Notes by cognitive scientist, poet and historian Piero Scaruffi
for a round table moderated by Leonard Shlain at
at Swissnex in San Francisco on 19/9/2007
What is art? This is a question that depends on the country and the age in which you live. Art for the Romans was simply praise of the state via engineering. Art for the Greeks was the science of abstract harmony, i.e. a form of geometry and mathematics. Art for the Chinese was the practice of harmony with nature. Art in all religions tend to be a manifestation and reenaction of legends. What they all have in common is a) the aspiration to inspire, b) the aim for a higher truth, c) the use of some technology. The psychological effect can be quite different though, ranging from sheer awe to tender melancholy. The psychological state does not define art, per se. The fact that art creates a psychological state may define art, though. 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 a divine act of creation: with every action the human mind tries to recreate the world in her/his image. Art is the recreation of the world in human 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. So 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 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 it had to pay was to marginalize and imprison the arts.
Is art a uniquely human activity? The question is misleading. Art is ubiquitous in nature, whether an alpine lake or a spider web. The real question is: do other animals perceive what they do as art? We assume that an alpine lake or the mountain ridges that create it do nto perceive themselves, therefore they are not "artists". Can a spider appreciate the quality of the web it has just woven? Can a beaver appreciate the quality of the "dam" that it has just built across a creek? To us they often look like great art. The main difference between human art and animal art is the intention: hmans meant to create art, whether practical or not, whereas presumably other animals simply do what is practical to do. Whether animals can perceive beauty or not, their activities are "artistic" too, to some extent. Thus in the end art is simply a different name for... life.
Why do humans engage in artistic activities? If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or 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 have to work in order to feed their families. Art might be a way to keep playing while you are working. Children are genetically programmed to play, and 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 advantages: 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.
What is the impact on society of art? Art educates people to be creative. A lack of creativity is a handicap for science. Science creates new paradigms of thought. Resistance to new paradigms of thought is a handicap for art. Every new generation is more similar to specialized robots than to sentient beings.
What is the relationship between art and science? If every human activity is, to some extent, "artistic", then any scientific discipline is an art. The fictitious separation of art and technology/engineering/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 are so distant in the 21st century because we live in the age of specialization. Specialization started in the 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.
What are the benefits for science of an integration with the arts? Art can help usher in a paradigm shift. Major scientific revolutions have usually coincided with major artistic periods. Today science is evolution, not revolution, perhaps because it has been decoupled from the arts.
What is the impediment to art/science integration today? Dogmas rule. If we don't comply with the ruling dogmas, we are not accepted. A history of jazz music written by a rock historian is accepted neither by the rock establishment nor by the jazz establishment. It doesn't exist. We don't exist. Furthermore, the 20th century disliked multifaceted ("renaissance") artists/scientists. In Italy, the homeland of art and science integration, ordinary people dismiss artists-scientists as "tuttologhi". Also, the language of science has become more and more difficult.
What are the consequences of the separation of art and science? They are 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 considered ridiculous in ancient times, when human alterations of Nature were almost always considered 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 impaled. (Ironically, the same environmental fundamentalists who oppose bridges and tunnels take pictures precisely of bridges and tunnels when they travel to Switzerland). This was clearly not the case centuries ago, when great minds were asked specifically 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 product of science/technology/engineering as beautiful. It perceives it as a threat to (natural) beauty.
What is the relationship between creativity and progress? It should be obvious: technology does not exist in a vacuum. A system that does not encourage poetry, music, painting, sculpture and so forth does not encourage discovery and invention.
What caused the separation of art and science? It was part of a broader trend away from unification and towards specialization. Not only did science and art progressively move apart, but disciplines within each 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 same 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, tramsportation have enabled an unprecedented degree of exchange, interaction, integration, convergence and blending. After so many centuries, we are finally able again to see the continuum 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.
What can we do to raise a generation of Leonardos? As far as the Western world is concerned, I am pessimistic. It would require a fundamental change in the structure of society, which is unlikely to come from the very Western society that invented (and prospered thanks to) the society of specializations. The societies of the developing world, who are not burdened with the bureaucracy, stereotypes, habits and prejudices that permeate the Western mind, may have a chance to invent the foundations for a wide-spread integration of the arts and the sciences. In the West the only successful programs are the ones that can be identified with a "career path" (whether in the industry or the academia). In the digital age some such career paths are emerging (for example, in the graphic-design industry) and may eventually create the need for interdisciplinary "polytechnics" that teach both art and science. Today the problem is not only that the Academia does not encourage such interdisciplinary programs, but that it discourages it tout court. Very few Departments of Physics, for example, would hire an artist. There is literally no motivation to try that avenue (as opposed to study climate change, for which there are abundant funds and plenty of media attention). One way to reverse this trend would be for a patron of the arts and/or sciences to institute the equivalent of the Nobel prize to reward creative minds that operate in both the arts and the sciences. As far as developing countries go, they should realize that they can overtake the West only if they manage to introduce a paradigm shift, not if they simply replicate the Western model. And a paradigm shift requires precisely the kind of imagination and creativity that is penalized by the Western society of specialization. That paradigm shift requires a hyper-interdisciplinary approach. After all, the paradigm shift that turned Europe from a continent of plagues, starvation and endemic warfare into the rulers of the world started precisely during the Rinascimento.
(You may also want to read some of my quotes, that are relevant to this topic