Bridging the Gap between Art and Science

Notes by cognitive scientist, poet and historian Piero Scaruffi
Premise: If you don't know who i am, i have been running the Leonardo Art Scienc Evening Rendezvous (LASER) since 2008 in the Bay Area and i founded the L.A.S.T. Festival (Life Art Science Tech Festival) in 2014 in Silicon Valley. Since i was in high school, i have been active both in the arts (mostly as a music historian) and in science (degree in Math, thesis in Theoretical Physics, worked in Artificial Intelligence).

This essay is a curated and expanded version of the notes that i prepared for a round table moderated by Leonard Shlain at at Swissnex in San Francisco on 19 September 2007.

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  • What is art? This is a question that depends on the country and the age in which you live. Art for the Romans was simply praise of the state via engineering. Art for the Greeks was the science of abstract harmony, i.e. a form of geometry and mathematics. Art for the Chinese was the practice of harmony with nature. Art in all religions tend to be a manifestation and reenaction of legends. What they all have in common is a) the aspiration to inspire, b) the aim for a higher truth, c) the use of some technology. The psychological effect can be quite different though, ranging from sheer awe to tender melancholy. The psychological state does not define art, per se. The fact that art creates a psychological state may define art, though. To some extent, every human activity is a form of art. Then we have to decide to what degree it is "artistic". Every human action can be viewed as a divine act of creation: with every action the human mind tries to recreate the world in her/his image. Art is the recreation of the world in human image. Each mind does it differently because each mind is different. Needless to say, the existence of millions of different views of the world would make life very difficult. So society has actually evolved away from the arts and towards a uniform view of the world. Children have a very hard time abandoning their egocentric view of the world. Society forces them, and keeps forcing daily every adult, to accept a universal view of the world that we can share and use. No wonder that we have separated the arts from the sciences: the arts are an obstacle to that process of coexistence. Art is the process of creating a very personal view of the world. Science is the process of creating a very impersonal view of the world. Art renders the familiar unfamiliar. Science renders the unfamiliar familiar (or, at least, manageable). The latter has helped create more and more complex forms of society. The price it had to pay was to marginalize and imprison the arts.
  • Is art a uniquely human activity? The question is misleading. Art is ubiquitous in nature, whether an alpine lake or a spider web. The real question is: do other animals perceive what they do as art? We assume that an alpine lake or the mountain ridges that create it do nto perceive themselves, therefore they are not "artists". Can a spider appreciate the quality of the web it has just woven? Can a beaver appreciate the quality of the "dam" that it has just built across a creek? To us they often look like great art. The main difference between human art and animal art is the intention: hmans meant to create art, whether practical or not, whereas presumably other animals simply do what is practical to do. Whether animals can perceive beauty or not, their activities are "artistic" too, to some extent. Thus in the end art is simply a different name for... life.
  • Why do humans engage in artistic activities? If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or if the development of the individual from childhood to adulthood mirrors the progression of the human species through ancestral stages, then children hold the answer. Children play. Most adults stop playing because they have to work in order to feed their families. Art might be a way to keep playing while you are working. Children are genetically programmed to play, and playing might be a way to learn the environment and to be creative about it. Humans may just be genetically programmed to be creative. Art might just be a way to map the environment in a creative way. being creative about interacting with the environment yields several evolutionary advantages: 1. you learn more about the environment, 2. you simulate a variety of strategies, 3. you are better prepared to cope with frequently changing conditions. Mapping the territory is a precondition for surviving its challenges, but it wouldn't be enough to yield solutions to unpredictable problems. To deal with the unpredictable, we need more than just a map. over the centuries this continuous training in creativity has led to the creation of entire civilizations (science, technology, engineering). And to the history of art.
