Art and Science – the basics

From a letter to the ‘Psyart’ forum

It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion that enters into conversations about art can be elucidated if art is seen as attempted communication. I am indulging in ‘art’ writing this. We use ‘art’ all the time in our everyday lives – that is, we try to communicate feelings, ideas and information by using all methods (media) available to us for such transactions. The two qualities that are significant in this are a) that the communication is clear and, b) that what is communicated is of interest to those to whom it is directed.

It is also possible to clarify the nature of the range of ‘art’ objects (in all media, presented to or made by us), in realising that they can all be placed on a spectrum ranging from what I call the ‘narrative’ end to the ‘material’ end. The narrative refers to objects which communicate via the narrative attached to them. The object may have no esthetic qualities at all (i.e. it does not stimulate the nervous system directly via its form) but may have great significance to the beholder – for example, a supposed saint’s bone to those of a religious persuasion. It is the narrative, not the object, that operates on the nervous system. At the other end of this spectrum are works which operate via their esthetic (material) qualities only, acting directly on the nervous system. In between there are objects which have both esthetic qualities and attached narratives – a pieta by Michelangelo for example. Objects which rely entirely on the narrative can only communicate in a society or group where the narrative has currency. These objects have only local significance. Objects which have strong esthetic qualities can communicate beyond their local area and can have a variety of narratives (or none) attached to them.

Art and Science
Scientific (rather than speculative) investigations into how (and even why) these communications make their effects on the human nervous system have been started in earnest by pioneers like Ramachandran and Zeki. As most will know this research has been kick-started by the introduction of brain scanning machines and we can now begin to look at systems in the brain which were not visible a few years ago. To me this is a most exciting development. I am filled with curiosity about the work I and other artists do, how it makes its effects and why we do it in the first place. To dismiss this exploration is rather like looking at, and being deeply moved by the night sky but having no interest in astronomy. The scanning machines used at present are equivalent to the early telescopes used by Galileo and his contemporaries. We are at the very beginning of our understanding of the human brain, an interior and mainly unexplored universe. This is a great adventure in the offing, and one that artists (and psychoanalysts) ignore at peril of their being left behind in any serious conversation about culture.

Further (and again to simplify enormously) we know that our brains are inventing the world we perceive (from information garnered from our senses and from innate structures) and that we must be very careful when attributing what our brains are constructing for us to the actual state of the material world we exist in. This confusion between perceptions of the material world and its actual properties can lead us to imagining complex systems which we then project erroneously onto the physical world. Many religious systems are examples of this. Science is the only way we have of unraveling these possible errors and may help us avoid the mayhem that this kind of confusion can produce.

Research into the brain can give us empirical (rather than speculative) evidence as to the nature of our perceptions and of consciousness. What is being revealed, even now, should have as profound an impact on our self-image as the discovery of the scale of the universe did in the past. The connection between science and art is that science can explore both the means and contents of our communications (art) and in turn use art (communication) to convey its propositions.

Given the current gradual opening up of this interior world, it seems to me that this is a most exciting time to be alive and we should perhaps stand as did the men of Cortez in Keats’ poem, and look ‘with a wild surmise’ on the vast unexplored oceans within each of us.