Tortured Artists and Mad Scientists: Separated at Birth
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
“A scientist is a child who has never grown up.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson
The natural state of humanity is to freely create and express itself. From the earliest inklings of civilization, art and science were, of necessity, one and the same. The need to communicate and create things of use forged a particular kinship between art and science based on our innate sense of curiosity, experimentation, and innovation. Those who illustrated the caves at Lascaux may have also developed the technology that enabled those drawings to be made for the ages. The person who carved the Venus of Willendorf most likely devised their own tools for the task of carving, and fresco painters required knowledge of mixing pigments and plaster. Fast forward to the Renaissance, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s name is consistently invoked to support similitudes between the two disciplines. When one takes the long view of culture, the idea of art and science as two distinct classifications seems a bit parochial.
It is both a crisis and condition that art and science became disparate. How did we get to the point where such complementary natures were fragmented into various disciplines? The requirement for specialized labor to perpetuate our newly sedentary lifestyles starting in the Neolithic era gave rise to divisions of labor to fulfill the need for mills, small workshops, and governance of these societies. It sounds rather utopian, but these divisions of labor were economically imposed and not necessarily based on a free choice paradigm. In fact, the onset of a specialized labor force is perhaps the very genesis of capitalism—a society organized to supply our needs.
The tragedy of capitalism has rested far too long on the enforcement of repetitive tasks and rigorous schedules, offering meager rewards at the end of arduous workdays. This demanding loop has left little space or incentive for people to engage in activities fueled by creativity and contemplation. In the 20th century, divisions of labor and professions were further reinforced by our educational system, which increasingly eroded humanity’s true inclination towards the arts and sciences in favor of even more draconian divisions of thought. Economic forces actively discouraged interdisciplinary practices and modes of thinking, facilitating the rise of distinct economies, somewhat independent from one another and yet ultimately intertwined in the global economic order.
The visual arts have their own economy forged from the art market—the products of which have become a parallel currency or superstructure of their own—mostly administered by the rich and powerful as a hedge against the debasement of currency and other financial instruments. For science, the tragedy is even more paradoxical, as the employment of scientists in the pharmaceutical, chemical, energy, and military sectors seems to contradict their benign, eccentric nature. The recurring trope of the mad scientist in popular culture is a testament to society’s skewed deployment of genius.
However, a series of late twentieth century trade agreements relocated the bulk of manufacturing jobs to specific parts of the world, mostly developing countries, freeing many Western countries (and some non-Western countries) from a good dose of repetitive labor. This economic shift—at the crossroads of a digital revolution and profound environmental change, concomitant with a host of other significant cultural transformations—requires us to create new inventions, production methods, and business models to surmount current challenges. The result has been the emergence of new world markets and countless micro-economies, driven by a larger innovation economy, which stresses creative, often interdisciplinary solutions to the exigencies of the 21st century. Although our better nature would have us believe the recent rekindling of the relationship between art and science is catalyzed by an awakening of our primordial selves, it is the new economic imperative that has re-affirmed our hybrid artistic/scientific lineage.
Our educational system has begun adapting to this resurgence only in recent decades. Universities have been implementing degree programs with interdisciplinary concentrations. Such cross-disciplinary programs are challenging young minds to engage in activities often beyond their comfort zones, while enticing multiple thought processes simultaneously fired from opposite regions of the brain. As a result, several experimental programs forged by partnerships between artists and scientists are developing with success outside of the academic world. Among many fine examples are the Large Hadron Collider Residency Programs through Arts at CERN in Switzerland, the Ligo Project, and SciArt Center’s virtual residency program, “The Bridge.” In an age of global socio-economic challenges, these partnerships offer surprising approaches, if not solutions. What remains to be seen is whether the current art-science re-convergence within the greater innovation economy will ultimately serve the old economic order that favors the well-being of the elite, or whether it will it inspire freer, more equitable economic paradigms that result in transformative experiences for artists, the scientific community, and society at large.
Wavelength is a New Jersey-based curatorial collaborative founded by Gianluca Bianchino, an artist/curator, and Jeanne Brasile, a curator/artist.