  • What are the genetic origins of human creativity? Again, the answer lies in young people. Teenagers are rebels. Parents have accrued experience (wisdom) and Darwinian theory would predict that their children would be eager to absorb that experience in order to maximize their chances of survival. Quite the contrary: teenagers think that ignoring their parents' rules and doing the exact opposite is cool. Sometimes the only reason to do the exact opposite is precisely that: it's the exact opposite of what every parent says. It seems that humans are genetically programmed to break the rules and question authority from a very young age, which contrasts sharply with the behavior of other animals. This might in fact be the fundamental behavioral difference between humans and other animals that set the human species on a course of unbridled technological progress.
  • What is the impact on society of art? Art educates people to be creative. A lack of creativity is a handicap for science. Science creates new paradigms of thought. Resistance to new paradigms of thought is a handicap for art. Without artistic creativity, every new generation would be more similar to specialized robots than to sentient beings.
  • What is the relationship between art and science? If every human activity is, to some extent, "artistic", then any scientific discipline is an art. The separation of art and technology/engineering/science is a recent phenomenon. It was not obvious to the Sumerians that the ziggurat was only art, or to the Egyptians that the pyramid was only art, or to the Romans that the equestrian statue was only art. They had, first and foremost, a practical purpose. Given that purpose, a technology was employed to achieve it. Art and science are so distant in the 21st century because we live in the age of specialization. Specialization started in the Middle Ages and picked up speed with the Industrial Revolution. Specialization is, quite simply, a very efficient way to organize society. Therefore specializations multiplied. Today we are not only keeping art and science separated: we are maintaining countless specializations within the arts and within the sciences.
  • What specialization means: knowing more and more about less and less.
  • The specialization of labor is actually the foundation of life as we know it. At the very beginning there existed multifunctional cells. They later split into a mortal body and an immortal genetic material. The mortal body split into organs and limbs. The need for societies arises from specialization: multifunctional beings don't need to socialize, specialized beings need to live in societies where other beings perform other functions so that the whole is fit to survive (e.g., genes cooperate to make the cell fit, ants and bees cooperate to make the colony fit, and so on). The division of labor among specialized units has been important for survival and progress.
  • What are the benefits for science of an integration with the arts? Art can help usher in a paradigm shift. Major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic periods. Too often today science is evolution, not revolution, perhaps because it has been decoupled from the arts.
  • Collaborations between artists and scientists, precisely because the backgrounds and goals are so different, help both artists and scientists understand what "collaboration" is and how it benefits them. For example, organizations like the JPL and NASA are divided into engineers and scientists, and it is not easy for them to communicate. A scientist who collaborates with an artist will probably find it easier to collaborate with an engineer.
  • "The artist's insights or perceptions seem to have been given to mankind as a providential means of bridging the gap between evolution and technology" (Marshall McLuhan)
  • Art and Science are wildly different. They are defined by their histories. What is Art? It is what the Popes decided, it is what the aristocracy decided, it is what museums decided, it is what art critics decided. What is Science? It is what Galileo, Descartes, Bacon and Newton decided, and it is now monopolized by universities and industrial research laboratories. Artists are basically self-employed business people, who need to market their work to art collectors, museums and galleries and whose work is judged by art critics. Scientists are employees in a hierarchical bureaucracy, whose work is funded by the government or philanthropic organizations and is judged by peers. The motivations for doing Art are completely different from the motivations for doing Science, the processes are different, the metrics are different. Trying to prove that Art and Science are similar is not a good way to tackle the issue of their separation. They are wildly different. The question is not "how to make Art and Science identical" but "how can Art and Science benefit from interacting".
