Exchange September 2000
Mouths . . . Is
interdisciplinary research draining the strength of disciplines?"
"Taking Center Stage? The
role of the performing arts in Emory's intellectual life"
At this year's annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one
of the presenting scientists did something different as she discussed
her laboratory research on pain. Interspersed among her slides
of high-tech scans that indicate the sites in the brain where
pain signals are registered, she showed works of art portraying
people in pain-the most famous among them the psychic agony conveyed
in Edvard Munch's The Scream. These images were immensely
effective in reminding the audience and the scientist herself
that the study of pain does not exist in a scientific vacuum
but relates to human need.
The impact of the pictures would have been very different if
the talk had been about the literature of pain or about its religious
meaning, rather than about laboratory findings. It was the unexpected
intersection of powerful visual art with rigorous scientific
analysis that caught the attention. Although academics use the
phrase "Arts and Sciences" to indicate intellectual
breadth, we do not really often associate the arts with the sciences-and
apparently for good reason. Paintbrushes and sculptors' chisels
are not high-energy accelerators and scanning electron microscopes,
nor is the writer's desk the physicist's laboratory. And whereas
emotion counts in art, we try to exclude it from science.
But despite these differences, there are underlying similarities.
Scientists and artists are both engaged in the same fundamental
task: trying to make sense of the world as they observe and participate
in it. Both are engaged in creative activity. And both may employ
the same tools, from simple pen and paper to the seminal uses
of computers in art and in science. Although Leonardo da Vinci
is probably the best-known example of the artist-scientist, many
talented figures throughout history have connected artistic and
scientific thought, with results that are mutually illuminating.
When that illumination flashes, it is a stunning example of the
power of interdisciplinary approaches.
That interdisciplinary connection is a prime motivation for the
show "Science and Art" we will be presenting in Emory's
Schatten Gallery, during the spring semester of 2001. It will
display ways that the two areas converge within research and
teaching as carried out by Emory faculty, providing insight into
how science and art are both enriched when they are brought together.
Perhaps even more important, a course before the exhibition opens
will let students see for themselves that science and art can
inform each other. Supported by a grant from the University Teaching
Fund, teams of students in the sciences and in the studio arts
or art history will express scientific ideas through artistic
means, or use science and technology to convey moments of artistry,
producing works that will become part of the show.
Such opportunities help address a serious educational need growing
out of our scientific age, which is to show students that science
is not isolated from the surrounding culture. Science is now
starting to answer the eternal questions: How did we get here?
Where are we going? How long will we be here? Powerful as the
scientific answers are, students should be able to place them
into broader context and experience other valid ways of knowing,
among them art. To show both Vincent van Gogh's stunning painting
Starry Night and NASA's dramatic image The Pillars
of Creation--a photograph of the remote and enormous clouds
of matter that give birth to stars--is to show students that
art and science each say something essential about our place
in the universe. Art can challenge scientific assumptions and
explore moral questions that arise from scientific research.
Our growing ability to shape biological destiny has raised pressing
issues, but even the fifty-year-old moral legacy of the atomic
bomb has its artistic impact, as in the play Copenhagen that
recently opened to critical acclaim on Broadway.
It is not always easy for academics to accept that art and science
can play mutually illuminating educational roles, for the products
of artistic invention do not so easily fit into the time-honored
definitions of teaching and scholarship. But within the framework
of Emory's commitments to the arts and the sciences, we believe
the two areas can be richly mingled in many teaching situations
without losing scientific rigor or artistic meaning. Some examples
from our own teaching illustrate how the connections can be made:
In the course The
Russian Avant-Garde (taught by JSA),
students learn about the Russian constructivist art movement
of the 1920s and 1930s. Lenin himself considered technology of
the greatest importance for the new Soviet society, and the poet
Vladimir Mayakovsky hired a specialist to explain to him the
fine points of Einstein's then-new Theory of Relativity. Visual
artists presented works designed to explore new meanings of time
and space revealed by Einstein and others.
In the freshman
seminar Envisioning Light (taught
by SP), students learned about the science and the aesthetics
of light. Along with hearing about the quantum theory of light,
how we communicate over optical fiber, and how the human eye
works, they attended an
opening at an Atlanta gallery of neon art, heard a lecture on
color in art given by one of our art history faculty, and attended
a demonstration of theatrical lighting at Theater Emory. They
were encouraged to write papers blending the different aspects
of light, resulting in such efforts as an analysis of how technological
progress in film-making has affected the mood and style of what
we see on screen.
Other examples of the interface with art can be found in every
scientific area: in mathematics and theoretical physics, the
role of aesthetic ideas such as "symmetry" in the development
of elegant theories; in chemistry and physics, the science behind
the centuries-old history of artists' pigments; in neuroscience,
the process of visual cognition in the perception of art; in
psychology, insights gained by examining artworks made by troubled
people. And from the artistic side, the interface extends from
the development of perspective in painting and the role played
by scientific illustration in the growth of seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century science, to contemporary connections such
as the current installation of laser art in New York's Guggenheim
Museum, carried out by noted electronic artist Naim June Pak.
Relationships between art and science are wonderfully dynamic
and diverse. We recognize that much divides these two areas of
inquiry, yet the quest for knowledge and understanding draws
art and science repeatedly and inevitably together in ways that
can enlarge Emory's views of itself and what it offers its students,
faculty, and community.