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The Separation of Art and Science

  • To some extent, every human activity is a form of Art. Then we have to decide to what degree it is "artistic". Every human action can be viewed as an act of creation. With its every action the human mind tries to recreate the world in her/his image. Each mind does it differently because each mind is different.
  • Needless to say, the existence of millions of different views of the world would make life very difficult. No surprise then that society has actually evolved away from the arts and towards a uniform view of the world. Children have a very hard time abandoning their egocentric view of the world. Society forces them, and keeps forcing daily every adult, to accept a universal view of the world that we can share and use. No wonder that we have separated the arts from the sciences: the arts are an obstacle to that process of social coexistence. Art is the process of creating a very personal view of the world. Science is the process of creating a very impersonal view of the world. The latter has helped create more and more complex forms of society. The price that society had to pay was to marginalize and isolate the arts.
  • Art is ubiquitous in Nature, whether a beaver's dam or a spider web. We doubt that other animals meant to produce the Art that they produced, and that is the fundamental difference between our Art and their Art. They (presumably) don't perceive what they do as Art. We assume that an alpine lake or the mountain ridges that create it do not perceive themselves, therefore they are not "artists". A spider cannot appreciate the quality of the web it has just woven, a beaver cannot appreciate the quality of the "dam" that it has just built across a creek. However, whether animals can perceive beauty or not, their activities look "artistic" too. Thus, in the end, "art" is simply a different name for... life.
  • A skeptical physicist asked me "what do Art and Science have in common?" My answer: "They both come from the same mind". I actually believe that Art came first: Science is an evolution of Art.
  • There is a reason if humans engage in artistic activities. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny (if the development of the individual from childhood to adulthood mirrors the progression of the human species through ancestral stages), then children hold the answer. Children play. Most adults stop playing because they were told to stop playing. Art might be a way to keep playing even after we are told to stop playing. Children are genetically programmed to play, and the act of playing might be a way to learn the environment and to be creative about it. Humans may just be genetically programmed to be creative. Art might just be a way to map the environment in a creative way. Being creative about interacting with the environment yields several evolutionary benefits: 1. you learn more about the environment, 2. you simulate a variety of strategies, 3. you are better prepared to cope with frequently changing conditions.
  • Mapping the territory is a precondition for surviving its challenges, but it wouldn't be enough to yield solutions to unpredictable problems. To deal with the unpredictable, we need more than just a map. Over the centuries this continuous training in creativity has led to the creation of entire civilizations (science, technology, engineering). And to the history of Art.
  • The impact on society of Art is that art educates people to be creative. Art creates new paradigms of thought. When Art and Science do not interact, every new generation is more similar to specialized robots than to sentient beings.
  • The benefit for Science of an integration with the arts is that Art can help usher in a paradigm shift. Major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic periods. Today science tends to be "evolution", not "revolution", perhaps because it has been decoupled from the arts.
  • The fictitious separation of Art and Technology/Science is a recent phenomenon. It was not obvious to the Sumerians that the ziggurat was only art, or to the Egyptians that the pyramid was only art, or to the Romans that the equestrian statue was only art. They had, first and foremost, a practical purpose. Given that purpose, a technology was employed to achieve it. Art and Science have shifted so far apart in the 21st century because we live in the age of specialization. Specialization as we know it today started in the European Middle Ages and picked up speed with the Industrial Revolution. Specialization is, quite simply, a very efficient way to organize society. Therefore specializations multiplied. Today we are not only keeping Art and Science separated: we are maintaining countless specializations within the arts and within the sciences.
  • The language of Science has become more and more difficult because it has been left largely to scientists to talk about Science. The more isolated Science is, the more difficult its language becomes for non-scientists. The more difficult the language, the more isolated Science becomes.
  • The consequences of the separation of Art and Science are sometimes subtle but widespread. For example, environmental fundamentalists oppose any alteration of Nature. Implicitly, they assume that humans cannot improve over Nature. This idea would have been ridiculous in ancient times, when human alterations of Nature were almost always greeted as positive improvements to the landscape. Even the staunchest environmentalists would probably refrain from destroying the pyramids or the ziggurats or the Acropolis of Athens to restore the stones to the mountains where they were taken, and would probably refrain from demolishing Michelangelo's statues to return the marble to Carrara's mountain. However, the environmental fundamentalist of the 21st century assumes that Nature is the supreme artist, and humans should not alter whatever Nature has produced. If Michelangelo and Leonardo were reborn today and submitted a plan to build a fantastic freeway through a national park, they would be banned. (Ironically, the same environmental fundamentalists who oppose bridges and tunnels take pictures precisely of bridges and tunnels when they vacation in Switzerland). This was clearly not the case centuries ago, when great minds were specifically hired to alter the environment. What has changed is the view that human work is beautiful. The demise of this view is a consequence of having decoupled Art and Science. The 21st century does not perceive a scientific, technological, engineering project as beautiful. It perceives it as a threat to (natural) beauty.
  • The separation of Art and Science was part of a broader trend away from unification and towards specialization. Not only did Science and Art progressively move apart, but disciplines within them kept moving apart from each other. For example, each scientific discipline became more and more specialized. A continuum of knowledge and of human activity was broken down into a set of discrete units, each neatly separated from its neighbors. This happened for a simple reason: it worked. Humans were able to build large-scale societies thanks to the partitioning of labor and of knowledge. As knowledge grew, it would have been impossible to maintain the ancient continuum of knowledge. It was feasible, on the other hand, to muster the increasing amount of knowledge once it was broken down into discrete units and handed down to "specialists". The gap between Art and Science, and the gaps between all artistic and scientific disciplines, kept increasing for the simple reason that the discrete space of specialized disciplines was more manageable than the old continuum of total knowledge.
  • The digital age is providing us with an opportunity to rebuild the continuum: the world-wide web, digital media and communications have enabled an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending. We are finally able again to see the continuum again and not just the discrete space. The new continuum, though, bears little resemblance to the old one, in that its context is a knowledge-intensive society that is the exact opposite of the knowledge-deprived society of the ancient continuum.