The Science of Art: Practicality vs Creativity

Even as we get more scientific in our approach towards life, our aesthetic sense remains unadulterated. At least, for the time being

By Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Sat 26 Feb 2022, 11:58 PM

Stockholm’s Fotografiska is not a traditional museum or gallery. It claims to offer its visitors the opportunity to discover photography, eclectic programming, elevated dining, and surprising new perspectives. Instead of traditional permanent exhibitions or artwork for sale, it aims to inspire, entertain, and create impact.

Fotografiska’s centre of attention these days is German-born visual artist Tobias Gremmler’s scenographic exhibition, appropriately named The Changing Room. It is supposed to be a mind-blowing journey, imagining a world where garments can actually grow on human skin. In a constantly changing room, Gremmler’s exhibition “opens up a space dedicated to the endless possibilities of innovation”.

Here is how this somewhat surreal experience unfolds. The relationship between the garment and the wearer shifts during the exhibition, highlighting our responsibility towards the future sourcing of sustainable materials. “This change in awareness is a necessary step to develop empathy towards the importance of a balanced coexistence between raising claims of modern society and natural recourses,” Tobias Gremmler says in his promotional material.

Besides being an eye-popping experience, Gremmler’s exhibition tells us a bit about how we perceive art these days. It is essential to understand this because how we perceive art also, in a way, influences how we produce and consume it. Icelandic-Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson, describes it even better. “Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind,” he says. Eliasson reminds us of the transformative experience art constantly seeks in more ways than one.

He then takes his argument to another level. According to him, “Art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today.” This is nothing but a running commentary of our times.

The question that arises hence is the following: If one concedes that our surroundings — which Eliasson characterises as a “glut of information” — influence the way we look at art, is our perception of art evolving all the time? In other words, has it got refined as we evolved as human species? Or is this not different from any other processes that are part of our evolution?

Technique and innovation

Rima Chahine, who describes herself as an intuitive abstract artist from a multicultural background, transports us to a few centuries ago when things were understandably different. “In the 19th century, it was about perfect technique and very established subject matters,” she says. According to her, it was more a matter of prestige as they used to draw and paint important people. “In the modern art and abstraction, the focus is on being original and innovative,” says Chahine, who grew up in Montreal and has Lebanese roots.

Interestingly, she does not have one specific source of inspiration. Instead, the “disconnected world” is her inspiration. “I paint to connect with the world. That is my purpose… and to find happiness in little things,” she says. In laying down the processes that produce her art, Chahine lays bare the realities of our lives and times.

Chahine also highlights the growing therapeutic value of art considering the rather grim circumstances we live in these days, which she calls “one of the loneliest times”. “Today, it is more about exploring dreams, symbolism, social issues and about rebellious ways to express ourselves,” she says. “We feel more connected when artists express taboo,” asserts Chahine. Her solo exhibition Emotions at Dubai’s Andakulova Gallery showcased 20 original curated paintings.

Chahine’s premonition as an artist works best when she paints “what will happen in the future”. She painted Aftermath in December 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic surfaced. She also painted Multiverse in 2020, before the metaverse era and the non-fungible token (NFT) became the talk of the town. However, she disagrees that human beings’ scientific temper reduces the influence of art. Instead, for her, it is about art complementing science.

However, she is clear about the distinction between art and science and how it manifests itself. “Art gives you the sense of creative mind to explore whereas the science of algorithm is about the process of going from point A to point B,” she says, adding that art is about the final product, likening it to “not the making of the cake but the cake itself”. Chahine’s most telling comment relates to the relevance of art to life and her views on where our aesthetic sense is headed.

“The human suffering comes with technology and its unnatural fast pace. It is getting worse and is also increasing our anxiety,” she laments. The outcome of all this is that we no longer live in the present. “We are not living anymore; we are just shifting. Art is all about appreciating little things in life. Art helps us go back to what is important. If we do not enjoy smaller things, we do not enjoy the bigger things,” Chahine explains.

