IS SCIENCE AN ART? 1/3 VASARI VERSUS RIEGL
This publication begins a series of three posts on the art-science link as it emerges from Paul Feyerabend’s thought. This thought has been embodied in many ways. For this first series of publications, we first select the lecture he gave at the Zurich Polytechnic School on 7 July 1981. This conference is entitled Science as Art. It is subtitled: Critique of the theory of art developed by Riegl and attempt to apply it to the sciences *.
Paul Feyerabend was born in 1924. He died in 1994. He was first a philosopher of science, a discipline he taught in many universities around the world, including Berkeley, California, USA. But a deeply iconoclastic philosopher of science. His research has led him to question many dogmas of scientific thought. Paul Feyerabend is particularly famous for his book Against the Method (1975), in which he argues that there is no method strictly speaking in science. All the essential principles of scientific thought have been violated by the greatest scientists at different times in history,” he explains. This critical posture has led him to gradually strip science of all its attributes, until in the end there is not much left that is specific to scientific thought, and this question then arises: what difference with art?
In the Zurich conference, he specifically addresses this question, with a conclusion that is surprising for our Western minds, used to the compartmentalization of disciplines: science is an art!
Because this answer offends our prejudices, and especially because it illuminates the art-science link of a new light, it seemed interesting to us to digest it to make it the subject of a series of publications for the blog salve of the future.
The first post sets out Riegl’s vision of art, which underlies Feyerabend’s reasoning. In particular, we will show how this vision is opposed to the idea of progress in art. The second post will examine to what extent we can translate Riegl’s reasoning to science. Finally, the third post will conclude on the status of science in relation to art.
1 | Vasari where the line
The first attempt to think of the relationship between art and science, says Feyerabend, is that of Giorgio Vasari, in his work Les Vies des meilleurs peintres, sculpteurs et architectes (1568). For Vasari, the human being is integrated into a cosmos where he arrives, unaware of everything. As he distinguishes the different elements of this cosmos, this being learns, and he develops a conception of reality. This conception is gradually becoming more and more accurate.
There would thus be progress in art, from the Lascaux man to Michelangelo, towards an ever more precise representation of reality. In this conception, each artist, and even each work, would be an attempt to come a little closer to the truth of the world.
The invention of the monofocal perspective centred by Filippo Brunelleschi and its use in pictorial representation is emblematic of this effort. Feyerabend quotes Antonio Manetti when he reports an experience he made in Florence in 1425. The experience consists in comparing a painting painted by Filippo Brunelleschi, with the landscape it represents: the exterior of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, in Florence. When one places his eye in a precise point in front of this landscape, Antonio Manetti tells us, and hides the other with his hand, this painting is indistinguishable from reality. For Vasari, who was a contemporary of Filippo Brunelleschi, the introduction of perspective in painting represents the last milestone of a tenacious, continuous, ineluctable progress towards more fidelity.
Of course, Vasari had noted the existence of historical periods when art did not seem to progress towards more refinement. The classical period of the Stone Age was followed by a phase of increasing schematization, breaking with the previous will of realism: “the details disappear, the works strike by their coarse contours. “These periods are temporary moments of regression for Vasari. They are parentheses of decadence within a globally coherent movement towards an ever more faithful representation.
The vasarian conception of art is striking in that it corresponds precisely to the conception we have of science today. Science, as we commonly perceive it, is this effort towards an ever finer, ever more precise, ever more truthful description of reality. Each scientific article, comes after all the others to add to our understanding of the world. It is part of a great continuum of progress towards the truth of the world.
Precisely, for Vasari, art and science are similar. The means differ, but the objective is common. They both tend towards an ever higher level of knowledge and representation of the world.
Feyeraband explains: “We must not be fooled by the political dimension of this conception of art. At the time of Giorgio Vasari, painting was less well regarded than the other arts. By putting pictorial art on the same level of ambition as science, Vasari seeks to enhance the prestige of painting.
It doesn’t really matter what Vasari’s intention is, because she’s just a pretext. This conception will last for a very long time. In fact, it is still going on. Who has never heard anyone take exception to the fact that a contemporary painting is considered as much as a classical painting “whereas classical paintings require a much greater technique”. The same goes for atonal music.
This remark is not as anecdotal as one might think, because the underlying debate is that of a hierarchy of works. If, as Vasari thinks, art is intended to represent the truth of the world, then all works can be judged by this criterion. We would have an objective way of judging that Michelangelo is better than the Lascaux man. We would have arguments to assert that African art, for example, is less good than Western art.
