Art has always tended to attract mystics – Romantics who feel an artist should intuit and express much more than they should observe and study – but it has equally attracted clear-eyed and logical thinkers. In 1904, German biologist Ernst Haeckel released a two volume work entitled Kunstformen der Natur (in English, “Art Forms of Nature”). This was a series of prints depicting hundreds of organisms, ranging between frogs to jellyfish, arachnids to sea anenomes. Perhaps what makes Haeckel’s prints “art” rather than mere draftsmanship is that they are not only descriptive. Each print is also deeply expressive – he renders each animal’s anatomy with expertise, but they also sway and lean in their composition, as if they are in motion. Many of his illustrations, despite their detailing, verge on abstraction in form and colour. Some organisms clearly evoke other less immediately scientific images – his sketches of bat faces look like tribal masks, the tendrils of jellyfish flow out down the page like a hair do.
The best art, in my opinion, elucidates and accentuates our experiences of a material world by manipulating our emotions – in this way, I think art is surely progressive and exciting.
Of course not everyone agrees with my opinion, and there is plenty of art reacting against science and any possibility of certainties, instead promoting mysticism and/or post-modernism. There is, in fact, a large school in art criticism – the post-modernists – who view science as, primarily, an oppressive and particularly “Western” mode of thought that holds supremacy not because it gets at the truth of the world in any way but because it has been sponsored and propped up by powerful states and by capital.
There is an atom of truth in the allegation. States have abused science horrifically in the past. Often post-modernist critics begin by confusing science as prescribing morality instead of, for the most part, describing the material world. Scientific method cannot be blamed for how powerful people apply scientific knowledge. Science should not cop all the blame for historical horrors like social darwinism. How we apply and interpret science is a question of philosophy, specifically ethics, and not of science itself. (There is a lot to unpack in that sentence: How do we know what is ethical? We’ll come to that in future posts as it is pertinent). That is not to say we should always excuse individual scientists entirely when powerful people misuse their scientific work. Scientists are prone to hubris like any other human beings, they make mistakes, good scientists can do science badly at times. Haeckel himself was guilty of this kind of confusion, at one point declaring that, “Politics is applied biology”. A modern eye quickly recognises what a terribly oversimplified definition he is offering us there. Another example I see come up occasionally is when people insist that vegetarians are ignoring the “food chain”, as though a complicated web of what organisms do eat prescribes to us what they should eat, and thus what people should eat.
I disagree with post-modernist critics, not in all regards, but on a lot of fundamental premises. I have a rather naive and eclectic approach to criticism myself. I disagree very strongly with the post-modernists, though, and in this blog, I want to explore how science matters to art, how art matters to science, and whether a few of the underpinnings of the scientific method – a methodological skepticism, an empirical eye – can really contribute to a more informative criticism of art, or if this attitude really does deserve the label sometimes affixed to it: “scientism”.
I was trying to think about how to conclude this introduction, and stumbled back to a Guardian article I read last week by the late art critic Robert Hughes. Speaking of the painter Lucian Freud, he said:
“The way Freud perceives a form and builds it up from oily mud on a piece of cloth; the way he constructs analysed equivalents to reality – all that, at best, is inspiring. It represents an order of experience totally different from the relatively weightless coming-into-sight of a photographic image or a silkscreen.”
That’s where I found the title for the blog. It’s not quite all there is to art, but I like the turn of phrase “analysed equivalents to reality”. It raises a lot of deep questions, but I think it also gets at the power art has when it links itself to the world and its issues – and to the sciences – rather than when it tries, in vain, to escape “It All”.