Revisiting an old and whacky theory

Many years ago at Fourth Street, a bunch of us sat around for too many hours and came up with the following theory: From the perspective of society, the function of art* and the function of science are identical; the difference is that the final product of science is a theory, the final product of art is an artifact.

Whenever it comes up, this theory seems to produce interesting discussion, so I am running it up the mixed metaphor to see if the cliche licks it up.

*A somewhat restrictive definition of art; excluding, for example, the performing arts.


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0 thoughts on “Revisiting an old and whacky theory”

  1. Now, this is an interesting hypothesis. It begs the question “what do you consider a ‘product’?” Is Edison’s light bulb or Alexander Fleming’s penicillin not a product of science? They’ve both been proven to work, after all. Are we differentiating between theoretical and practical science? Why?

    As for art—I’m assuming you’re limiting your definition to the fine arts, with the exclusion of dance and theatre—I’d argue that the individual or local artistic process may produce an artefact, but any continuous communal artistic discussion will result in a lot more. The rise and fall of artistic movements, for instance, as happened with Dadaism in the early 20th century. “Each artistic creation constitutes a statement in the eternal artistic debate”, as my teacher is fond of saying.

    A more accurate statement, therefore, would be that the tangible, material product of art is an object, and that artwork uses secular means to express itself. The work of science, on the other hand, is mostly conceptual, and its products are ideas—the inventions are arguably merely by-products of these ideas.

  2. ‘It begs the question “what do you consider a ‘product’?”’

    I’m addressing it strictly from the point of view of social role. That it, “what does society expect or demand of these people?” With this narrow focus, I’m speaking specifically of this: the effort to cognize nature (with society being included in nature). In other words, we ask the artist and the scientist to help us understand our world.

    The interesting thing is, from this viewpoint, the fine artist is to the scientist as the performing artist is to the engineer. This is, the invention of artifacts is engineering, in the same way that the result of a performance is an image in the mind of the viewer.

    (I really don’t think this theory holds water, I just think it’s fun to kick around)

  3. Nope, it doesn’t hold water, for several reasons.The first and easiest is that society, by and large, had no “view” on science for almost all of the existence of humans as species.Science as a methodology is a couple of centuries old, art, OTOH is at least 30K years old(oldest cave painting I remember hearing about).

    I think that if science can be compared to something then it is to religion, since both are, at their roots, attempts to explain the reasons for natural events.Unfortunately far too many people make science their new religion, rather then use it as tool, expecting it to solve everything, including their moral dilemmas.

  4. But performing arts do in-fact leave artifacts, in the form of tickets, costumes, playbills, reviews, sets (even when recycled), musical scores, scripts…
    And in the same form, even the most theoretical science leaves behind artifacts in written discourse, published articles, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.
    Humanity cannot help but leave behind evidence for the future.

  5. Complete and absolute nonsense, of course.

    The end-product of science is knowledge; hence the name – for those who are familiar with Latin, a number that shrinks more and more each year.

    The end product of art is emotion, in the artist to begin with, in the “consumer” to end with, with no guarantee that those two emotions will have any similarity.

  6. You haven’t told us in your post what you consider this primary function or art & science to be, only that you believe them to be the same? I am having trouble coming up with similar functions for the two. It seems that art exists as a method to convey information about something in the world (emotions, nature, ideas, etc) to some target audience where upon they will translate the piece of artwork for themselves and hopefully come up with the same original piece of information.

    Science, OTOH, is concerned with both encoding knowledge for transport but also for discovering new knowledge – This is where they really differ. Art provides no analog for discovering new information. Art’s primary use is as a vehicle for communication – much like some sort of cipher.

    Now, it seems that we may be able to consider these artifacts to be new information created through art. I think that is a stretch but if we do allow ourselves to follow that line of reasoning art still falls short. In this sense art will only CREATE new information. Science can both create new information ad, more importantly, discover pre-existing information that has heretofore not been encoded or discovered.