Vasari’s intellectual movement consists in folding art onto a line. This line is graduated, like a scale. This graduation is Vasari’s criterion for judging works: the truth of the representation. At the bottom of the ladder, the Lascaux man, at the top, Michelangelo. Between the two: all the other works. Of course, no work ever touches the truth, but some are closer. With Vasari, one can therefore say: “one work is higher than another” because it is closer to the truth of the world. Or “this work is degenerated”, because it positions itself far below this older work.
2 | Riegl or surface
Aloïs Riegl, in his book entitled L’artisanat du Bas-Empire romain, is the first in the history of art to have tackled vasarian conception head on. By carefully studying one of these periods of so-called artistic regression, he was able to show that this was not the case. The style of the Late Roman Empire, says Aloïs Riegl, is the result of a clear reflection. We can distinguish rules and logic. In other words, the art of the Late Empire is not the result of a lack of talent, capacity or rigour, but the result of a specific artistic will.
Of course, this is a complete reversal of value. For Vasari, art is constantly evolving: the discontinuities observed in the evolution of styles are accidents corresponding to temporary regressions. For Riegl, art does not evolve continuously: discontinuities are ruptures. They are the sign of the appearance of a new style that cannot be compared with the old.
“The falcon represented on the trophy of King Narmer (first dynasty around -2900 BC) is very alive. The falcon of King Ouadji’s tomb (also the first dynasty) is steeper, more stylized, it does not give that impression of life so dear to Vasari, without being seen as a sign of decadence. The work is perfectly mastered, its stiffness is not a defect, but the sign of extreme concentration.
Fig. 1. Narmer paddle. Cairo Archaeological Museum. © dinosoria.com
Fig. 2. Stele of the “Serpent King” (“Horus Ouadji”) © The Louvres.
What is a style in art? The answer is not explicit in Feyerabend’s text, but we can move forward. A style is a school of thought characterized by a similar will and common rules of representation. It is a set of conventions of representations that can be found from one artist to another. In short, a style is a common principle.
Riegl therefore accepts another criterion for judging art: formal coherence. This criterion is not Vasari’s. But, in truth, it is not just a question of criteria. Riegl’s intellectual movement is profoundly different from Vasari’s. It consists in folding art on a surface. This surface is a patchwork of schools of artistic thought separated from each other by breaking lines. Within each of these schools, the underlying framework is common: a measure can be established. One can compare, for example, two craftsmen of the Roman Empire. We can say that Michelangelo is superior to Raphael, or the opposite.
But these lines of rupture are so deep in the surface of art that they affect the underlying fabric of artistic representation. Therefore, this surface contains no common measure: the styles are incommensurable. The schools of artistic thought are incomparable. They live together without any possible hierarchy. Michelangelo is not superior to the Lascaux man. African art is no less valuable than Western art. There is no degenerate work because there is no common embarrassment.
3 | About the compatibility of Vasari and Riegl’s designs
In many ways, Riegl’s design is confusing. According to Riegl, Fernand Léger’s Woman in Blue and Faraday’s portrait by Richmond cannot be compared. However, it seems to us that the second one better reflects reality. We could recognize Faraday from this portrait, if we met him, while we could not recognize the woman Léger represented.
Fig. 3. Femme en bleu from Fernand Léger.
Fig. 4. Michael Faraday’s portrait by Georges Richmond
One could imagine reconciling Vasari and Riegl’s conceptions. One could say, for example, that the painting Woman in Blue is an attempt to escape reality in order to return to it better. It would then not be a regression, but a movement of voluntary shift, like a digression, aiming to illuminate reality differently to enrich the representation, in fine. Then, one could keep the vasarian conception of a progress in art and at the same time the Riegelian conception of incomparable styles.
If it were right, this attempt at conciliation would give different schools of artistic thought a status comparable to mathematics in the sciences, that is, a playground where forms are developed only according to their formal perfection.
In fact, it has happened that mathematicians working on very abstract forms, absolutely far from reality in our immediate perception of it, have given physicists tools to better represent reality. These mathematicians made it possible to discover aspects of reality that had been distorted, even entirely hidden by the classical, figurative mode of representation. Because pure mathematics has enabled these discoveries, they are essential tools for a deeper understanding of reality.
In this attempt at conciliation, the different artistic styles would be formal divagations. They would be a means, certainly a back door, but a means all the same, to refine our understanding of the world.
This vision is not tenable. For Riegl does not distinguish two categories of art: one that would seek truth and the other that would seek formal coherence. It abolishes any possibility of comparing them. The study of the real world, says Feyerabend, consists in “selecting, among a large number of forms compared to reality, certain precise forms, the ideal being to arrive at a precise form. An art that sets itself the goal of capturing and representing reality cannot, therefore, accommodate Riegl’s aesthetic relativism.
