Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Art of Science, and Beyond


In the classroom, in the gallery, in street art festivals, and in online discussion groups, the battle rages about the legitimacy of art.

Left Brain
No, this is not an indictment of art in general (let’s assume for this essay that art is legitimate, and Art as a discipline has its good qualities), but rather seems to be a criticism of art by category.

Art professors, critics, dealers, collectors, and obedient art students will tell you that good art must be Fine Art, not the commercial variety.

Fine Art, according to at least one Internet definition, is “creative art, esp. visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content.”

That means they don't actually do anything, which apparently is all it takes to make them Fine.

Only Fine Art is Real Art.

Commercial art may be attractive, imaginative, and intellectually informed, but it is also intentionally useful. It is this final quality that calls its legitimacy into question. Commercial art is not Art.

Graphic Design is not Art (unless you consider, say, some of the concert flyers and album covers of the 1960’s, a certain soup label or soap box reproduced in well-known serigraphs, or perhaps political posters from early in the last century).

Advertising Illustration is not Art (unless you have the original artwork, or maybe vintage magazine covers, ads or calendar pages bearing the work of Norman Rockwell or Maxfield Parrish, or select Vargas pin-ups.)

Book Illustration is not Art (unless the books are old enough to be broken apart, and the individual title plates and diagrams framed and sold separately, or the drawings are done by a rhyming doctor in the company of a tall cat.)

Product Design is certainly not Art (even though products like Tiffany lamps, Chippendale chairs and Faberge eggs generate a lot of interest at auction, among a lot of the same people who place bids on expensive paintings; and some design styles have come to define whole periods of history –  Art Deco, anyone?).

No, only Fine Art is Real Art.

I have always been curious as to how and why the visual arts community came up with such an absurd bias. Certainly music has its genres, and its critics – but most people within and outside of the business agree, more or less, to Duke Ellington’s assessment that there are but two kinds of music: “ Good music, and the other kind.” The Duke was happy to allow the listener to decide, while doing his best to make only good music.

Why is it that viewers of art are not 
afforded the same freedom as music fans?

I’m not a musician, but I know how to distinguish the one kind from the other, along a sliding scale that has changed dramatically over time.

As an artist, I am aware of the weight and variety of artistic content in our culture (some good, some the other kind), the vast majority of which resides entirely outside of established galleries, museums, and academic studios.

Why is it that viewers of art are not afforded the same freedom of choice as music fans, the same authority to know what they like, and the permission to like what they know, without running afoul of the art cognoscenti?  Apparently the Art Police know something we don't, and they’re not telling us what it is.

Or perhaps they have determined that they are the only ones who are qualified to know the Real from the Fake, and cannot trust amateurs to either create Fine Art, or recognize it when we see it. (Unless we, in our ignorance, i.e., without formal training, are able to create decorative artworks out of commonly available materials, which is then reverently called Folk Art. Folk Art is Real Art, too.)

Such weighted distinctions are not confined to the studio or the gallery. My academic training was in the lecture halls and laboratories of the science department, a background that prepared me well to comprehend the landscape of artistic debate. (There are, surprisingly, a great many parallels between the two disciplines.)

The same artistic attitudes prevail 
regarding the two branches of science.

In the hallowed halls of scientific academia, artistic prejudices have a near perfect doppelganger, with comparative value starkly delineated between the processes of knowledge generation (Pure Science) and practical application (Applied Science).

The parallels here are clear, with Pure Science (a.k.a. Research) equivalent to Fine Art (‘Art for Art’s Sake’ has precisely the same self-referential motivation and authority as ‘Research for the Advancement of Knowledge’), and Applied Science (a.k.a. Technology) identical to Commercial Art, in that both take original ideas and put them to work in the real world. Painting leads to illustration just as the discovery of polymerization leads to nylon jackets and plumbing fixtures.

Oddly enough, the same artistic attitudes prevail regarding these two branches of science: Research is exalted, rigorously defined and highly regulated, and Technology is frowned upon as the greedy, commercial, prostitute stepchild of the real thing.

Quantifying metallurgical properties, calculating angles and shearing forces constitute proper mental exercises of the pure scientist. Making a decent pair of scissors is the business of technicians, be they metallurgical engineers, steelworkers, designers or craftsmen.

Perhaps this is the truest commonality of the scientific and artistic disciplines, the fact that to get anything done requires the creative talents of craftsmen (who, it is widely agreed, are not Artists, unless and until they demonstrate an ability to produce art objects completely lacking in functionality). These are the individuals whose passion and ability combine to produce utility – that magical application of creative sweat equity that either proves or debunks the worth of pure theory, and either turns it into a tool to benefit the masses, or shows it to be empty of practical value.

These workers are the embodiment of Prometheus, whose function is to bring the fire from Olympus to the people – and be forever after punished for their service. Craftsmen, be they potters, welders, typographers, illustrators or laboratory technicians, are judged by the practical and commercial utility of their work product. How could they be artists?

Where is the creative act?

Assuming that there is a qualitative difference between the Creator (Fine Artist/Pure Scientist) and the Producer (Commercial Artist/Technician), what happens when a Producer, using some initial concepts generated from the ether by a Creator, comes up with something new – something beyond what the original creator originally envisioned? Couldn't a talented craftsman be inspired to add a little of his or her own creativity to leaven the mix?

The fact that there is a practical 
outcome is actually a bonus.

Of course this happens all the time. We call these people Designers.

After all, it is the basic job description of the designer to generate new concepts from established theory, and new products from available materials. This is creation in its purest sense, involving both the qualities of research and the generation of original ideas in the making of a new, tangible, functional thing.

The fact that there is a practical outcome is actually a bonus – one thatought to elevate this class of Creators to a higher level of social and cultural esteem than the pure thinkers, who are content to conceptualize and imagine as ends in themselves.

Perhaps this is why the purist theoreticians, artistic and scientific alike, feel that they must work so hard to keep the uninformed and uninitiated out of their ivory towers, away from their vaulted ateliers. Outside of their own society, with its restrictive rules and structures and definitions, it is difficult to demonstrate the value of their creative energies.

One cannot help but wonder if this defensive attitude truly does more harm than good, perpetuating an interdisciplinary antagonism that is of little use to them or anyone else. Maybe one day the theoretical artists and scientists will come to understand that no one is trying to take away their toys, or their prestige, or their ability to ponder.

Maybe then they will be able to embrace creativity wherever it is found, and call it good.

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