THE WORK OF ART VERSUS THE WORK OF SCIENCE: 1/3: THE UNSPEAKABLE OPENNESS OF THINGS
Fig 1. Olafur Eliasson, The unspeakable openness of things (2018)
Artist Olafur Eliasson exhibited his work at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing, China, from May 18 to August 12, 2018. This exhibition was entitled “The unspeakable openness of things”. This title is not only charming. It is deep. He says something essential not only about art but also about science. I will use these words as a pretext to move forward in our reflection on the subject of art and science.
We saw in the series on Feyerabend that science is an art. But it is an art with constraints. It can undoubtedly be formulated as follows: scientific art is a subset of art in itself. This subset is delimited by three constraints, which can be explained in the form of an equation (Fig. 2):
science = art + a subject + a method + a report
Fig 2: Science is an art with constraints
Not all subjects are scientific. Only experiments that are a) repeatable, b) at will, and c) by anyone, are eligible for scientific work. So there may be a science of dreams, but the science of a particular dream cannot be done. There are also scientific subjects that are not considered scientific. We will go into this detail in a future post.
To obtain a result that is valid from a scientific point of view, a method must be followed. For all the readers of Feyerabend (including myself), this sentence is difficult to pronounce. She asked for an explanation. Because Feyerabend is known to have published a book entitled Against the Method, in which he argues that there is no scientific method: “everything is valid”, he writes. Yes and no.
Yes, because Feyerabend is right. All major scientific upheavals have occurred without any method. The emergence of Galilean physics did not obey the canonical rules of science. So is relativity. So is quantum mechanics.
No, because Feyerabend is also wrong. Not all scientific advances are paradigm shifts. The daily life of science is done within the paradigms that have been built by previous generations, and it is done according to a method. It is the respect of this method that is certified by peers during the publication process in a journal. Of course, this certification is a question of power and there is a greater part of it than there seems to be subjectivity. We will go into this detail in a future post.
A scientific work is always recorded in minutes. What is incorrectly called a “scientific publication”: a book, an article, a presentation. Why improperly? Because it is an abuse of language. Most of the time, the publication proposes two things: (a) a description of the implementation of a scientific method on a topic of interest, and the results obtained, and (b) the interpretation of the results of this implementation. Sometimes we find only the interpretation of an experiment that was conducted elsewhere, by other people (a theoretical physics article, for example). Even more rarely, the description of the implementation of the scientific method is found without interpretation (when the author(s) cannot interpret the results they obtain). But in any case, the publication is not scientific: it is what it reports that is scientific.
Of course, this publication is codified in its form, but these codes are a use rather than a rule: they are not always scientifically binding. Not only have they varied considerably, but they will continue to do so. One only has to read On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Thompson (appropriating his astonishing prose, his poetic and philosophical references, his heuristic reasoning) to grasp how much room for manoeuvre there is on this subject.
Of course, there is a particular language in these publications. But here again, this language is a use rather than a rule. A fine example of transgressions is provided by a very serious article published in the Public Library of Science (Plos) magazine, dedicated to neglected tropical diseases (Negl. Trop. Dis.), on December 20th, 2012. This article was written by researchers Stefanie J. Krauth, Jean T. Coulibaly, Stefanie Knopp, Mahamadou Traoré, Eliézer K. N’Goran and Jürg Utzinger. Their work is entitled “An In-Depth Analysis of a Piece of Shit: Distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and Hookworm Eggs in Human Stool”.
Two final remarks on the characteristics of a publication made by a scientist:
First, not all publications by scientists are peer-reviewed. Some conferences are not subject to prior review. The same applies to books: they are not validated prior to publication. It is therefore not an obligation.
Second, the use of mathematical concepts and/or equations does not characterize a publication made by a scientist. Researchers working on phylogeny (the study of the relationships of relatives in nature) do not use mathematical tools. There are many other examples.