Another attempt to reconcile Vasari and Riegl’s vision would be to introduce the criterion of truth into each style. There would not be one but several quests for truth and accuracy. Each style would basically pursue the same goal, while subjecting itself to a different set of additional rules. This amounts to adding the criterion of fidelity to reality to the criterion of formal consistency for judging works.
But this second attempt at conciliation comes up against a fundamental difficulty: where does the artist find the reality that is supposed to serve as a reference? For the artist, as for every human being, there is not reality on one side and representations of reality on the other. The artist is immersed in a representation of reality as he is immersed in the air he breathes. “As soon as he makes a judgment or opts for a different perspective, either he joins an existing human production, or he himself gives birth to a work by the simple fact that he makes a judgment and performs all acts related to the expression of an opinion. »
One might object that not all schools of thought are equivalent. There is within every culture a reference for what that culture calls the truth of reality. Each of us clearly feels that some schools of thought are closer to representing reality than others. In our culture, for example, the school of scientific thought is considered the most likely to represent reality as it is. So while reality does not exist independently of the artist, there is something very close to it: it is (for us) the scientific representation of the world. It would be enough for the artist to enrol in this school of thought to bring his work closer to the representation of reality.
Feyerabend does not deny this classification, but denies that it has any objective value. The reference exists, but it is cultural: “From where it possesses a certain universality, every tradition judges things in its own way. We find it natural to photograph a house or its plan in perspective, while a person unfamiliar with the laws of perspective will see a building collapsing. »
Thus, we would have agreed that scientific representation is the one that best reflects reality, that’s all. According to Feyerabend, there would be nothing objective about that. There would be no argument that science describes reality better than religion, for example. Of course, that thought is shocking. It requires amplification to understand.
It is easy to convince oneself that scientific representations are not true to reality. They never represent reality in the full extent of the word. Let us take the example of the illustration Fig 3. Who can believe this representation is realistic! Not only is it an impoverished representation (without colour, without time, without smell…), but it presents conflicts with other aspects of reality. Finally, there are many gaps. We have to admit that scientific representations are always crude, schematic and incomplete.
Fig. 5: Illustration taken from the Treaty of Man by Descartes (1664).
But this is not enough to convince the supporters of science of the subjective character of their choice, because their arguments focus on what these representations allow, more than what they are. The scientific representation would be truer than the others because it allows a better control of nature.
Of course, the scientific representation of the world allows us to better control nature. The question is not which school of thought within the criterion “better master nature” is the best, but rather, where does it come from that criterion is decisive? How is it that what enables us to control nature is also what is true? The answer is simple: it is a cultural, historical, political choice. It is a principle of classification among others.
We could have decided that the decisive criterion for classifying schools of thought is “to respect nature better”. Then, on that account, the Jainist school of thought would probably be considered the closest to representing reality. She would be dominant. There would be schools of Jainism everywhere. The Jains would hold positions of power. Scientists would be the disciples of a community of marginal thought, obsessed that they are by the strange desire to want at all costs to dominate nature.
We could have decided that the decisive criterion for classifying schools of thought is “to free man from materiality”. In that case, this religion would have taken all the place. Etc.
“The fact that our time is visibly dominated by a unique conception of nature should not lead us to believe that we have finally found “reality”. It simply means that no other form of reality currently finds amateurs, supporters, defenders – not that other conceptions are worthless, but we do not know them or we do not wish to discover them. »
And Feyerabend concludes: “Even starting from the link to reality, our speech is in fact in line with the position defended by Riegl. (…) We are dealing not only with different forms of art, but also with different forms of thought, truth, rationality and also with forms of reality. Wherever we look, we find not one archimedean point, but other styles, traditions and classification principles. »
3 | Provisional conclusion
Riegl’s contribution is considerable. He is the one who has shown that there is no progress in art. Not all artists are involved in the same race, which would aim to represent reality as faithfully as possible. It is therefore the vision of a patchwork of styles, that is, schools of thought, that emerges. These schools of thought represent different artistic wills. They are perfectly consistent even if they are incompatible. One can judge a work within the paradigms that underlie its style, but two works belonging to two different styles are immeasurable.
The next post will attempt to apply this analysis to science. We will ask ourselves to what extent we can speak of progress in science. It will be a question of considering science as we know it as a particular style, a specific school of thought, perfectly coherent, but incommensurable with the other schools of thought.
Science as art (Albin Michel, 2003).
photographic credit: Breno Machado (unsplash.com)
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator