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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Art and Science: Both or Neither

 

I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.

 

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.

 

The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

The shape of the buildings: Architecture

The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

The phone in her hand: Technology

I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

“Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”

and

“Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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22 Responses to “Art and Science: Both or Neither”

  1. Sondra Carr says:

    Loved this. Thank you for your clarity on the subject. I was struck with the initial thought concerning the band Art vs. Science that the artistry involved even in the choice of that name inspired a discussion that inspired this piece, that clarified a difficult subject for people everywhere. Art and Science does more than solve our physical problems, it’s that marriage the makes up philosophy.

  2. Xezlec says:

    You keep referring to the “different brain argument”, but I have literally no idea what this supposed “argument” is about. If it’s an argument, then what is it “for” or “against”? The quote you gave was not someone arguing about anything. It was someone trying to understand something, running out of ideas, and proposing the last idea available to him short of “this picture is bad and its creator should feel bad”. He didn’t try to argue for it. Kind of the opposite, actually. He used it as a reason for doubt. A reason not to just dismiss the art as “bad” because he didn’t like it. He’s just trying to be fair, and you seem angry at him for not liking the same stuff you like.

    I’m one of these people too, who doesn’t “get” art. I get that you’re scolding me for neglecting some kind of duty you think I have, but I don’t understand what you’re telling me to do. You’re saying I’ve “given up” too soon, but that implies that I was assigned a task to begin with. Why do I owe it to you to spend all this time and energy concertedly studying something that I don’t even like? How do you know how long I’ve tried? And how do you know our brains aren’t different? You think all brains are identical, even though our bodies are all so unique and individual?

    Here’s what I think: no amount of study is going to make me understand why people read fiction, or why a canvas with a red smudge on it is beautiful to some people. Psychologists have spent lifetimes studying these things without any really clear-cut answers, and I’m not even a psychologist. I spent as much time looking at art, and reading the books you’re supposed to read, and listening to the music you’re supposed to like, and trying to understand it, as any other ordinary person growing up. I’m pretty sure if I were going to understand it, I would have by now.

    What do you want from us?

    • Jordan says:

      Hi. I can see that you disagree with a lot of the points I tried to make in the post, but I would like to take this opportunity to provide some additional clarity to the argument.
      The different brain argument refers to people citing “different brain” as a knee-jerk reaction to not seeing the value in something, as if it were the ultimate excuse to dismiss something outright without pausing to consider it. The quote is indicative of a widely used argument, not an argument in itself. The Different Brain argument is “for” the broadening of one’s consideration and “against” the dismissal of things that challenge one to think outside one’s comfort zone.

      There is a marked difference between understanding something and appreciating something. In order to understand something, you would indeed have to spend time and energy studying it. In order to appreciate something, you simply have to be open to the idea of it. For example, I understand English because I have studied it. I appreciate science and sports; I have spent no time studying them. This post has not advocated for a thorough understanding of art or science, merely an appreciation of areas outside of your current understanding. Furthermore, my distaste for the different brain argument does not literally mean that I think everyone has the exact same brain; that is, perhaps, an oversimplification of my argument. It does, however, mean that I think people use the argument in order to avoid things that challenge them intellectually.

  3. Chad Nelson says:

    If I may, only an attempt to appreciate that math and music (I am a musician) are attempts to investigate the real world. I don’t expect everyone to understand both art and science, just to appreciate it and to not look down on one another.

    Look at sound waves, to me that complexity is both art and math; overlapping harmonics creates art, great music.

    Not understanding art is ok, not appreciating it is not.

  4. Alan Cooper says:

    I agree that capacity for science and art doesn’t divide us into two kinds of people. But I wouldn’t want to be so authoritarian as to “abolish the concept”. Better just to show how it is erroneous and/or how to correct it.

    Although the left-brain,right-brain idea that underlies many versions of the “scientific mind vs artistic mind” dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, it also probably contains some truth. Even applied naively though, it doesn’t lead to two types of people, but rather a two dimensional continuum which can be divided into four quadrants.

    Yes, there are some scientists with low artistic sensibility and artists with little capacity for scientific thinking, but there are also lots of people who excel at both and others with little capacity for either. If there’s any kind of a war it’s between the art-deficient and science-deficient sub-types rather than between the whole worlds of science and of art, but even there the recognition of difference does not have to be seen as a declaration of war.

    The existence of art I cannot appreciate and science I cannot understand (not to mention athletic feats I cannot perform) are all things to see with admiration as challenge and inspiration rather than as occasions for dismissal and conflict. But we do not all have to be the same, or even equally balanced, and no matter how many “types” we have, that variety is something to be appreciated rather than deplored.

    • Jordan says:

      Hi, thanks for your thought-provoking response. I do agree that my use of the word “abolition” sounds too hyperbolic. Once you pointed it out, I immediately saw your point.

      If I have given the sense that I deplored the variety of the human species, then I have miscommunicated my point on some level. My post was intended to show people the value in considering concepts that challenged them, not to fully accept them and conform to something they are not. Merely to expand their viewpoints.

  5. Steiner says:

    I like art but I despise art snobbery. At the end of the day, art is very much a personal experience whereas science is not. I can make a claim that the Mona Lisa is mediocre (which I think it is) and be entirely justified in doing so – at least as justified as anyone else. However, I can’t say that quantum theory is a waste of time, as quantum theory predicts a large range of phenomena, which are essentially indisputable.

    Art connects to people and has an entirely personal and subjective value. Science, however, obtains fundamental truth and that is what makes it so special.

  6. JJ says:

    When you ask people for their opinion on a piece of art (or anything for that matter), and you get the “different brain argument”, most of the times what they really mean is “I don’t give a damn about this”. That is the truth, my friend. Deal with it.