No essential opposition

Tabish Khair, an Indian novelist, poet, and critic, currently a professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, does not believe in any essential opposition between sciences and arts. “They are both different and complementary ways in which we think in the world and about the world.” He then makes a telling remark about the dichotomy, which operates at another level.

“The opposition is between art/science on the one side and technology/profit on the other,” he says. According to Khair, technology is often identified with science — which builds an assumption that science and arts are opposed to each other. He illustrates this argument with a simple and compelling example. “Technology is just one application of science: its relationship to pure science is the same as the relationship of painting a house to painting a work of art,” he says.

Khair laments that art seems to be diminished today but attributes that to certain applications of technology, such as digitalisation, instead of making sweeping generalisations. Moreover, he asserts that pure sciences are suffering too. “Universities, for instance, are experiencing cuts in both pure sciences and the humanities. Only areas that can be turned into technological-economic profit are mostly being funded,” he says. So, in effect, if we pay lesser attention to art, and limit our quest to learn science a certain way, then we are bound to tilt the balance at some stage.

Each stream has its limitations and feeds off each other, and one cannot be a mirror image of the other. In Khair’s words, we may understand the world better using the “purpose of science”, but we cannot “create without creativity”. Art is necessary to science if you go by one school of thought, but it also asserts that creativity involves imagination, and that imagination is visualisation. No wonder some of the most significant scientific discoveries also involved some form of art.

A matter of interpretation

Yasmin Khan, a multidisciplinary curator and cultural consultant working at the intersections between art and science, says art is timeless in the sense that the artistic integrity of a great piece will always shine through. She argues that often the material value of a piece of work increases over time because we realise its quality is unparalleled. However, does that also change our perception of it?

According to her, the conceptual ideas that initially inspired the creation of an artwork may be interpreted differently over time as our outlooks evolve alongside environmental and political conditions. “Inevitably, the underlying vision and messages will resonate differently in future,” says Khan, whose latest exhibition Outwitting Cancer is showing at the Francis Crick Institute, London, until July 2022. For her, the digital age offers new opportunities to develop innovative art forms, but this does not necessarily make traditional analog modes of the art redundant.

Khan cites the example of the hype around artificial intelligence-generated art and integrating augmenting reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). According to her, synthetic experiences can be exciting.

However, the novelty wears off once the digital fatigue creeps in, and the human need for organic respite and reflection will always transcend. “This is where multi-sensory art forms can be the most cathartic,” she prescribes.

“Accessibility to good art has always been linked to our healing and wellbeing — hence social prescribing of cultural visits for patients is a growing trend,” she says.

The purpose of art

Going by these arguments, it is apparent that art has a purpose. Some even call it a revolutionary tool that gives us something to reflect on. It is decidedly better than being bombarded with information and fear. For instance, Rima Chahine’s painting experience has been that of an “intimate endeavour”.

Nevertheless, she seems alarmed that we are losing compassion. “We get separated from each other, and that is why we are so disconnected,” she says. So, we may be looking at it from too scientific a perspective, yet, going by Chahine’s description, “art is all about connectedness and sensitivity and spiritual awakening.”

Art can be beautiful yet disruptive, haunting, and even challenging to encounter. That is why Yasmin Khan believes that the real litmus test of a great work of art is whether it makes you see the world differently and appreciate something new. She asserts that artists shouldn’t be threatened by technology or be in competition with it. “I prefer ways to find synergies and thrive best when collaborating on multidisciplinary work that cross-pollinates between subject areas, pushes conventional boundaries, and can potentially shift paradigms,” she says.

This logic applies irrespective of whether we look at it as science students or as individuals overwhelmed by a rapid-paced technology-driven surrounding.

However, if art must serve a purpose, its instrumental application or intrinsic merit is sufficient. “The best work is made for without serving a pre-determined agenda or exercising soft power,” says Khan, delineating the process of the artist from merely becoming a servant to propaganda.

“This is what separates genuine art from the realms of marketing and iconography. Art should not be didactic or made with the intention of selling an idea, promoting an ideology, or condition you to think in a particular way,” says Khan. According to her, an extraordinary work empowers the viewer to interpret it in the way they wish and make their own meaning. “That can be transformative.”

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