  7. Something to add to the thought process, toss it around: I take your meaning to be both art and science purpose to explain the way the world works? If so, consider a slightly shifted take – Science explains things we don’t already know, Art explains thing we do. Of course, this isn’t perfect – theory of gravity explains why things fall, which of course we do know already. But the broader idea is that Science explains new things, and art helps us explain ourselves to ourselves. Hm. Neither of these is the thing I have in my mind, but both come at it. You’re the writer, Mr. Brust – maybe you can see the thought through the words and put better words to the thought?

  8. the problem with your initial theory is that i don’t believe society (in general) is seeing the functions of art and science as the same. in general, most people can see the benefit of modern science. a smaller percentage see the benefit of modern fine art.

    another difference is that society thinks it more or less knows what to expect of the scientist, and doesn’t know what to expect from the fine artist, and the artist ultimately creates the final definition of his/her work.

    “the final product of science is a theory, the final product of art is an artifact”

    This only applies in the most simplistic definition. The theories of science are often turned into products, and the artist’s work, as it was originally conceptualized and produced, is often unrecognizeable as that artifact once the piece is taken down. (christo’s work comes to mind)

    then there are the ways i see arts and sciences being similar:

    1)most members of society dont understand the terms, or the processes involved.

    2)the scientific method hypothesis/experiment/theory is similar to the artistic process, both are serial in nature and methodology, both allow for tangential results and thought.

    3)both rely on intuition to a greater or lesser extent.

    4)both rely on pattern recognition to move forward.

    5)there is a small section of society that thinks both should not even exist or that artists/scientists should be severly restrained.

    and last…

    why do you not think the theory holds water?

  9. The misconception with this is a basic confusion as to the purpose of art, science and/or business. It’s really about the chicks, the benjamins and the least effort required to obtain them, that’s all. If you provide people with food, sex and someone to beat upon (insctintive dominance) they are quite unlikely to invent anything or draw/paint anything, except of course on each other. The role of society is to keep as many people dissatisfied but functional as possible, thus producing progress. It helps if the population can be induced to blame themselves for their problems so that they will try harder, literally killing themselves for “success”. Societies which are effective at this have better arts and sciences thus enabling the extermination their rivals. For the disposable individual blowing your money on hookers and blow is wisdom.

  10. An After Thought
    The undeniable beauty of a nuclear explosion, flash, fireball, rising mushroom cloud, shock waves is so far the ultimate example of human expression. You may loath it, love it, fear it or worship it. It is the threat. It is the only defense. It is written in the isotopes in your bones. A self portrait of the rise of our species as a integrated whole at least until we figure out how to blow-up entire stars. I see deep in the future a traveling resort featuring death, sex, gambling and intoxication moving from star to star, leaving a trail of supernova, marking former civilizations. There are upwards of 100 billion stars in our galaxy, hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, party on!

  11. “In other words, we ask the artist and the scientist to help us understand our world.” We also ask teachers, grammarians, doctors, therapists, and random people who have the same venues for acquiring alcohol to help us understand our world. So the role of artist and scientist are similar in that they’re both subsets of “guy who can tell me something that may or may not be true,” but they have almost no functional activity in common.

    Also, even if a small number of artists and scientists find themselves in the role of agitator or Cassandra, what society really asks from these people is for scientists to design better consumer products, and for artists to produce more compelling images of those consumer products. High art is only a very small part of what artists do, and most scientists aren’t engaged in exciting discovery. So they do share a common denominator, but so does every other job in our society.

    The question’s a bit of a cheat, because saying “art and science have the same social role” is not the same as saying “artists and scientists have the same social role.” Art communicates something–story, idea, philosophy–as well as having an aesthetic value and (usually) physical presence. Science is a methodology for testing things–ideas, philosophies, physically observed things. So science can feed art, but they’re not equivalent.

    Interesting notion. Hogwash, but interesting.

  12. The primary function of art and science is to provide a way of understanding the universe and seeking the truth by way of producing theories and artefacts.

    Because the products are different, the methods are different as well. Additionally, there are more “rules and requirements” to science as there is to art.