Unlike the scientist, the artist is therefore free to choose his subject. He does not need to certify his work. He doesn’t need to explain what he gets out of it. Clearly, these three constraints operate within the scientific work. And they sometimes act against innovation. In the context of this blog, in line with the strategy we outlined on the first day, it is interesting to examine precisely how these constraints affect the ability of scientists to innovate. Let’s start with the minutes.
1 | The minutes as a distinctive element of scientific work
At first glance, the scientist and the artist are in a very similar profession. They both produce an artifact: an experience, in one case, a work, in the other. Apart from the subject and the method, there is no fundamental difference between a work of art and a scientific experiment. Of course, both the subject and the method admit formal consequences on the experience that is ultimately produced. It influences the type of materials that are used, the way they are arranged… There is a particular austerity, as charged with objects, in a scientific research laboratory (in experimental sciences, specifically). This austerity is immediately recognizable. It is often a safety issue, but it is above all a question of the reproducibility of experiments. Conversely, there is a specific analysis of the artistic exhibition (in a gallery or museum). This analysis contributes to the enhancement of the work. But that’s all. And that’s not much. If for a long time we believed that aesthetics made it possible to distinguish them, we now know that this is not true.
This lack of fundamental difference is best illustrated by a work by Olafur Eliasson entitled Beauty (1993) (Fig. 3). The artist made a device for the production of tiny water droplets. The device is placed in height. It is linear, so that it produces like a veil of fog that falls. Olafur Eliasson placed it in a dark room, except for a spotlight on the ceiling that illuminates the droplets, so that this veil of mist is iridescent. This iridescence varies according to fluctuations in the ambient air generated by the movements of the spectators.
Fig 3. Olafur Eliasson, beauty (1993)
For those who are familiar with a scientific research laboratory, it looks like an experiment in progress. But an experiment that would have been both stripped of its measuring instruments and deserted by scientists. The spectator finds himself witnessing an experience offered to the gazes and games, in the time gap between the moment when the researchers left, and the moment when the last light is turned off. A gap that would have been widened to infinity by the artist.
On the other hand, there is a difference in the way in which the artist and the scientist report on their work. While the work is an end in itself for the artist, experience is a means for the scientist. Because scientific experience exists only to be recorded in minutes. It disappears once the minutes* have been published.
The existence of a record of the scientific experiment is far from insignificant. I think he admits three consequences. First, a quantitative reduction in the value of this experience: you don’t see everything you should see. Secondly, a censorship of scientists within the space of possibilities. Third, a qualitative reduction in the value of this experience: we only see what we can see.
2 | You have the right not to understand!
Olafur Eliasson said: “Art exists both within and outside the realm of language. Before the form of a work of art emerges, a feeling that cannot be grasped appears at the heart of the creative process. This feeling is found in the finished work as something that cannot be fully expressed. At the same time, the work is open to visitors. She is ready to listen to them and welcome their questions and experiences. »
Those who have already done science know that the same feeling that cannot be grasped appears at the heart of the process of developing a scientific experiment (or theory). This feeling mixes so many different things that it would be futile to try to exhaust the list. But there is certainly the game of picking a lock from nature, the excitement of opening for the first time the door that this lock held closed, the curiosity of discovering what this door had hidden from our eyes, since the beginning.
There is an anecdote that tells this feeling better than any reasoning. When physicist Hans Bethe first wrote the set of equations governing nuclear reactions in the heart of the stars on September 7, 1938, it is said that he went out that very evening with a woman for a walk. Then, in the middle of this walk, looking up at the starry vault, he told her that he was the only one in the world who knew where the starlight came from.
There is one difference, however: the existence of the minutes means that this feeling is not reflected in the result of scientific work. Unlike art, science does not exist outside the realm of language. From then on, the feeling that cannot be grasped disappears. Only the feeling that can be grasped remains. These are the words that are used for “scientific publication”. The reader curious about this difference can leaf through the minutes of Hans Bethe’s discovery. It was published on March 1, 1939, in Volume 55 of Physical Review under the title: “Energy Production in Stars”. It is available for reading here.