  7. Xezlec says:

    I don’t agree that not appreciating something is the result of being “closed-minded” or some other moral wrong, though that’s a position I’ve seen artsy people take all too often. Actually, I think that attitude is a bit elitist. Appreciating something or not is about personal taste. There isn’t anything I can do to like something I don’t like.

    To the person who said “not understanding art is ok, not appreciating it is not”: I find it hard to believe that there is nothing in the world you don’t like. I’m uniquely aware of this since my taste in music is extremely specific and unusual, and most people (probably including you) hate it. So climb off your high horse. Nobody appreciates everything, and that’s OK.

    One other thing: this word “dismissing”. I don’t think it means anything. You’re just talking about people who don’t “get” something you’re into, and looking for a word that puts a negative spin on that. For example, take the person described in the original anecdote. He obviously tried to appreciate/understand/whatever-word-you-prefer what he was looking at (we know this because he bothered to comment on it), and couldn’t get anything out of it. That left him with two possibilities:

    1. The thing he was looking at was pointless.
    2. Something about him was insufficient to properly comprehend its point.

    I really can’t see what other option he had. He chose option #2. If either of those qualifies as “dismissal”, I would expect it to be #1. Now, he could have said “I guess I’m stupid”, but presumably he had been told he was smart often enough in his science studies to reject that hypothesis, so instead he went with “I guess I’m just smart in a different way”.

    So I stand by my position. There was nothing more he could do at that moment. I’m sick of being told (mostly by people who don’t even know me) that if I would just open my closed mind and stop “clinging” to the things I like in order to “avoid intellectual work” or whatever, then I would surely “appreciate” Mozart, and therefore the fact that I don’t is proof that I deserve whatever scorn I receive from the enlightened class. Gimme a break. Liking things isn’t about duty or right and wrong or intellectual laziness. People just like what they like.

    • Xezlec says:

      Also, the thing about “challenging people to think outside their comfort zone” – do you actually believe that? That a painting is a “challenge” of some kind? That it prompts the person looking at it to do some kind of intellectual work (beyond trying to understand what the heck he’s supposed to like about it)? Assuming this is meant earnestly, and not just some rhetorical device, I think it illustrates perfectly the difference between us: you perceive some kind of challenge in a picture. I, on the other hand, cannot even imagine what on earth you are talking about there. Let alone this “comfort zone” stuff (though that phrase definitely sounds more like a rhetorical barb than a genuine sentiment, so I’ll leave that part alone).

  8. Isaac says:

    This is great! How often does one see such fervent discussion and even disagreement…about discussion and disagreement? @Xezlec is clearly an experienced rheroticist (forensicist?). The premise of the original article was…what are we disagreeing on and are we disagreeing or are we just prioritizing our time and attention differently? Is it whether we find value or whether we tried hard enough or is that one person’s trash is another persons’ treasure? It is a bald and bold premise designed to incite thinking. Is there anything universal or connected about the human aesthetic? And epistemoligically, what does it really mean to not appreciate something? Does it mean to have considered it and then choose not to appreciate it or does it mean to simply not spend time on it? I certainly don’t like certain movies, theorems, proofs, and poems that have a profound influence on me. @JJ observes that some people, frankly, don’t give a damn. And that applies to certain artworks as well as some people and evolution. So we ALL must deal with it. Is the rejection of a Pollack painting at all related to the rejection of Darwin’s work? @Steiner suggests that there exists something known as art snobbery. What would science snobbery look like? Does it exist? Or is it an oxymoron? @AlanCooper wrestles with the meat of the treatise. What is the continuum and is it possible to willfully move our own perspectives along it? Finally, as someone once said, “Science and art are only the pursuits of a crazy person, and yet they are spring from the same desperate struggle to contextualize the human experience.”

  9. alvar says:

    I believe that this article accomplishes two things: 1 it looks criticaly at a cultural divide between those who can appreciate art and those who can understand science. If that divide exists and is really that deep is also a matter worth of consideration. 2. It opens a discussion about the possible reasosns for this that go beyond the simplification of “different brains” I like the comments and responses thread a lot, its almost as valuable (or even more valuable) than the article istelf, as the conversation is both smart and respectful… something you don’t see that often in the blogosphere.

  10. Interesting, but I do think this is not really a point: “Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.”

    No one did scientific trials to make paper, and paints have been around for millennia, long before science. Ok so maybe you were just being metaphorical, in which case it’s ok, ‘science enables the arts’ would be the correct phrase I believe.

  11. Marcos Lafleur says:

    It’s the first time when i’ve seen your site. I can see lots of hard work has gone in to it. It’s actually good.

  12. I actually blog as well and I am authoring a little something comparable to this post,
    “Quantum Diaries”. Do you care in cases where
    I actuallymake use of a number of your ideas? Thanks
    ,Denisha

  13. Eldho says:

    Wow. Great article and yeah great comments and arguements too. Well, my point is that there is no denying the fact that both science and art derive from each other and their ultimate pursuit (of course with different methodologies) is to find out “THE ANSWER”. The answer for “what the heck is going on? Who created me? Why am I living ? What is the purpose of everything?” .So my question is after appreciating both the science and the art which one of the are you gonna follow? Or putting my question in a different way.. Can I be both artistic and scientific at the same time? Is it possible for me to choose anyone of the two as a career option just by considering their beauty and overlooking my natural inclination to either of them.?

  14. […] stereotype is made up of various constructs: Scientists are evil. Scientists are white and male. Scientists are unemotional and incapable of understanding or making art. Scientists are tortured, mad […]

  15. jade says:

    I am searching for famous names who were scientist and artists at the same time. please is you know reply me. Thank you.

    Jade

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