  • Art is subjective, science is objective. Art loves diversity, variety, unorthodoxy: there are many truths in art. Science aims for one and only one universal truth. Objects fall, they don't rise in the sky. Ice melts as the temperature increases. It is colder on top of a mountain than in a desert. There has to be only one version of the facts, otherwise it means we still haven't found a scientific explanation for them. The scientific revolution that started with Galileo and Descartes is indirectly responsible for the gap between art and science. Art goes beyond truth. Truth is boring, art shows something that makes truth interesting, and that something lies beyond truth.
  • We don't expect two people to have the same opinion of a painting. Scientists strive to reach a point where everybody has the same opinion of a scientific theory.
  • What is the impediment to art/science integration today? Dogmas rule. If we don't comply with the ruling dogmas, we are not accepted. A history of jazz music written by a rock historian is accepted neither by the rock establishment nor by the jazz establishment. It doesn't exist. We don't exist. Furthermore, the 20th century disliked multifaceted ("renaissance") artists/scientists. In Italy, the homeland of art and science integration, ordinary people dismiss artists-scientists as "tuttologhi". Also, the language of science has become more and more difficult.
  • What are the consequences of the separation of art and science? They are subtle but widespread. For example, environmental fundamentalists oppose any alteration of Nature. Implicitly, they assume that humans cannot improve over Nature. This idea would have been considered ridiculous in ancient times, when human alterations of Nature were almost always considered as positive improvements to the landscape. Even the staunchest environmentalists would probably refrain from destroying the pyramids or the ziggurats or the Acropolis of Athens to restore the stones to the mountains where they were taken, and would probably refrain from demolishing Michelangelo's statues to return the marble to Carrara's mountain. However, the environmental fundamentalist of the 21st century assumes that Nature is the supreme artist, and humans should not alter whatever Nature has produced. If Michelangelo and Leonardo were reborn today and submitted a plan to build a fantastic freeway through a national park, they would be impaled. (Ironically, the same environmental fundamentalists who oppose bridges and tunnels take pictures precisely of bridges and tunnels when they travel to Switzerland). This was clearly not the case centuries ago, when great minds were asked specifically to alter the environment. What has changed is the view that human work is beautiful. The demise of this view is a consequence of having decoupled art and science. The 21st century does not perceive a product of science/technology/engineering as beautiful. It perceives it as a threat to (natural) beauty.
  • In general, what is the consequence of the fragmentation of knowledge? Boundaries. There are boundaries between disciplines. "Experiments" are carried out within a discipline and their results apply to that discipline only. Practices that work don't spread.
  • What is the relationship between creativity and progress? It should be obvious: technology does not exist in a vacuum. A system that does not encourage poetry, music, painting, sculpture and so forth does not encourage discovery and invention.
  • What caused the separation of art and science? It was part of a broader trend away from unification and towards specialization. Not only did science and art progressively move apart, but disciplines within each kept moving apart from each other (for example, each scientific discipline became more and more specialized). A continuum of knowledge and of human activity was broken down into a set of discrete units, each neatly separated from its neighbors. This happened for a simple reason: it worked. Humans were able to build large-scale societies thanks to the partitioning of labor and of knowledge. As knowledge grew, it would have been impossible to maintain the same continuum of knowledge. It was feasible, on the other hand, to muster the increasing amount of knowledge once it was broken down into discrete units and handed down to "specialists". The gap between art and science, and the gaps between all artistic and scientific disciplines, kept increasing for the simple reason that the discrete space of specialized disciplines was more manageable than the old continuum of total knowledge. The digital age is providing us with an opportunity to rebuild the continuum: the world-wide web, digital media, tramsportation have enabled an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending. After so many centuries, we are finally able again to see the continuum and not just the discrete space. The new continuum, though, bears little resemblance to the old one, in that its context is a knowledge-intensive society that is the exact opposite of the knowledge-deprived society of the ancient continuum.
