Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

A History, Bayles and Orland

Leave a comment

Excerpt from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Bayles, David (Book – 1993) page 103.


It is an article of faith, among artists and scientists alike, that at some deep level their disciplines share a common ground. What science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively—that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms of nature. Science does not set out to prove the existence of parabolas or sine curves or pi, yet where phenomena are observed, there they are. Art does not weigh mathematically the outcome of the brushstroke, yet whenever artworks are made, archetypal forms appear. Charles Eames, when asked just how he arrived at the curves in his famous molded plywood chair, was clearly baffled that anyone would ask such a question; finally he just shrugged and replied, “It’s in the nature of the thing.” Some things, regardless of whether they are discovered or invented, simply and assuredly feel right. What is natural and what is beautiful are, in their purest state, indistinguishable. Could you improve upon the Circle?

In the day-to-day world, however, improving the circle is different from, say, improving the wheel. Science advances at the rate that technology provides tools of greater precision, while art advances at the pace that evolution provides minds with greater insight—a pace that is, for better or worse, glacially slow. Thus while the stone tools fashioned by cave dwellers an Ice Age ago are hopelessly primitive by current technological standards, their wall paintings remain as elegant and expressive as any modern art. And while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills, or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.

All that is not meant to cast art and science into some sort of moral footrace, but simply to point out that in art as well as in science—the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. Where the scientist asks what equation would best describe the trajectory of an airborne rock, the artist asks what it would feel like to throw one.

“The main thing to keep in mind,” as Douglas Hofstadter noted, “is that science is about classes of events, not particular instances.” Art is just the opposite. Art deals in any one particular rock, with its welcome vagaries, its peculiarities of shape, its unevenness, its noise. The truths of life as we experience them—and as art expresses them – include random and distracting influences as essential parts of their nature. Theoretical rocks are the province of science; particular rocks are the province of art.

The richness of science comes from really smart people asking precisely framed questions about carefully controlled events—controlled in the sense that such random or distracting influences don’t count. The scientist, if asked whether a given experiment could be repeated with identical results, would have to say yes—or it wouldn’t be science. The presumption is that at the end of a scientific experiment neither the researcher nor the world have changed, and so repeating the experiment would necessarily re-produce the same result. Indeed, anyone performing the experiment correctly would get the same results—a circumstance that on occasion leads to multiple claims for the same discovery.

But the artist, if asked whether an art piece could be remade with identical results, would have to answer no—or it wouldn’t be art. In making a piece of art, both the artist and the artist’s world are changed, and re-asking the question—facing the next blank canvas—will always yield a different answer. This creates a certain paradox, for while good art carries a ring of truth to it—a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear—the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person and one time. There is a moment for each artist in which a particular truth can be found, and if it is not found then, it will not ever be. No one else will ever be in a position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made, not found. Our understanding of the world changed when those words were written, and we can’t go back… any more than Shakespeare could.

The world thus altered becomes a different world, with our alterations being part of it. The world we see today is the legacy of people noticing the world and commenting on it in forms that have been preserved. Of course it’s difficult to imagine that horses had no shape before someone painted their shape on the cave walls, but it is not difficult to see the world became a subtly larger, richer, more complex and meaningful place as a result.

Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s