Monday, 7 October 2013

Is Art a science?

A question for you. I blurt it out in haste, slightly under my breath in the vain hope, that by saying it quickly, with my eyes closed, hands over my ears, screaming 'la, la, la, I can't hear me' that I can somehow pretend I didn't ask it of myself and that it might go away or be slightly easier to answer...rather than the two decades I fear it might take to understand. So,
Is Art a science?
I must be asking the question 'wrongly' as Google, for once, is not at all helpful. What I am trying to articulate, is, can the decisive and evidential nature of science explain and rationalise the value and worth of Art. Are there scientific priniciples or laws that can be applied to art that if followed, elevate the quality of that artwork?  Science can explain much of life around us, so why not Art too?  Personally I hope it can't...but then I would be living in a flat world with willo-the-wisps and goblins, totally oblivious of any need for periodic tables and pi!

Science should excite me more than it does. But it takes away the magic for me, by rationalising everything. Science requires a logical reason for everything, even if it doesn't know what it is yet. Art feels more accommodating and free-thinking than this. I enjoy the fact that art is a means of expression, that cannot be wrong or right. Science would never allow such ambiguity. But I'm having this niggling doubt, that this might not be the case. Are there underlying formulas that the great masters applied to their art consciously or otherwise?  We know about compositional rules like the rule of thirds, but is there more that could be gleaned from the field of science to explain why some art is elevated to a masterpiece and others not.

A question put to readers of the Guardian Online this week 'What makes a painting a masterpiece?' generated an interesting response from a reader, backwards7. I know nothing of backwards7 or Harald Borja who he speaks of, (little came up on a google search either), however, despite this, I found his reply really interesting. It offers an  alternative and unorthodox view of what defines a masterpiece removing the talent of an artist to that of their ego alone. I include backwards7 response here in full.
The Norwegian writer and commentator, Harald Bɵrja, is regarded as the founding-father of the mikro-estetisk (micro-aesthetic) school of art criticism, although he vigorously disputes this terminology. In interviews Bɵrja has attempted to define himself as a scientist for whom visual beauty is incidental and subservient to underlying physical processes that are invisible to the human eye and all but the most powerful microscopes and scanners. He regards the universe as deterministic and therefore void of any true creativity or spontaneity, which he consider to arise from the vanity of the artist.
I will not delve any further into Bɵrja's complex opinions on this subject, mainly because all attempts to accurately translate his 2700 page treatise from its original Norwegian, in a manner that conveys its true meaning, have failed. Regrettably I do not speak the language well enough to make my own attempt. 
For Bɵrja a masterpiece is defined by details that exist beyond the scope of human perception: You or I might gaze upon Charlier's Theatre of 18th Century Man and be moved by the humanity of these sculptures which appear to radiate an inner light, as if the soul of the subjects was somehow infused in the plaster. Bɵrja would regard this as a superficial distraction. While he agrees that this artwork is undoubtedly a masterpiece his appreciation of it lies in the “whorls of particle matter” that comprise these sculptures “as if a school of tornadoes have momentarily resolved themselves in human form.”It is this methodology that often leads Bɵrja to make controversial statements. A good example is his insistence that an amateur painting of some cats that he purchased from a cafe in Zurich is worth more to the art world than Van Goph'sSunflowers series, which he regards as a collection of unfinished works in progress that will only be improved by the passing of time, an accident, or some violent act of human intervention. 
In support of this Bɵrja points to an impasto smear in the bottom right hand corner ofTwo cats which accurately reproduces a section of the Swiss Alps.As stated above, Bɵrja embraces the concept that decay and vandalism play a role in the creation of great art and cites cases where these processes have elevated previously banal paintings and sculptures to works of majesty. Regrettably a few individuals have taken his philosophy to heart and have attempted to make their own 'improvements' upon priceless treasures:In 2007, a student and devotee of Bɵrja flung a vial of sulphuric acid at Die Magd von Echternach while it was on loan to a museum in Atlanta. The damage caused to the painting proved to be irreparable. It is now displayed with a velvet curtain covering it left-hand side. 
A few months after the attack Bɵrja made a comment during an interview with the Czech art journal - Oko Jehly - that appeared to endorse the actions of the vandal, remarking that “what was once serviceable at best is now a thing of rare beauty.” 
Naturally this provoked outrage and was widely criticised as an irresponsible thing to say, yet I have no doubt that these words were spoken with great sincerity. Bɵrja genuinely believes that, in the aftermath of the acid attack, the painting is more beautiful on a microscopic level.He has a right to air this opinion, however I sometimes wish he that he would temper his word or at very least condemn the actions of those who attempt to cause damage to works of art. 
From this brief introduction to Borja's views, he is putting forward an alternative criteria on which one should be appreciating art. There is an implication that art is qualified on a molecular level. This doesn't necessarily suggest why a painting is a masterpiece, but alludes to other methods on which you could judge a masterpiece.

The neurological theory of aesthetic experience [1] is responding directly to the idea that there are neural mechanisms that mediate our views on aesthetics.  The authors suggest that:
'artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules to 'titillate the visual areas of the brain'
Bingo. I want to know more about how artists titillate. The authors suggest that the aesthetic experience can be linked to neurological theory. The article is detailed and technical, and whilst the neurological theory grounds the principles that are outlined, it is their practical applications that is of greatest interest to me:
  • peak shift effect...making caricatures. Accentuating features and contrasts. 
  • binding...perceptual groups. Gestalt principles, paraidolia. Finding patterns in things.
  • isolate...reducing subjects to an outline, or to one element to accentuate it. Removing the congestion or noise.
  • symmetry...making use of juxtapositions complementary or incongruous
  • metaphor...visual puns, allegories, poetic, classifying of dissimilar events
  • perceptual problem solving...a visual puzzle where meaning is implied rather than explicit.
Some of this sounds familiar and I can recall echoes of it from tutors and textbooks.  However, the fact there maybe a science behind art demands further investigation. Elkins (2008) has written a fascinating paper entitled Aesthetics and the two cultures [2] on the uncomfortable dialogue between science and art.
Several times I have started and abandoned a book project with the title The Drunken Conversation of Science and Painting. The title is meant to conjure a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, and the drunkenness is to imply that the two sides have some infatuation with one another, which compels them to keep talking without really connecting or making too much sense.
Elkins suggests the terminology that the two disciplines have are not compatible and are therefore are disconnected. Terms that have been explored by scientists of art such as elegant, fruitful or beautiful fall short according Elkin and would be wholly insufficient when describing a piece of artwork. Elkin evidences several attempts of scientists, mathematicians, art historians and critics to understand how an artist created a piece of art. But there seems to be an ongoing gap between the two traditions of science and art. It isn't that science isn't being applied in art, but it seems to be a facilitator or mechanism for artistic motivations, rather than symbiotic in the creative process.

Is the creative process a scientific one? No...Yes...flounder...I will need longer to read up on this...just give me a decade, maybe two.

[1] Ramachandran, V.S., Hirstein, W. 1999. The Science of Art. (Journal of Consciousness Studies)
[2] Elkins, J., 2008. Aesthetics and the Two Cultures: Why Art and Science should be allowed to go their separate ways.

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