    Science provides the theory by way of the scientist’s critical analyses of his/her observations and/or previous theories. Art provides the artefact by way of the artist’s feelings of his/hers observations.

    Both can provoke an emotive response. Pure science does this unintentionally. Pure Art should this intentionally.

    A scientist has to justify his/her product by way of good rigour from the analysis that helped develop it as the scientist attempts to provide an objective view of the world. An artist does not need to justify his/her product as he/she is providing a subjective and expressive view of the world.

    A product developed from science can supersede previous products with the intention of been universally adopted. A product developed from art does not supersede previous products with no adoption agenda in mind.

    A product from science remains eternal until superseded. There is no lifetime requirement on a product developed by art.

    Pure science is done by thinking. Pure art is done by feeling.

    Development of both have had a level of suppression by people in power out of fear the products they produce may displace them. Bother are more embraced today – science more so. But those in power will use both to consolidate their political positions.

  13. Also this discussion has so far elided science and technology. The lightbulb is technology. Some of the chemistry and physics used in developing in developing it is science.

    To complicate this, the distinction between technology and science or even between technology and mathematics is not really as clearcut as the above makes it sound. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the past and talk Euclid. He systematized geometry, started with some basic definitions and postulates, and derived a series of theorems step by step that encompass many of the principles of even modern plane geometry.

    Pure mathematics – start with some agreed on premises and derive a bunch of non-obvious but interesting observation. That they are useful in day-to-day life is pure coincidence. Only it is not.

    Euclid, like all art, science, technology, mathematics, was embedded in a society. Many of the theorems he derived were were practical rules of thumb used by carpenters, masons, shipbuilders, and sailors in his day. Even many of his “proofs” were already known, taught by priesets, philosophers and cultists.

    And yet what Euclid did was extremely significant. Nobody had developed geometry or any form of mathematics as systematically as this before he did. Some of Euclids theorems WERE new. Euclid’s geometry was a real and powerful act of creativity. He created both a wonderful and amazingly fun new game for the human species to play, and a really powerful tool of both immediate and practical long run value.

  14. Disagree with the thesis on many grounds, some mentioned above.

    The most obvious reason is economic. Science can lead to new technology, which in turn can create wealth (for various definitions of wealth: either tech increases worker productivity, or it enables new types of capital, or it increases energy production, or it increases food production, whatever you like) but art, for the most part, does not.

    Evidently society has special interest in wealth and also special interest in the nature of work, and in the availability of leisure (which is necessary to fund and appreciate art) hence it values science differently from the way it values art, and the functions are far from identical.

    I can also disagree on theory vs. artifact grounds, or knowledge vs. entertainment or beauty, for that matter, but this is already too tl;dr as it is….

  15. I suppose that they can be considered similar in that both cash out in some form of understanding, but at the end of the day, a well-prosecuted scientific project results in a mathematical model of reality (or some piece of it). The goal of science is a particular and specific kind of explanation, a form of propositional understanding. Art is not constrained in this way and a well-prosecuted artistic project does not need to result in such. This is not to say that there cannot be similarities in terms of process or methods — certainly, the poor stereotype of scientists as cold, passionless logic machines is silly. Creativity and aesthetic thinking certainly have a role in good science. But methinks the constraints on output defeat this particular thesis.

  16. Unless, of course, I’m *completely* missing the point (which is not entirely unlikely) — what is meant by “from the perspective of society”?

  17. I don’t know if I agree that they serve the same function. I’ve always thought that the primary purpose of science is to understand the universe, while the primary purpose of art is to understand one another.

    Science, at its heart, is an organized way of observing the universe, and should be repeatable through experiments.

    Art is the artist’s depiction of the universe, and as such is unique. The depiction tells us a great deal about how the artist views something (or somethings).

    Fascinating ideas here.

  18. This is off-topic, Steve, but in case you haven’t been following it lately, Order of the Stick has been simply awesome in the last 2-3 cartoons. Rich Burlew has pulled all the plot threads together masterfully.