It is as if the scientist is telling you what to see in an experiment, while the artist is not telling you anything. He lets you find out for yourself. This is how Olafur Eliasson can write: “The work is open to visitors. She is ready to listen to them and welcome their questions and experiences. »
Of course, for a mind educated in science, it’s very confusing. All those who frequent the art world have experienced this situation of a visitor facing a contemporary work saying: “I don’t understand what there is to understand!” This reflection stems from the scientific reflex: the artist would be there to write the minutes of the work.
In art, it’s not that there’s nothing to understand. It’s that no one is here to tell you what there is to understand. It’s up to you to find out. Without help. Without recourse. Without certainty. And its consequence: You have the right not to understand! And its corollary: You have the right to understand something other than what your neighbour has understood!
In the absence of a report, the artist offers his work to a very particular experience. If an image is worth a thousand words, then an installation is worth a million images. It is therefore billions of words that the viewer receives all at once in front of a work he discovers. Words that are not written. Words that spring from all the pores of the work. Words that are both confusing and inspiring.
From the point of view of innovation, the fact that the scientist ignores the experiment poses a problem: he imposes his point of view on us. Certainly the scientist is educated and the record is therefore scholarly. But it is a characteristic of innovation to nestle elsewhere than where everyone looks. Among the billions of perspectives that experience brings to the eyes of the beholder, the scientist keeps only a few. Who knows if there is not a treasure in the ones that have not been retained? The answer is simple: no one knows.
There are very many experiments in the history of science that have been interpreted in one way at one time and then in another way later because something else has been learned. This is the case for chemical reactions.
When you burn a material, in some cases you get something else at the end: ashes, for example. In the 18th century, before Lavoisier, the minutes of the experiment reported roughly the following: “Under the action of fire, the material releases a “substance-flame”, which is called the phlogiston. The material is an alloy of ash and phlogiston. The fire causes the separation of the two elements. »
The same report was reproduced exactly when metals such as zinc were burned. However, zinc does not give ashes. It gives what was called “zinc lime”: an oxide in modern language. In this case, the residue would have had to be weighed to realize that it is heavier than the initial zinc, so it has not lost anything. On the contrary, he won something. As the experience was overlooked, this detail went unnoticed for years, leaving the initial interpretation to persist.
Lavoisier was responsible for the experiment by weighing the residual zinc lime. From that moment on, he understood that the phlogiston theory was incompatible with the experiment. After Lavoisier, the minutes of the same experiment state differently: “fire causes a chemical reaction during which oxygen in the air forms strong bonds with zinc atoms. »
3 | You have the right to be an idiot!
The many cases where the minutes have been modified over time should not obscure this fact: in the vast majority of cases, the minutes were written before the experiment was even carried out, so the experiment is not even considered. The scientist thinks he knows what’s going to happen. He concludes that what could happen is of no a priori scientific interest. He writes the story in advance.
It is a form of censorship that is all the more vicious because it is hidden, because the scientist’s belief is based on reasonable assumptions. But what is reasonable is not true. The story of Louis Néel is a very good illustration of this conflict.
In the late 1940s, the Frenchman Louis Néel was about to carry out a series of experiments that no one should have let happen. Louis Néel is interested in magnetic matter. The secret of this matter lies in the atoms. They carry like a magnet in their hearts. This magnet is tiny.
Mathematicians represent a magnet by an arrow that they call a vector. Each of the iron atoms carries within it a tiny vector that can freely orient itself in all directions of space. This vector acts all around it by creating a magnetic field.
Two vectors align spontaneously, as two magnets would. Heat has the opposite effect: it tends to disorient them. What happens in the end to the one who holds the piece of iron? It all depends on the temperature.
At high temperatures, it is the heat that prevails. There is disorder in this material: the assembly of atomic magnets is similar to a haystack. The arrows point in all directions. There is no alignment that holds. This means that by adding up, the effects of each of the atomic magnets cancel each other out. Nothing happens for the one who holds the piece of iron in his hand: he does not see any overall magnetic result.
