On Scientific Imagery, Art, and Science

Welcome to At the Interface. Here, we will explore the exciting edge between Art and Science—examining the space where science and visual culture meet and establishing how, and on what terms, these seemingly disparate fields can mix and interact through the collaborations of those working at the interface.

I would like to start on what some might consider a provocative note: scientific imagery in itself is not art. This might seem a surprising statement from somebody writing an art and science blog, but I say this as a means of introducing you to the world of art inspired by science. Or as some would call it, Sci-Art. I believe that science is beautiful (even when it may not be aesthetically pleasing), and that it has the capacity to produce stunning imagery that can hold its own in own in any gallery. But is this art?

Colour micrograph of Bacillus subtilis, Wellcome Image Awards finalist 2012, © Wellcome Images

This photomicrograph of Bacillus subtillus, a bacterium found in soil, has vivid, rich colours, and swirling abstract patterns that bring to mind painterly abstraction. However, it is a research image of a scientific subject matter, captured by a scientist through the practice of science. It is, in other words, an image with a scientific purpose. So I find it strange to see a gallery of stunning research images titled the ‘Art of Science’, as if it were a surprise that science could generate beautiful imagery. Science should not be afraid to be beautiful, and it should unapologetically claim as its own aesthetically pleasing images generated through the practice of science.

So, without tackling the age-old question of what is art?, how might we define an art of science that is not ‘merely’ one of beautiful illustrations? I would argue that while art may use the methods of science, use science as an initial starting point or inspiration, or comment on science itself, the intention and result of ‘scientifically-inspired art’ (let’s just stick to Sci-Art from now on) is something different.

The difference is not necessarily in the subject matter or the conception. Science is a part of our culture every bit as much as politics, nature, and all the other things on which artists comment, and so it too can serve as a source of material inspiration. In recent years, this Sci-Art movement has gained momentum as artists and scientists start to see the benefits of working collaboratively.

At first overlooked by the art world (and still very much a subculture within the field of art), scientific themes are beginning to be embraced by a range of high profile artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn, amongst others. Another cadre of artists actually work side-by-side with scientists in laboratories, making everything from art out of biofilms to etchings out of their own brainscans.

Birth of a Thought (Etching), 2007 © Susan Aldworth

Artists working in the field of science have a freedom to play, to subvert science and interrogate it in ways that practicing scientists cannot without questions being raised about their integrity or, indeed, their capacity as scientists. Unlike science, art is not about proving or disproving the hypothesis. This is not to say that scientists cannot do art in parallel with science, but I would emphasise that when scientists make art (whether in a professional sense or just-for-fun) the intention is different: it’s to make a piece of art.

Science and art both have an intentionality in how they are conceived and carried out. At its best, science produces objective documents about the world, whereas art—again, at its best— expresses/alters our subjective experience of the world. These boundaries establish the domains of science and art with respect to one another; however, it’s not all black and white because there remains a point—or, if you prefer, an interface—where these two domains meet and where some particularly powerful works are able to cross from one domain to other.

The Blue Marble, 1972 © NASA

And one example especially comes to mind (though undoubtedly there are many more): the iconic shot of the Earth from space taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts. This image—part document and part research image—did something that most artworks can’t even claim to do: it fundamentally changed the way that humanity saw itself.

And in the opposite direction, art has discovered things that science only now starting to explain (see examples in Proust was a Neuroscientist). But that’s for another day.

On the topic of whether scientific imagery can be art, these are just my own thoughts, but I’d be interested in hearing what you think!

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7 Responses to On Scientific Imagery, Art, and Science

  1. Hi Johanna,

    I have just seen your blog and it looks like you have just started!

    I am very excited about “At The interface”, because I really see Arts and Science converging.

    I live in Berlin, I am a novelist and computational chemist (working at the Free University).
    Here there’s a lot of art going on. And sometimes I have seen some fascinating artworks at the edge with science and technology.

    I am so excited about it, because I have recently opened a similar blog, The Computational Writer, which tries to put together Writing and Chemistry.

    Well, I think it is fun and fascinating… so Good luck!


  2. Johanna Kieniewicz says:

    Thanks, Arturo! Much appreciated!

  3. Allan S says:

    Way to go Johanna!
    Good luck with the new blog.
    I’d add another realm to explore at the interface of art and science – the science that underlies how people perceive artworks and the responses that this generates within them. going beyond Berger’s Ways of Seeing to even the wet neurophysiology!

  4. Allan S says:

    Way to go Johanna! Good luck with the new blog.

    Would be interesting to also explore the realm of the science, and social science, underlying the perception of art and the responses it generates within those who perceive it. You mention Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I’d also add classics like John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing, and the ever growing number of books of the neurophysiology of art perception.

  5. Guillermo says:

    I don´t think that art pursues beauty, as well that i don´t think that the absolute objectivity is needed in science. How can be possible that, for example, three different models of the space conception (aristotelical, galilean and Einstein) could be correct at the same time? (depending on the approximation that you needs). How can be possible that the artistic idea of space, for example, could help to make new advances in science?.

    At the same time, art is a discipline for representation, and, now a days in a powerfull way, science depends much on the representations. So, new ways to represent may be means new ways to do science.

    I can not be as sure than you about this art /science differenciation. I think there are differences, but in my opinion are a small set, only a few. May be this intentionallity is a key role, but both branches could interact, share, and provocate feedback with strenght !!.

  6. Priya Shetty says:

    I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head in saying that scientific imagery in itself, no matter how visually stunning, is not art. I found a lot of the early sci-art projects really problematic because an artist would slap up DNA in a frame and call it the ‘art of the genome’ or some such nonsense. Art, like science, needs investigation and some sort of intelligent inquiry to transform it into something meaningful.

  7. laurel says:

    Wonderful article! I enjoyed everything you said. Have you read ‘The necessity of Art’ ? if not, you should read it. I know you will like it. It is by Ernst Fischer

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