Saturday, October 18, 2008

Art And Science

What do these two truly basic departments or compartments of modern culture have in common? I got to thinking about this question as I was trying to say something, in my last posting, about the meaning of 'revolutionary' in art and it occurred to me that this is a label that can only be applied after the fact. For every Gauguin or Cezanne (you name it) there must be thousands of aspirants who disappear without even making a splash. Why don't they make it? No one knows. They just don't, that's all. Only the art historian, looking back can see what it was that the age was looking for and Gauguin (say) supplied. What the modern age characteristically is looking for is "the new, the truly new" (as Eliot says in an essay that is still worth reading, "Tradition and The Individual Talent"), but it doesn't know the truly new from the merely novel, usually, until someone important announces that the thing that everyone has been looking for, without knowing it, has been found. And once found, the new thing takes on a look of inevitability.

The sciences don't proceed in this way, as you can see for yourself by comparing art history and the history of science. In modern science, inquirers know what they are looking for. How do they know? Because they have well founded theories which make it possible to make predictions; they know what, given certain boundary conditions, they should be able to expect. Theories that fail to make verifiable predictions become obsolete

No masterpiece of literature or art is ever superseded, made obsolete. We don't, couldn't, read the Homer's Iliad the way Aristotle or Cicero did. But it is not obsolete. Aristotle's Physics is philosophically interesting but scientifically useless.

Now Paul Gauguin has a secure, well-understood place in art history (a thing which he probably would have despised). How did all this come about? We don't know. All we know is that by guts, audacity, will, talent, he managed to force himself on the attention of the world. Many others, equally talented so far as anyone can see, fail. So, unlike the history of science, art history is deep down irrational. There are no Gauguins in the history of science.

1 comment:

  1. You're absolutely right, Piers. Most artists disappear without even making a splash. They vanish, never to be discovered by posterity.

    There have been a few exceptions: Mendelssohn directed attention to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, but he had been respected in his own time and hadn't totally been forgotten when Mendelssohn rediscovered him. Vivaldi is an example of someone whose music wasn't discovered until two centuries after he died.But exceptions are just that—exceptions.

    Is the same thing true about science? I have no idea. Copernicus kept his work secret because he didn't want to be burned at the stake. That was his choice. Have there been scientists whose discoveries died with them? We may never know.

    Science can be disproved and superseded, unlike art. But science changes the world in very big ways. Can the telephone or the computer be un-invented as opposed to superseded? Can some group in the future end medicine all over the world, the way the Taliban did for a while in Afghanistan or the way Chairman Mao did for a while in China? I hope not.