-- Against Syncretism ?
The last series of posts on our supernatural discussion has incited me
to make some personal comments against having goals to create a
'syncretism' that unites the variety of practices that come under the
general label of art-science. Elsewhere I have argued against those
who are promoting the creation of a 'third culture'. I have also
provocatively said that I don't think 'inter-disciplinarily is a
discipline". Unlike the way that astronomy and physics came to create
astrophysics, or biology and chemistry led to biochemistry, I don't
think we are developing a unified field of artscience. We are seeing
those that founded what is called 'digital humanities' having to back
track because after all scholars are born digital digital humanities
will disappear and re-emerge as the humanities ( digital astronomy has
long disappeared; fortunately no universities started departments of
digital astronomy that had to be closed down).
I think that we have to understand that there are different ways of
knowing (the Exploratorium conference on this was a landmark). Even
within the sciences, observational and experimental sciences come to
their conclusions in different ways and the scientific method itself
has evolved ( eg the use of computer models as hypotheses, or data
driven science today). And phenomena which were held to be outside of
scientific investigation sometimes come into scientific purview ( eg
the recent science of consciousness area, quorum sensing in non
Similarly the work of artists itself has continuously evolved. The new
'art as research' movement often does not result in art objects or
experiences that are meant to be assessed using aesthetic criteria
that were developed for static images, or time based art performances.
Today we see a large growth in socially engaged and public art
practices that are to be evaluated by the cultural changes they bring
about rather than the individual aesthetic experiences. That doesn't
make it 'pseudo-art'. Sustainable development and controlling and
adapting to climate change are opening up whole new areas for
interventions by artists that would be un recognizable as art to a
19th century art critic; in a Leonardo ebook
)we argued that this doesn't mean that the 'sublime' is not part of
the art-science lexicon.
I am not arguing that 'everything goes' ; my father once accused me of
having a mind so wide open that the wind blew right through it. As a
scientist I do think we have to be careful and indeed I sometimes am
troubled by areas of art-science that I think mis-understand and
mis-use certain scientific ideas. Sometimes I do see art-science which
seems to me pseudo-science. An no, anything is not art just because
its called art; there are criteria for evaluating and assessing art
and its impact on individuals and our cultures. I am sometimes
troubled by the work of scientist engaged in art-science who seem to
be ignorant of the last hundred years of art-making. Just because you
make a pretty picture doesn't make it significant art today. In my own
art-science practice, our artscilab seeks to develop projects that can
be assessed both on their scientific interest and their artistic
interest without syncretism, or what I have called 'hybrid' practice.
One of the areas that I think could be useful in these discussion is
the field of Translational Studies. This field has expanded from
linguistic translation, to cultural translation and in more recent
years to trans-disciplinary translation. In Translation Studies it is
established that some facts, concepts are not translatable from one
area to another because of the importance of semantic and social
context. We need to identify false friends ( eg the word prototype
does not mean the same thing in technoscience as in art). Analogies
and Metaphors are very difficult to translate and there is a whole
literature on this area. But often I see concepts from science
translated unscrupulously to art with misleading implications from
fuzzy thinking and use of words and analogies; translation is a real
expertise that needs to be deployed with sophistication.
Finally I think one of the processes that art-science engages in is
what might be called cultural digestion of science and technology.
Some technologies are culturally sterile ( steam engine art ?) but
until the technology is culturally appropriated it is often hard to
understand its cultural meaning ( eg the birth of digital arts
industries, net-art leading to social media etc). That means we have
to be patient until artists appropriate the science and technology and
translate it within the arts and culture. Some artists take scientific
experiments and just restage them in a gallery- often this translation
is absurd; sometimes it can be generative ( cf Root Bernstein's
restaging of the Urey origin of life experiments).
In recent posts the predictable debate about science and religion has
begun to surface. It is impossible to deny that some scientists are
deists and some atheists. As are artists. The %s are highly variable
depending on location ( I live in Texas !) The art science field
reflects this cultural variety in its local grounding. It is
interesting to see art-science begin to be practiced in deeply
catholic cultures in south America ; and in India with its multiple
religious influences; what direction will they take us in ? I don't
think that art-science is a 'universal' practice ( whereas I do think
that scientific is knowledge is universal and not culturally
specific). Necessarily in the process of translation from science to
art ( and back again) some art-science will be culturally grounded and
not universal. And as argued above I don't think we are seeking to
create a global third culture, or a syncretism.
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