At low temperatures, however, order prevails. The arrows align and by contagion, the entire material adopts a preferential magnetic orientation. By adding up, the magnetic effects are cumulative, this time. The piece of iron itself has become a magnet.
The border between these two cases is marked. It is called Curie’s temperature. It is worth one thousand forty-three degrees Kelvin for iron (about 770°C). That is why magnets are a common reality for us who live at lower temperatures.
In the 1930s, Louis Néel hoped for a third case. He designs a particular state of the magnetic material where the atomic magnets are aligned in staggered rows. It is necessary to imagine an assembly of arrows whose axes are all aligned, but whose points change direction: alternately up and down, in the whole volume. Atomic magnets counteract their effects, as in the case of high temperatures, but this time regularly. This singular magnetic order aroused Louis Néel’s curiosity. He is trying to highlight it.
As Louis Néel is about to make his experiments, however, he ignores one important thing: Lev Landau considered this problem a few years ago. The conclusion of his article is final: such a phase is unstable. If we imagine an assembly of staggered atomic magnets, the slightest fluctuation would cause all the arrows to turn in the same direction,” he calculates. It’s like putting a marble at the top of an inverted bowl: there’s nothing to do, the marble will always fall. We can look for it, but we won’t find it. There is no way we can never observe Néel’s magnetic order.
Lev Landau was a sacred monster of science. He was one of the giants of theoretical physics in the 20th century. He was consecrated only once by the Nobel Academy, in 1962, for his work on liquid helium, but he could have received two or three additional Nobel prizes for other fulgurations he had during his career. His courses, gathered in the form of ten black volumes, represent the quintessence of physics. They are a reference. Almost a remedy.
Landau had such an aura in the academic world that Stalin departed from his principles for him. He agreed to be sent to the United States for treatment in the middle of the Cold War, so that he would not die prematurely. I do not know of a single scientist who would have considered an experiment that Lev Landau predicted was futile. But here it is, in 1940, Louis Néel had not read Lev Landau’s article. He didn’t know he had no chance to see what he was looking for.
Except Louis Néel found the staggered phase! Against all odds, Lev Landau was wrong, not in his calculation, but in his assumptions. The theorist has considered some effects to be negligible, but in reality they are not. These effects are sufficient to stabilize the Neel phase. The direction of the bowl is reversed. The ball always returns to the bottom.
The word “idiot” comes from the Greek idiots where it means: the one who does not have a duplicate. The idiot refers to the man who does not think in the same way as everyone else. The one who doesn’t say like the group. The one who doesn’t act like the others. Louis Néel was an idiot.
The superiority of art over science in terms of innovation also lies in this: the artist’s capacity for idiocy: the ability he has to do something that everyone would think is of no interest to them.
4 | Man is capable of doing what he cannot imagine
Not only does the work of art say much more than what a record could state. But above all, it can say something that we would be unable to say. We can understand it from what I call the paradox of originality.
There is a fundamental paradox of originality. It can be grasped very simply from a remark by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. This one said: “If I had a really original idea, I wouldn’t be able to recognize it! “The corollary of this reflection can be formulated as follows: we do not know how to express an original idea.
Because an original idea is much more than a new idea. It is based on a logic that cannot be reduced to the combination of existing ideas. In a way, it’s an idea from another world. It is external to the culture of the one who receives it. She literally dislocates her language. This is why it is both incomprehensible and informable from the outset.
One day, the physicist Wolfgang Ernst Pauli learns from one of his colleagues of the existence of a new elementary particle whose behaviour calls into question a fundamental law of physics that he believed he had acquired. Under the effect of surprise, Wolfgang Pauli would have said, when talking about this particle: “who ordered it?”.
An original idea is basically a break-in. It is always characterized by this form of unpleasant surprise that arises from a feeling of intrusion into our intimacy from someone or something repugnant in appearance, with deeply unwelcome behaviour.
