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The Astronomer (Jan Vermeer, c. 1668, Oil on canvas)

Art and Science were once allied disciplines. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote treatises on anatomy and mechanics.  Su Song was a poet and calligrapher as well as an engineer, botanist, and zoologist.  Sir William Herschel was a musician and a composer before becoming an astronomer.  Earlier this month, on the occasion of Sir William Herschel’s birthday, I wrote about how science has become a technical discipline conducted by teams of extensively trained professionals narrowly focused on certain esoteric problems (often on certain aspects of certain problems).  Art has travelled a different path, turning its back on universal problems to explore the autobiographic and the intensely personal.  Is there anything for art to contribute to science or vice versa?  Do visual and performing arts offer something to the world of ideas other than circular self-references?

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt, 1632, oil on canvas)

I don’t know.  My family members are mostly scientists, whereas I’m a troubled artist.  I always hoped the latter discipline had some aspects of the former (along with a hint of shamanism and a good bit of charming charlatanism).  Lately I feel like art is almost all charlatanism.

Art grows ever more solipsistic.  Whereas once the artist stood beside the scientist as the two peered together at the marvels of the world (see the images above), today’s artists seem preoccupied with wholly artificial rhythms.  The quintessential contemporary artist is obsessed not with humankind’s collective quest to understand the universe, but rather with interpretation of entirely personal idols.  The resulting work is edgy and direct. It has the nearly psychotropic power of outsider art (indeed it sometimes seems the only difference between a successful gallery artist with a famous installation piece and a crazy man with a foil monstrosity is a good business manager). Art has become a self-obsessed eccentric uttering vivid maunderings about corporations, stingy lovers, or the fatuous excesses of popular culture.

I’m not sure that I like that sort of thing very much.

Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (Tracey Emin, 1995, tent with textile appliqué)

Art was once like philosophy—a place for the genesis of other disciplines.  The sculptor became the anatomist.  The painter of birds became a natural scientist and then his works spawned ornithology. However as biology has fissiparated into biochemistry, physiology, ecology, biomechanics, histology, symbiology and a thousand other disciplines each more specific and refined, the hapless artist cannot follow–much less contribute.  Artists once tried to keep up with what was happening in science, but today, understanding the broad parameters of scientific endeavor requires painful depth of study. Even politics and history are becoming rarer creative themes as contemporary art travels more towards the autobiographic and the intensely personal.

It has been said that “artists are the eternal adolescents through whom humanity matures.”  That is right.  Like teenagers, art can takes weird chances. It can run off into a rabbit hole for years only to emerge (comparatively) unscathed with new insights. That’s why art was once so handy and why it now seems so squirrely. Science was also once an adolescent discipline filled with eccentric geniuses and brilliant outsiders, but it has matured into a self-controlled workaholic edifice (which, because of its complexity and immensity is, alas, becoming opaque to outsiders).  It would seem that science has no need for art.  What can troubled dreamers offer to physicists or nanotechnologists?  Science can get somewhere.  Artists never really can–but we can always keep asking where we are all going and why.

So to the artists out there, where are we going and why?

Bridge (Jasper Johns, 1997, oil on canvas with objects)

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