Art, Science and the Intersection of Knowledge

Arcimboldo Vertumnus Detail
Detail of Vertumnus, by Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo produced in Milan c. 1590. Arcimboldo’s most famous work, it depicts the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons, transformation and abundance.

I’ve always loved this painting. Vertumnus looks serenely at the viewer, a slight smile making you think he knows something you’d like to. It’s a clever work of Mannerism, seamlessly weaving a complex array of perfectly rendered fruits and other plants into the portrait of a human face full of character. The portrait is of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, a contemporary of of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare and the flowering of one of the important periods in Western culture.

By linking Rudolf to Vertumnus, Giuseppe Arcimboldo makes a supremely flattering gesture. The Holy Roman Emperor is, by this reference, a godlike figure, responsible for eliciting positive change in his empire. While the painters of the 16th century were no strangers to allegory, this work has always struck me as particularly effective. Perhaps I’m just drawn to the sense of fun. Equally, however, it wouldn’t be as effective to me if the plants weren’t so engaging.

By marrying art and science (in this case, plant anatomy), Arcimboldo attempts to describe the world and, in some way, help us understand his version of it through the oblique mechanism of allegory.

One of our most primal needs is to understand the world around us, and then share that understanding. We are motivated to to understand because we – humans in general – are (justifiably) afraid of the unknown. In fact, the craving for order and predictability is a trait that may have had its origins in our most ancient roots as a survival skill in our earliest ancestors. The early Hominids, like any other animal, would have been vulnerable to the dangers of changing environmental conditions. Being able to recognize and react appropriately kept them alive and that impetus is today equally resonant to business people as to hikers.

Bringing them down to their common denominators, art and science have much in common in this regard. The fields cause us to reflect, explore and communicate aspects of the world around us.

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” – Albert Einstein, 1923

Many scientists I know (myself included) are either arts practitioners or have deep appreciation for the arts. Perhaps Isaac Asimov is the greatest 20th century example of this. Aside from being a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, he was a prolific writer who wrote or edited more than 500 books on just about every subject imaginable from science fiction, to Shakespeare to off-color limericks.

Even disregarding the ways art and science might be superficially similar, it’s also worth thinking about how they can also be integrated. Considerable creativity is needed to make scientific breakthroughs and art is just as often an expression (or the product) of scientific knowledge. The science behind singing opera, mixing paint colors, baking, fashion design or creating perspective in a drawing, all have strong scientific underpinnings. In fact, getting the science down to the point where it is second nature is the mark of a true master.

Detail of Relativity by Maurits Cornelius Escher, 1953

Using mathematics creatively was the hallmark of the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelius Escher who, although not having mathematical training made art that had a strong mathematical component. Many of the drawings for which he is best known were built around impossible landscapes. In his seminal 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter explores common themes in the lives and works of logician Kurt Gödel, M. C. Escher, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach, wrapping up concepts fundamental to mathematics, symmetry, and intelligence within the lives of these three people.

When both artists and scientists are successful, it because they change our perceptions of the world, causing us to see it – and ourselves – differently. Where they fail is when they present nothing new. “Derivative” is a condemnation in either field.

The Legacy of da Vinci

In his book How to Think Like da Vinci (MJF Books, 2015), Daniel Smith says of Leonardo:

We wonder how one man could be so skilled across the arts and sciences. The answer is that he recognized no intellectual separation between his work as an artist and as a scientist. Instead the art and the scientist were conjoined, their ideas flowing effortlessly together informing his practice in whatever discipline he happened to be focusing upon on any given day… the Mona Lisa could not have been painted had he not devoted countless hours to the study of anatomy (page 75).

The Vebjørn Sand Da Vinci Project bridge, based on a design by Leonardo Da Vinci. Photo: Åsmund Ødegård, 2005

The talents of da Vinci as a bridge engineer were demonstrated in 2001, when artist Vebjorn Sand built the da Vinci-Broen bridge in Norway using the da Vinci’s never-realized plans for a bridge originally meant to stretch across the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The Ottoman Sultan Bajazet II, who commissioned it rejected the design as an architectural impossibility. So – almost 500 years after its designed it – da Vinci and his design were vindicated.

Mona LisaAnd yet, the world at large forgets most overlooks his scientific and engineering achievements, focusing on him as an artist, the creator of two of the most famous paintings in history.