Just as no physicist would have discussed the law that the behaviour of this particle suddenly invalidated, we cannot leave our culture. There is an invisible impossibility to say what is unthinkable. The fault lies in the language.
In the inaugural essay of his chair at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes said: “In every sign this monster sleeps, a stereotype. I can only speak by picking up, in a way, what is lying around in the language. To access an original idea, you need something other than a speech. To solve the paradox that I mentioned, it is necessary to extract oneself from the language.
In one of his interviews at France Culture (Histoire de peinture, 2003), Daniel Arasse recounts this: “There are no minutes of the painting. It may represent something other than what is being conceptualized in its time. “In support of his reflection, he evokes the vanishing point from the monofocal centred perspective.
This is the imaginary point where all the vanishing lines of a perspective construction meet. Obviously, this point does not exist outside the illusion that governs this construction. It is a device of perspective, but this device has meaning. It represents the materialization on the canvas plane of a fundamental mathematical concept called infinity. Except that infinity does not yet exist at the time of the invention of perspective. Its history in human thought only began four hundred years later.
Daniel Arasse points out the following: when the painters of Tuscany began to build monofocal centred perspectives in 1415, they proposed to see something that did not yet exist in the West at that time. When they locate the vanishing point on their canvas, they make a gesture that has no equivalent in the thought of their time. Their eyes stare at an abstraction for which their contemporaries have no words.
This is René Char’s aphorism: “Man is capable of doing what he cannot imagine”.
There is no record of the painting, it means: the painting escapes the territory of the language. It proposes to think thoughts long before they coagulate into words. Michel Foucault acknowledged it in another way: “No matter how much we say what we see, what we see never lodges in what we say”.
The same applies to an artifact and an industrial prototype. All technical devices are non-verbal thoughts. From then on, he speaks a foreign language. It tells much more than we already know. He thinks beyond our intelligence. Designer Tim Brown admitted it: in a sense, we build to think.
Scientists also make to think. Experience is what they make. It is a way for them to get out of the language. It is about summoning something that cannot be summoned. But unlike artists, they return to the language with the minutes they get from it. From then on, they fell back into the paradox of originality. They refrain from fully exploiting the very reason for which they are conducting an experiment.
5 | Concluding remarks
In the filmed interview he gave at Galleria Continua, which is entitled “Descension’ solo show”, artist Anish Kappoor states (0’30): “As an artist, I have nothing to say. I’m not interested in what I know. An artist’s work has nothing to do with what we know. The artist is like a buffoon, like an idiot… Going on a trip to discover something. I think it is the quality of this discovery that is the mysterious mythology of an artist. I hope that’s what I’m doing. »
A little further on (8’15), he adds: “Art doesn’t have to be interesting. Art, I believe, must provoke philosophical questions, even if we do not know that the questions are philosophical. In this process of reflection between the work and the viewer, this round trip, something happens that is perhaps poetic, or perhaps a little more complicated.”
Basically, it is perhaps this that differentiates the artist from the scientist: the role of ignorance. The artist asks questions without knowing if these questions are philosophical. For this reason, it cannot take minutes. That’s also why he asks incredible questions. The scientist, on the other hand, asks questions knowing that they are philosophical. For this reason, he can draw up a report. But that’s also why his answers are rarely exciting. At least by the standards of this report. Because then they lost their share of mystery. The answers have become interesting. That is, philosophical. That is, domesticated.
Mark Twain had this sentence: “They didn’t know it was impossible, and that’s why they succeeded.” It says that there is a fundamental ignorance at the beginning of the innovator’s journey. It says that this ignorance is the very reason for innovation.
By requiring himself to write a report, the scientist has deprived himself of a fundamental ignorance: that of not being able to say what he is doing. All art, perhaps, is the result of this ignorance. The poet René Char put it this way: “The poem is the fulfilled love of desire that has remained desire. »
* It is rare that an experiment results in only one report. The same experiment continues in the laboratory as variations are explored.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator