Monday, 29 October 2012

Borrowing from Art: Aesthetic Cultures of Science

Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones's short article 'Across the Universe. Is science now more beautiful than contemporary art?'[1] is surely designed to provoke; and it barely recognises the important questions it raises.

In 1930 Sigmund Freud wrote:
The science of aesthetics investigates the conditions under which the beautiful is apprehended; it has not been able to clarify the nature and origin of beauty; as commonly happens, the absence of results is shrouded in a wealth of high-sounding, empty verbiage. Unfortunately psychoanalysis too has scarcely anything to say about beauty.[2]

Freud admitted elsewhere that psychoanalysis might be only an early phase of a coming science of mind. Many today would say that the human mind is "brain in action", and that it's via this action that the brain makes what a human subject calls experience. Every brain has plasticity, and so the patterns of its action can be reinforced or altered by the circumstances of a person's life, over time.

Even within such a materialist account of mind, a subjective experience of beauty probably relates to aesthetic qualities for which a subject has what we could call an "affinity". Affinities may be partly inherited, or the result of conditioning; I don't think the balance of probabiliies here is settled. What seems more certain is that some of us follow a course in life impelled by affinities expressed early on, and that those affinities are then socially channelled. This is especially noticeable with selectivist disciplines, where what's called talent or aptitude is augmented by knowledge acquired through training, and further reinforced through working and becoming socialised within a particular socio-professional grouping. It's well known that the coherence of some professional fields is reinforced like a circle of belief, through the disavowal of other ways of knowing and being in the world.

Notwithstanding all this, there are bound to be similarities in the experiences we can categorise as viscerally pleasurable or painful (for example) if all derive from organs, chemicals and circumstances which are generically similar. In a society of differently selective fields we will therefore find mathematically-fluent physicists for whom formulae are beautiful, and connoisseurs of art who will say the same of nineteeth-century paintings. But a similarity of response at this level tells us nothing about the more intricate contents of physics or art.

Jonathan Jones asks us to consider the relative merits of artists' images and images produced by scientists and their instruments, in terms of how beautiful they are. Unsurprisingly, many online responses draw on the subjective (personal) experience of beauty, about which there can be no more absolute consensus than in Freud's time. Further, many will vigorously defend anything perceived as an attack on the reliability (the "rightness") of what their own experience seems to tell them, bringing much heat into this kind of discussion.

Jones is playing a game, ritually breaking the rule of his own field by declaring an interest in another. This is meant to be all the more shocking because the other (science) has co-opted what is supposed to be one of the definitive qualities of art: beauty. As readers of Jones will know, even he does not believe that the production of beauty is art's sole purpose. He did not seem to think so in 2007, for instance, when he declared Damien Hirst's stunt with a diamond-encrusted skull to be "the birth of 21st century art".[3]

But the situation Jones has broached now is more complex and interesting. Not only is beauty not the sole purpose of art, but the converse is also true: no disciplinary field has a proprietary claim over beauty. Beauty is a potential residing in a variety of things, contingent on the subjective response and judgment of individuals apprehending those things. But subjective experience isn't everything, even in art, and especially in what I would call a culture. This brings us to the most interesting omission in Jones's article: the emergence of aesthetic cultures of science.

The question I would ask about the images to which Jones refers is not whether or not they are beautiful, but whether or not they are scientific. In my view they are, first and foremost, scientistic. They bear the aura of scientific inquiry, but offer little in terms of scientific knowledge. They are the kind of image often favoured as the cultural proxies of scientific disciplines, because of their strongly aesthetic powers of affect. (We know that Jones has previously found such scientistic images beguiling: in the 2007 article cited above he praises Hirst works which rely almost entirely upon them.)

Obviously, the creators of aesthetic cultures of science have noticed that the social world can be addressed as an audience, and that it can be expected to respond positively when it finds beauty in something. They have noticed, too, that the techniques for eliciting the "beauty response" are not too hard to acquire: they can be tracked down via a long history of pictorialism channelled through the art of recent centuries. It's no accident that those Hubble telescope images look more like paintings than raw data-sets (the kind of result probably required in the scientific disciplines using the Space Telescope).

Aesthetic cultures of science provide the opportunity of responding to the scientific without necessarily understanding any science. Although inaugurated in the name of scientific "literacy" it can be argued that their purpose is also to maintain a comfort zone - through of aesthetic enjoyment - around hard-to-understand and potentially troubling scientific work.

The question of beauty in an image can never be settled, and this may not matter very much. Beauty is just one of the qualities found in the things both arts and sciences put into the public domain, of which we might also ask: is this important; is it worth attending to; is it real?

For me, Jones's article raises (but doesn't address) these two questions:
'Should artists be concerned solely with beauty?' and:
'What do we want from our sciences: beautiful things or knowledges whose utility we can evaluate?'

[1] Jonathan Jones, 'Across the Universe. Is Science Now More Beautiful Than Contemporary Art?', Guardian section G2, 23 September 2012, p.18.
[2] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (London: Penguin, 2004) (first published 1930), p. 25.
[3] Jonathan Jones, 'Is This the Birth of 21St Century Art?', Guardian section G2, 5 June 2007, pp. 23-26.


Michael said...

I always thought it ironic that Felice Frankel called her book of scientific photographs "On the Surface of Things", which practically advertises that her images will be lacking in depth--especially considering that her title seems to riff on Fritz Goro's "On the Nature of Things" which sounds much more ambitious. But many aesthetic 'scientific photographs' are ultimately not profound. I think Jonathan Jones was just distracted by the things you mention or bored at looking at art.

The Moaning Man said...

I agree re. so-called scientific images. Not profound; and often not particularly informative, either.

Thanks for the references. My route into thinking about scientific images has been via Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston: Galison's essay "Judgment Against Objectivity" and their jointly-authored book "Objectivity".

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