  • What can we do to raise a generation of Leonardos? As far as the Western world is concerned, I am pessimistic. It would require a fundamental change in the structure of society, which is unlikely to come from the very Western society that invented (and prospered thanks to) the society of specializations. The societies of the developing world, who are not burdened with the bureaucracy, stereotypes, habits and prejudices that permeate the Western mind, may have a chance to invent the foundations for a wide-spread integration of the arts and the sciences. In the West the only successful programs are the ones that can be identified with a "career path" (whether in the industry or the academia). In the digital age some such career paths are emerging (for example, in the graphic-design industry) and may eventually create the need for interdisciplinary "polytechnics" that teach both art and science. Today the problem is not only that the Academia does not encourage such interdisciplinary programs, but that it discourages it tout court. Very few Departments of Physics, for example, would hire an artist. There is literally no motivation to try that avenue (as opposed to study climate change, for which there are abundant funds and plenty of media attention). One way to reverse this trend would be for a patron of the arts and/or sciences to institute the equivalent of the Nobel prize to reward creative minds that operate in both the arts and the sciences. As far as developing countries go, they should realize that they can overtake the West only if they manage to introduce a paradigm shift, not if they simply replicate the Western model. And a paradigm shift requires precisely the kind of imagination and creativity that is penalized by the Western society of specialization. That paradigm shift requires a hyper-interdisciplinary approach. After all, the paradigm shift that turned Europe from a continent of plagues, starvation and endemic warfare into the rulers of the world started precisely during the Rinascimento.
  • (You may also want to read some of my quotes, that are relevant to this topic
  • Ethics. Scientists feel a strong pressure not to cause damage to society, and many scientific communities have worked out ethical guidelines. On the other hand, an ethical guideline is understood as "censorship" by most artists.
  • Progress. Scientific progress makes sense, and in fact it is the very definition of science: science progresses in that it can explain more and more phenomena, and therefore modern theories are better than older ones. Art, instead, has no progress, just change. You cannot say that Picasso was "progress" compared with Michelangelo. Nor that his paintings are better than Michelangelo's just because they came later. Change in art can be linear (one movement building on the previous one), cyclical (a revival of old aesthetic values) or random (a solitary genius). Science is only linear.
  • Art and science are both forms of exploration, but art explores the imaginary.
  • Art and science cause a fundamental change in the nature of reality itself, but the change caused by science is irreversible.
  • Art is largely measured by its uselessness. The more useful for practical purposes something is, the less likely that it is recognized as art. If it is very useful, it is not art. If it is totally useless, then it is certainly art.
  • Science is not dogmatic: any theory has to leave room for counterarguments. Art is dogmatic: an artist does not accent "counterarguments": her/his art is what it is, and that is not negotiable (i have experience with artists who even refused to change the title of their artwork, the way they sign it, and the way they exhibited it, let alone the colors or the subject).
  • One problem in talking about the interaction of art and science is that science is relatively well defined but art is a very vague term. Ultimately, everything that humans do can be considered art, and even what animals do is often considered art.
  • Does science contribute to peace? Does art/music contribute to peace?
  • What can we get out of art/science integration? There are different answers and, honestly, i ultimately care for the last one.
    • Utilitarian: The Bay Area has Silicon Valley, China does not and will not, no matter what. The reason is that the Bay Area was a center of artistic creativity before it became a center of technological creativity (see my book "A History of Silicon Valley") See my presentation on Silicon Valley
    • Cognitive: Why do humans do art? Why do they do science? What makes the human species unique and why? See some of my presentations
    • Historical: to understand what made what, what caused the world to be what it is
    • Fun: It is not so much what art can do for science or what science can do for art, but rather checking out what happens when you mix art and science. Hopefully the outcome is something that matters not only to art and not only to science. In fact, hopefully it will be something that matters to something that is neither art nor science but something new.
    • Education: In the age of hyper-specialization we tend to become illiterate because we only know what we have to do in our job/study, which is a tiny percentage of global knowledge.

