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The artist vs. the scientist

Dec 11, 2012

The artist vs. the scientist

I am a scientist
I seek to understand me
All of my impurities
and evils yet unknown
Guided By Voices


Because artists and scientists don’t hang around each other quite enough, they accumulate odd imaginations about each other. Here a great scientist talks about an artist who imagines that scientists have a inferior imaginative take on things.

It was fun to find out while reading Lawrence Weschler’s books on Robert Irwin and David Hockney that both artists spent a good amount of time hanging out with scientists and felt a special kinship with them.

Robert Irwin in Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees:

Everyone involved on a particular level of asking questions, whether he’s a physicist or a philosopher or an artist, is essentially involved in the same questions. They are universal in that sense… although we may use different methods to come at them…

The scientist in the video above is the great Richard Feynman. Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

The way I think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world. People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world.

Hockney, in True To Life:

Finding out that [art and science are] not that different has been very exciting for me. The more I’ve read of mathematicians and physicists, the more engrossed I’ve become. They really seem like artists to me. One’s struck how it’s almost a notion of beauty which seems to be guiding them, how at the frontiers of inquiry, contemporary physics even seems to be approaching and acknowledging eternal mysteries.

Feynman explains why the unknown doesn’t bother him:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe…

This is very much the attitude that the writer Donald Barthelme said was essential to the creation of art:

The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do… The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…

Irwin says the process of inquiry that an artist goes through is a lot like a chemist’s, in that “What you do when you start to do a painting is that you begin with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you’re setting out to do,” and then the rest is a lot of experimenting and trial-and-error.

But there are some essential differences, mainly that it’s hard to retrace an artist’s thought process (although, some artists leave a better paper trail than others…):

“Once the scientist is finished, you can look back over his notes to consider the precise sequence of yes-no weighings which brought him to his solution. It’s all quite logical and structured… The artist, on the other hand, keeps no such record (although historians would love it if he did). Rather, he literally paints over his errors. Six months later, when you ask him, ‘Why did you stop there?’ and he replies, ‘Well, because it felt right,’ his answer may not seem acceptable from a logical point of view… but in fact it’s quite reasonable. Given the basic fundamentals, he’s tried just about every damn combination possible, every way possible, until he’s finally arrived at what makes sense to him. The critical difference is that the artist measures from his intuition, his feeling. In other words, he uses himself as the measure.

(Source: xyvch)

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    From the Feynman Series!
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