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  • That Drunken Conversation between Two CulturesArt, Science and the Possibility of Meaningful Uncertainty
  • Andrew Yang

There is, in fact, an intermittent conversation about aesthetics going on between art and science—it takes the form of colloquia, sessions in conferences, scattered scholarly papers, and occasional books—but I would claim it’s a “drunken conversation” involving more or less drastic mutual misunderstandings of basic terms.


IF WE ACCEPT that art and science have in fact become very distinct cultures, then it is not surprising that their basic concepts and language should suffer from fissures over the 400 years they’ve had to diverge and specialize. Some see this as a rich opportunity for building disciplinary bridges in hopes of forging new forms of hybridity, while others see it as the surest sign that the two are best left to their own devices. But the reason the conversation between art and science is so difficult may have to do with assumptions that presuppose the structure of the conversation itself.

The most conspicuous thing about so many art-science conversations is their implicit claim to be about “Art” and “Science,” as if they were monotonic and easily summarized, rather than astoundingly diverse and heterogeneous fields of practice. Oversimplification inebriates us. Although science includes string theory as much as it does entomology, and art describes British landscape painting as well as Butoh dance, we assume that somehow there is a common denominator such that “Science” and “Art” are tenable categories of comparison in some overarching sense. Given their nature as historical and evolving domains of inquiry, what counts as art or as science is a moving target. But if reducing practices safely into standard forms closes down the possibility of more richly textured exploration of their relationship, it is important to recognize that this is largely by design. Communities of scientists and artists put considerable work into maintaining their disciplinary boundaries, and, ironically, so-called art-&-science initiatives can be one of the most convenient devices to help accomplish this.

The Wellcome Trust’s “sciart” program, for example, was one especially high-profile program to adopt C.P. Snow’s well-worn notion of “two cultures” to fundamentally frame the interaction of artists and scientists as a matter of interdisciplinary collaboration. This no doubt reflects the nature of many of the Wellcome projects, but an immediate consequence of the two cultures model is that by definition the inter becomes a novel but illegitimate child from the point of view of the established disciplines [2]. Indeed, a common critique of art-science projects is that they typically fail to do a satisfying or proper job of accomplishing either. As Elkins has argued:

The science in art, especially in the past two centuries, is simplified, misunderstood, or otherwise modified, and after a point it becomes counterintuitive to think of it as science at all. . . . The scientific content will therefore be embedded in a new matrix, one that will necessarily work against the scientific content as much as it enriches or otherwise alters it. At some point this should be troubling to people who study appearances of science in art, because it seems that what is being counted as scientific content is nothing more than remnants of scientific forms stripped of their content [3].

But if, as Elkins claims, “the ‘science’ becomes something weird, a dream or nightmare or collage or garbled mistranslation of science, but it isn’t science” [4], it must be asked: Are not those very fuzzy and uncertain possibilities the whole point of the art’s undertaking? If art-science projects were to cleanly meet the standard of either discipline, they would simply duplicate that discipline’s work, not experiment with its forms or test the edges or standards of practice. When an artwork generates new perspectives on scientific practice or values it entails, it is perhaps no surprise that scientists feel that their science is being misunderstood or misrepresented in comparison to their own idealizations of what they do [5].

The protracted “culture wars” among scientists, sociologists and cultural scholars throughout the 1990s demonstrated just how heated the defense of intellectual turf can be. From the eyes of...


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