It was bad luck that da Vinci’s work was lost to civilization for almost 200 years, through a combination of poor planning, carelessness and profiteering. Michael White, in this 2000 biography Leonardo: The First Scientist speculates on modern society, had this not been the case:

…Leonardo had made startling discoveries in his studies of optics, mechanics, anatomy and geology. He had created a form of plastic, developed a sophisticated predecessor of the camera (the camera obscura), written of contact lenses and steam power, explained why the sky was blue and developed visual techniques for representation of the body that would only be seen again with the invention of the CAT scan.

We can only wonder what would have happened to the history of science, and from that the development of technology, if Leonardo’s work had been known about and read widely soon after his death. Where would we be today? What technological wonders now enjoy? (page 4)

STEAM: The Arts in Science Education

Recognizing this great potential for integration, how can we move into a realm of true interdisciplinarity, which represents a nexus between the arts and sciences? One avenue I find promising is STEAM education, which explores these concepts as an integrated whole, rather than as silos to be conquered separately.

child learningMany people are aware of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). It has been in use sufficiently long for educators to see outcomes and practices unfold in schools across the nation. More recently, however, some educators have proposed adding an “A” (for arts) to the STEM curriculum. In doing so, they have sparked a national debate about whether the arts have a place in STEM education.

Today’s innovators are rewarded for creativity, both from employers and by the marketplace. Working collaboratively in open work spaces, sharing ideas globally with other thinkers, and combining their STEM powers with more artistic talents. From the open-air Brooklyn offices of Kickstarter that inhabit an old pencil factory, to the dog-friendly work spaces of Seattle-based Rover, these celebrate humanity and creativity as being fundamental to the design process. (See the full story at Artsy)

If the marketplace is ready for this sort of thinking, it presents the field of Education with an opportunity. Integrating knowledge can be highly beneficial to students because in the real world, these challenges blend together. Teaching children how to challenge assumed knowledge and come up with unique combinations is fundamental to true innovation. From the perspective of da Vinci (and the many other thinkers who followed, from Francis Bacon to John Ruskin), this integration was so fundamental as to go without question.

Practitioners who use science and math to create innovations also use design-thinking to help conceptualize their work. Their communication incites enthusiasm in the the funding community in order to secure support for their initiatives. They also work collaboratively with colleagues and investors to improve and expand ideas, and then speak eloquently about progress and discoveries to an engaged public.

Similarly, artists often must understand accounting if they are running their own business, as well as the materials with which their artworks are composed, and the regimes of humidity and temperature within which the pieces must be stored.

Creating factions out of the areas of study and focusing solely on testing and rigor contributes to the continually low levels of student engagement in STEM. The “A” of arts in STEAM provides the essential ingredients of relevance, immediacy and passion to unlock what there is to love about science and its sibling subjects.

A Final Thought: We Need Art and Science to Save the Planet

The Earth is in trouble. The litany of environmental catastrophes is too long to recount and, for which, the concept of the Anthropocene (the shortly-to-be-named Age of Humanity) in some way serves as a convenient focal point. Even if you choose not to buy into the fact that our climate is changing due to human activity, it’s impossible to deny the estimated 87,000 tons of garbage in the World Ocean, vanishing coral reefs, global declines of amphibians, bees and many other groups. Although you can’t deny it, do you have to care?

In this book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, the great biologist E. O. Wilson introduces his concept with the following words:

The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship (page 8).

These words resonate to me because it is in the unity of knowledge that I find the greatest hope for our future. Especially in the United States, for true environmental protection to take place, people have to care. When I was young, environmental protection meant setting aside breeding habitat for threatened species or banning the whale hunt. Now, single-species issues (which today are even more severe) have been eclipsed by issues that everybody has to care about. Air, water, arable land and other environmental goods and services.

greenpeace-ad2Who is it that helps people care? This ad from Greenpeace (c2008) presents a wonderfully simple question: “Do you know what’s in your food?” It provides the most basic call to action, urging you to ask questions about hidden GMOs in the food you eat. For me, it works because Greenpeace found humor in a very serious subject. It’s engaging, without preaching and, rest assured, there’s science behind the message.

In some ways, Greenpeace is doing what Giuseppe Arcimboldo did 450 years earlier. Using plants as a sort of visual synecdoche, both artists tell a bigger story with their visualization, one that’s based on the psychical properties of those plants and what they represent. This is the kind of clever thinking that gives me hope and confirms the place of interdisciplinarity across the arts and sciences.

If we want to own our future, we must take control of our present, using every tool at our disposal. Tomorrow’s world is bright for those willing to make bold experiments. The next generation needs polymaths.

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