  19. Chimera @ 20: A very astute question. I mean in the sense of the role they play in society as a whole. I obviously don’t mean “in the mind of any given individual.”

    Megan @ 21: You read my blog? *Bounce*. I mean, uh, hi.

    Alex @ 22: That’s more or less where we started, too, and then realized that understanding each other is part of understanding the universe, and then started idea-tripping from there.

    Alaska Fan @23: I know! I less than three that cartoon!

  20. I’d say there’s a more interesting correspondence between what scientists do and what artists do. Talk to a theoretical physicist (or some computer scientists), for example, about what characteristics they look for in a theory or an algorithm and they use words like “elegance” and “symmetry”. Ask an honest scientist or artist about the process by which they come up with the basic structures they work with (not how they test the theory or execute the work) and you’ll find they use many of the same techniques: pattern recognition, analogy, and metaphor, for instance.

    Oh, and science is to engineering as art is to craft. Performing art is still art; often performances are improvisational, that is, new works, and even non-improvisational performances have some element of interpretation. The real difference is between “pure” and “applied” art and science.

  21. From the perspective of society, science and art perform the same role: to lift society from focusing on basic needs and looking at the bigger picture of the world around us. One could argue that science delivers artifacts while art delivers something less tangible but perhaps more physical.

  22. It really depends on which branch of science one is talking about and which art one is talking about.

    However, since all theories must be presented as formal papers and published in accepted scientific journals to be considered relevant, I’d have to say that even the most abstract science still produces an artifact. If they didn’t, then scientific theory would not have the means needed to build and modify theory based on previous work.

    Similarly, thanks to the ability we have these days to record motion and sound even performance art can result in some kind of permanent record.

    In the information age, virtually everything we do or say results in artifacts in the form of binary data.

  23. Art and science can both be inspirational. The person imputing practical value is the merchant.

  24. “Chimera @ 20: A very astute question. I mean in the sense of the role they play in society as a whole. I obviously don’t mean “in the mind of any given individual.””

    Ah — in that case, I think my initial response stands fairly well. Viewed through the lens of (a particular) take on philosophy, I would argue that science represents our best efforts at solving the knowledge project, while the arts, in general, represent something more akin to the pursuit or appreciation of the wisdom project.

  25. By the way… this?

    “Science is bones.

    Art is flesh.”

    Yeah, that’s an *annoyingly* beautiful expression.

  26. What about movies, which are a blend of art, science and commerce, and which begin strictly as experienced performance only to leave artifacts (like DVDs) about a year later. It’s also the one industry that America truly dominates, and as such is viewed with great importance–to our cultural identity as well as to our economy.

  27. Steve,

    Sorry I missed it, I have been down with the flu, but HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I hope that it was a good one and that there are many more.


  28. tredekka:

    How exactly is a movie a scientific enterprise? It employs the use of tools and technology, but at the end of the day, a movie doesn’t yield a theory or a mathematical model of anything. As for using tools and technology, so does practically *every* form of art — a paintbrush is a piece of technology, as are paints. As for the commerce angle… I’m not sure where you’re going there.

  29. OMG I missed your birthday!

    Belated happy birthday Steve. You make the best birthday presents, you artist you.

  30. This is based on a myopic view of science. Science is not just about creating theories about how the world works, but also creating things and methods to change (ideally for the better) the way people do things. Engineering, which creates bridges, electronics, vehicles, and any of the myriad things we use every day, is also an aspect of science.

    For society, the function of science is the improvement of society. Science analyzes the natural world in order to determine how it works, so that we can develop new ways of doing old things, discover new things to do, and find ways of doing more with less cost.

    Art is, at best, the representation of one person’s perception of the world. Where science does its best to eliminate personal bias from its analysis of our universe, art embraces emotion and inspiration, which are neither guaranteed to accurately represent reality. Art is a representation of culture at the time of its creation, and a form of historical record of how we perceive the world. For society, the immediate purpose of a creation of art serves to demonstrate an alternate perception of reality, based on the perception of a third person, but in the long term, it serves as a record of how the world was once perceived.

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