Guest Blog from Barbara Larson, editor of our new Series: Science and the Arts since 1750

It could be argued (and has been) that in the modern period science and “art,” whether this be dance, painting, or theater, have been culturally understood within the context of the many binaries that form a western perspective (as in active/passive, objective/subjective, etc.). In recent decades, whether we refer to C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (science and the humanities) or The Science Wars of the 1990s (scientists and the value of objectivity versus science as a social construction, with its reach into the arts) or the validity of the support of STEM versus STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ART, and math) in academe today we are engaging in a discussion regarding separation and difference.

Have science and the arts always been considered as opposing realms? Historians of science and art have pointed out that in the west well into the Victorian period science and art were, more or less, one intellectual culture and not until the natural sciences became specialized into specific fields at the end of the nineteenth century was there a division into two spheres. It has also been argued that in the early modern period art, then categorized as craft (whose practitioners were thought of as artisans), was itself responsible for the shift in bringing science into focus as practical, empirical observation by the seventeenth century. Recent publications have raised the possibility of some sort of resolution between “the two cultures” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge; Jay Labinger and Harry Collins, eds., The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, and Gillian Beer, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter). And knowledge production from varying geographical areas beyond the west promises to add further complexity to the relationship between science and the arts.

Just what science has been understood to be has shifted the discussion of how we talk about science and the arts. For example, historians of art in past decades tended to think of science as it related to art in terms of perspective, color, and mathematics. But invaluable early work such as that of literary historian Sander Gilman on medicine and representation in the arts, both grounded in cultural and political history, has done much to transform what we need to be aware of in terms of science and visual culture. What one finds in greater number today are historians of the arts and science pursuing questions of meaning and representation specific to place, politics, and moments in time or transformations in knowledge that feed directions in the arts (as in wave theories of energy and early abstraction).

Occasional collaborative projects between science and humanities historians, such as Caroline Jones and Peter Galison’s Picturing Science and Producing Art (on broad systems of representation linking science and art) have borne fruit, and even the hard science of neurology suggests promising directions either through brain imaging (as in musical performance) or the historical perspective on the mind in light of brain work today (neurologist Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present). There have also been periods in which the connections between technology, science, and the arts are less oblique as in the contemporary period in which many artists are pursuing work that clearly integrates technology and science such as in the digital arts. More speculative yet compelling, are discussions regarding the proposed epoch of the Anthropocene (by definition an interaction between humans and global natural systems) and ecoart.

The series Science and the Arts since 1750 wades into the many intersections between science and the arts. These include the cultural conditioning of visual perception and aesthetics where artists and scientists are concerned, sites of representation that effect visual culture as in images of the body, how objects may function in society as art or science, changing scientific perspectives that inform the arts, among others. Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam and Jacob Wamberg’s recently published edited volume Art, Technology, and Nature: Renaissance to Postmodernity initiates the series and argues that science, technology, and art are drawing more closely together in the post-modern period and the relationship of observer and object is disintegrating. This they contend is akin to ancient and medieval periods in which art and technology both produced cultural products dependent on the triad of their title; and makers of these objects were often engaged in imitating nature’s creative forces. The editors discuss the history of the project as follows:

9781472411723Art, Technology and Nature arose out of activities in the research group “Art, Nature and Technology”, which was established at Aarhus University in 2005 with Jacob Wamberg as coordinator. The group, gathering historians of literature, art and medicine, was triggered by a frustration that C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”, although diagnosed half a century ago, still govern most academic practice: the humanistic and techno-scientific domains thrive in their segregated worlds.

Our observation, however, was that in our postmodern age barriers between natural and cultural agencies have long been porous. Where should we insert the boundary between natural and technological agency in a ‘cultural’ domain like biotechnology? Or in a ‘natural’ one like climate change? Likewise, art has long broken with the distant contemplation of nature in picturesque form, founded on a simultaneous displacement of technology to the fringes of artworks. In avant-garde art practices nature and technology alike are activated and integrated to the point where they lose their status as foreign and segregate domains. If art and technology are still a long way from the fusion into the re-actualized neo-ancient techné that Heidegger hoped for, at least their boundaries have become much more negotiable.

In order to illuminate these and other related themes in the triad art/technology/nature, the research group arranged two public events, from which much, although not all, of the book’s material derives: a session at the Association of Art Historians’ annual meeting in Manchester in 2009, and, especially, an international conference at the National Gallery in Copenhagen in 2010 (The Artwork between Technology and Nature).

Isabelle Wünsche, whose volume The Organic School of the Russian Avant-Garde: Nature’s Creative Principles is the second book in the series, examines ways in which certain Russian modernists on the eve of the Russian Revolution modeled their approach on the creative forces of nature in order to produce biocentric work. Below she details how she came to write her book:

9781472432698It was a spring day in Berlin in 1989 – the momentous opening of the border was still six months in the future – I was browsing the stacks of the State Art Collections library on Museum Island and came across a small, but dense exhibition catalog from the West Berlin Academy of Fine Arts: Sieg über die Sonne. Victory over the Sun was a Cubo-futurist opera written by Aleksei Kruchenykh with music by Mikhail Matiushin and stage designs by Kazimir Malevich. The last name meant something to me, but I was unfamiliar with Matiushin. The catalog included his reminiscences on Cubo-futurist events in St. Petersburg, an essay on sound and color, and another one on quartertone music. My curiosity about Matiushin’s work led to a thesis, and then a dissertation, and finally, The Organic School.

The book is important to me because for too long the avant-garde in St. Petersburg has been overshadowed by the better-known Moscow avant-garde. Moscow always somehow seemed more Russian, more exotic, and then after the Revolution, of course, it became the capital and the center of Constructivism. The “Organic School” refers to a group of artists within the Russian avant-garde, largely based in St. Petersburg, whose approaches to artistic creation were more nature-centric and less technologically driven. Artists such as Nikolai Kulbin, Elena Guro, and Matiushin found inspiration as well as a model for artistic growth in the creative principles of nature. In the book, I focus on the artists’ holistic worldviews and organic approaches to art and analyze the artistic influences, intellectual foundations, and scientific publications that shaped the formation of their art works. (Isabelle Wünsche)

The series Science and the Arts since 1750 will include both edited volumes and monographs that explore the arts—painting and sculpture, drama, dance, architecture, design, photography, and popular culture materials–as they intersect with emergent scientific theories, agendas, and technologies, from any geographical area after 1750.

Barbara Larson Professor on Modern Art History, University of West Florida


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