- HYLE International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry. Special Issue: Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry
Many painters who buy their tubed paints off the shelf today have little exposure to how artists prior to the 19th century worked with the finely ground minerals that were extracted from the earth and used for pigment. Nor do they recognize how closely art practice was intertwined with alchemy. To understand how to bind and mix paints, the artist needed to develop some measure of sensitivity to transmutability, and, as such, knowledge of the chemistry of alchemy aided the artistic practice. We see elements of the exchange between art and alchemy frequently in the works themselves, in which an artist might depict the mortar and pestle in his studio, or perhaps a distillation apparatus, or even the alchemist himself at work in his laboratory. Equally fascinating is our knowledge that the transition to the view that painting is an activity of the mind, which happened around the 14th and 15th centuries, occurred at a time when chemistry (then known as alchemy) found itself in a position similar to painting. Alchemists, too, were fighting the view that they were merely involved in a craft. When chemistry was recognized as a "full" science, in the 18th century, both practical and theoretical approaches to art had already, in effect, lost sight of the degree to which some knowledge of chemistry aided artists. Although chemical knowledge and discoveries continued to remain important in the manufacture and use of materials, collaborative efforts remained in the background. Views of aesthetics and the path of the academic tradition downplayed areas of overlap.
This history came to mind repeatedly while reading the special issue on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry (edited by Tami I. Spector and Joachim Schummer), a far-reaching selection that conveys the many ways in which chemistry intersects with art practice, philosophy, history and scientific visualization. Although none of the essays explicitly look at how historical art practice incorporated the practices that were a precursor to the chemistry within alchemical practice, several touch on the symbolic, aesthetic and philosophical legacy shared by the arts and alchemy. Many, too, convey where the creative concerns of the artist and the chemist converge.
Each of the two volumes of this publication has a unique flavor. The essays in the first volume bring to mind the tension between chemistry's aesthetic qualities and experience in the studio/lab. The contributors also bring to light some positive definitional tensions among art, chemistry and aesthetics. The opening essay by Roald Hoffman sets the stage. He speaks of chemistry as an art, craft, business and science of substances and communicates the importance of drawing to experimental design. His framing of aesthetics in terms of the labor of human minds and hearts is convincing, as is his placement of the messier aspects of chemistry within the realm we associate with the artist's studio. "Experience" is also a factor incorporated into Pierre Laszlo's rolegomenon to a chemical aesthetics, in which he presents 11 separate theses that were contradictory in form (e.g. two of his theses are that the natural is more beautiful and, conversely, the artificial is more beautiful). Laszlo conveys the mutability of chemistry and how difficult it is to wedge it into any materialist worldview. Laszlo also nicely captures that chemists, like artists, learn from experiments. Particularly effective is the way he brings to the fore the importance of smells and colors in chemistry and balances this with the need for visualization.
In terms of traditional ideas, Joachim Schummer's expanded view on practices and epistemological questions is quite useful. This author incorporates a philosophical history that speaks to circumstances that have influenced how we see art, aesthetics and chemistry. As he correctly explains, in idealistic aesthetics, the dominant doctrine in the Western tradition since Plato, there is no place for the senses of taste...