Slide presentation: Art, Science & Creativity
More essays on art and science:
Famous manifestos:
Fontana, Lucio: "White Manifesto" (1946)
Snow, CP: "The Two Cultures" (1959)
Fuller, Buckminster: "Ideas and Integrities" (1963)
Jones, WT: "The Sciences and the Humanities" (1965)
Modern bibliography:
Edwards, David: "Artscience - Creativity in the Post-Google Generation" (2008)
Root-Bernstein, Robert: "Arts Foster Scientific Success" (2008)
Elkins, James: "Six Stories from the End of Representation - Images in Painting, Photography, Astronomy, Microscopy, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000" (2008)
Wilson, Stephen: "Art + Science Now" (2010)
Hoffmann, Roald: "Reflections on Art in Science" (2012)
Ian Bogost's "Tech Start-Ups Have Become Conceptual Art" (The Atlantic)
Quote: "In these days, when there is a tendency to specialize so closely, it is well for us to be reminded that the possibilities of being at once broad and deep did not pass with Leonardo da Vinci. It is unfortunate when a brilliant and creative mind insists upon living in a modern monastic cell." (Vannevar Bush, 1930)

Quote: "Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking." (Buckminster Fuller, 1963)

An exchange with Roger Malina:


Yesterday i was chatting over dinner with Carl Djerassi and Curt Frank (Stanford professor, recent Scientific Delirium Madness resident). Artists make a big deal of a collaboration with a scientist. Scientists often tend to see a collaboration with artists as a vacation not as a serious project. The artist will write it in her vitae, the scientist might not even mention it. Friends of the artist will be jealous, friends of the scientist will see it as a waste of time. Carl and Curt had their own view on attitudes etc. My own view is that this is NOT just attitude. This reflects the outcome of the art/science collaboration: in most cases it is something valuable as art, but not as science. Hence the asymmetry in appreciation. How to change that perception? Simple: the scientist has to produce a significant scientific discovery just like the artist has to produce a significant work of art. If the output of the residency were a scientific paper published in a major scientific journal, fellow scientists would be impressed as much as fellow artists. Your thoughts?


I think there is a whole range and spectrum of possible art-science projects so i think we should be careful not to be normative and over generalise. Some very asymetric projects have proved to be really fruitful. BUT indeed in my lab my requirement is that all art science projects lead to
  • scientific discoveries that could not otherwise have been made and or technical developments that could not otherwise have been made
  • art work that has impact that could not otherwise have been made, ie i require multiple outcomes

There are many many sources of asymettry that need to be attacked, eg- the time frame of a project- a scientist often will work 3-5 years to achieve the result, often artists work on 6 month time frames. Scientists receive salaries, artists receive honoraria. Often artists in residence in science facilities dont have a work space of their own. I note that we sometimes get publications submitted from art-science collaborations where the scientist is not included as a co author- i always ask if the scientist can be added as a co author ( indeed often the paper wont help the scientists promotion). Some scientists view art-science collaboration as part of outreach and communication, others view it as part of their scientific creative practice ( Gimzewsky, Lapointe, Gagan Wig my collaborator here). I think we need the whole rainbow of art science collaborations. Note scientists collaborations with engineers is sometimes of a similar asymetric nature- eg when i was building a new type of telescope i worked with engineers at lawrence livermore for a few months- but then went on without them for the next stages of the project some scientist-engineer collaborations are much more symetric.

Jean Marc Levy Leblond advocates 'infrequent encounters' between scientist and artists and talks about bow these encounters can lead to a change of frame- displacing the attention of the artist and or the scienitst or focusing on a part of the problem that the artist draws attention to, or vice versa.

The cross connections on the fourth dimension in art and science that Linda Henderson documents is perhaps one example= certainly at the end of 19th and early 20th century when higher dimensions were big topics in both geometry, then physics, but also in art and culture i dont know of any close collaborations between artists and scientists in that period but there was certainly cross fertilisation and flow of idea, shifts in metaphors and analogies etc

The more intimate examples are the collaboration between jim cruchfield and david dunn which resulted in both scientific discoveries and publications as well as new kinds of sound/music making

The work of Brandon Ballangee more recently on frog deformations is another exalple- brandon has been co author on the scientific papers and is credited with helping the scientist make a discovery

I note also that there are some fun art-science couples where one is the artist and the other the scientist or engineer ( christa sommerer and laurent mignoneau are they with you- or char davies when she was with daniel langlois creating softimage).

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