically the conversion of science, through its collaboration with art, into an emotional connection to existence rather than a mechanical one — is among the most important impacts of the artscience movement on the advancement of human consciousness and away from stubborn entrenched memes of the deep past. Burying its brand equity in a more obscure name than “artscience” may only diffuse the potential the movement has for impacting this particular aspect of the progressive good across a broad public sphere.