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Science and Art: Antagonists or Allies?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Guest post by Perry Parks

Assistant Professor, MSU School of Journalism

It’s easy to think of ways that science and art are different, at least on the surface: Science is a rigorous and precise process of isolating causes and effects, asking specific questions based on previous knowledge and drawing replicable conclusions from observed phenomena, then publishing results in arcane journals using specialized language and nuanced arguments often comprehensible only to a small population of experts. Art is a free-flowing, creative endeavor associated less with the intellect than the heart and spirit: a means of communicating inner truths in ways that speak to the experiences of others, even if those experiences are different. It aims less to draw conclusions than to provoke questions.

But look deeper, and you find many of these differences begin to dissolve. Scientists ask particular questions because their curiosity inspires them, they make intuitive leaps and take creative steps to solve their research problems. Many scientists see beauty in their research subjects – plants, animals, minerals, particles, the human mind. And they want to communicate their knowledge in ways that connect with people beyond their small community of peers. Artists, meanwhile, can apply rigid and methodical processes in their work. They have to solve specific problems in producing a given piece, often experimenting with materials, pigments, or processes until they reach the answer they need. They seek to expand affective understanding through their work.

These overlapping and intersecting motivations and interests became evident through MSU Sci-Comm’s 2019 Sci-Art exhibition, in which Michigan State scientists partnered with university and community artists to produce artworks showcasing the scientists’ research. Preparations for the exhibit, which opened at MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on Oct. 19, 2019, were the focus of a research paper I authored with Information and Media Ph.D. student Linda White.

Assistant Professor Perry Parks Information and Media PhD student Linda White

Our questions for the first stage of the project were about how participants viewed the relationship between science and art, what they saw as aesthetic about their research, and what motivated them to create art about their science. We interviewed about 16 scientists, artists, and project organizers as they were conceiving their sci-art project to get a better understanding of these relationships.

What we found, in addition to the intriguing conceptual overlaps between science and art, were scientists’ intent to make visible the often hidden or microscopic aspects of their research: the biomechanical behavior of normal and stressed bladder cells, the network of vascular cells supporting various geographic regions of the human brain, the virtual materiality of a network of social media friends, the unique coating properties of the diamond, the cleansing and nourishing properties of fungi, the biochemical defense mechanisms of plants. We expected some conceptual tension in project vision between scientists and their artist partners based on the differences between science and art described above, but we found generally that participating artists sought to help the scientists achieve their communication goals.

We considered the participants’ motivations through an aspect of “non-representational theory,” a way of thinking about the world that highlights often overlooked background objects and phenomena that have a huge impact on our lives but go unnoticed because they’re mundane or unseen. For instance, while researchers generally focus on what humans are saying and doing when attempting to explain social encounters, non-representational theory suggests we also consider how room temperature, buzzing flies, piped-in music, crying babies, humming appliances, the contents of people’s stomachs, the news of the day, and the texture of the furniture might also be making a difference.

We framed scientists’ mission in the sci-art project as foregrounding the important background phenomena that they study through works of art. One participant said:

[P]lants are important for everyone, whether they necessarily realize it or not… I hope people will … come away with an understanding and appreciation of how plants, these organisms that don't really have much ability to move or run away or try to interact with things, are still able to fend off predators and attract beneficial organisms to them.

Our interviews also showed that scientists and artists had largely instrumental goals for their artwork – that is, even though art is generally an open-ended form of expression in which viewers are encouraged to develop their own interpretation, our participants explicitly sought to improve people’s understanding of their specific research area. These teaching goals were nuanced, though, as the participants also hoped, as many artists do, to provoke questions in addition to providing answers. As one participant said:

I think that art is a very useful tool in conveying research. …[P]eople are more interested in looking at art than they are necessarily of reading a research article. So if you can use art to spark an interest in the general public, that could be very useful for scientists.

Overall, our study suggests that scientists who commit to projects such as these have a strong sense of beauty in science that they believe is worth sharing with broader publics. They have different and nuanced conceptions about the relationship between science and art, but for their MSU SciComm exhibition, those conceptions converged into a unified whole.

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