Saturday, September 24, 2011

Art, Science, and Historical Method

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/24 at 12:42 PM

Rebecca Kamen’s lecture “Making the Invisible, Visible: Discoveries Between Art and Science” was less about discoveries between art and science than about the inspiration she has found in illustrations from old scientific texts. Speaking to an audience that seemed mostly scientists along with a few historians of science and perhaps a couple artists, Kamen traced her interest in science to watching the moon landing and playing with her childhood chemistry set, microscope, and telescope kit. Her fascination with old scientific illustrations as sparked by a diagram of planetary motion in a 19th-century edition of a Ming Dynasty astronomical text. “I was amazed that when this was printed in the early 1800s people were able to have such detailed knowledge of the heavens with just observations. This is when I became really interested in manuscripts.”1 This diagram alerted her to the artistic aspects of early science, science practiced before the advent of cameras and other imaging technologies. Kamen came to realize that in the past “scientists had to be artists.”

Rebecca Kamen speaking at the APS on “Making the Invisible, Visible.” Here she claims that a conversations with Baruch Blumberg alerted her to the “magic” or “illusion” in science.

The scientist as artist ran through the remainder of Kamen’s presentation. She returned again and again to old illustrations that she took as evidence for the artistic talents of former scientists, Franklin’s drawings, Athanasius Kircher’s diagrams, Peter Apian’s volvelles, as well as more recent color illustrations of polarized light, microarrays, models of DNA, and molecular orbitals. From these illustrations, this evidence of a former connection between science and art, she drew inspiration for her own sculptures.

Kamen’s sculpture “Black Hole” was inspired by a diagram of a black hole she saw in an old science text.

But Kamen is not content merely to draw inspiration for her work from scientific illustrations and diagrams. She claims that art is a key element of scientific achievement—she noted “that each American Nobel Prize winner in chemistry reported having had some type of significant art experience.” She considers her sculptures to be the product of her own “journey” of discovery, problem solving, and visualization. She described her efforts to use art to enhance the teaching of science. But she sees her work as more than simply making better scientists. Her handout claimed that her work “gives us insight into how to turn the dismal academic output around by making science exciting and relevant by adding STEAM (art) to STEM.”

Whether or not Kamen’s sculptures with their inspiration in old scientific illustrations will solve the academic and economic ills remains to be seen. Kamen’s presentation raises other questions about how scholars (or artists) today use the past and the obligation they have to understand that past.

Kamen’s art and her presentation depended on her “epiphany that scientists [in the past] had to be artists.” Evidence of this artistic talent were the numerous beautiful and detailed manuscript illustrations she found in old science texts. Strangely, most of her examples were not, in fact, manuscripts but were relatively recent printed diagrams.2 The distinction between manuscript and printed illustrations is more than a pedantic quibble but has significant implications for practice of history and for how we understand Kamen’s own work.3

Emblem 8 from Michael Maier’s Atlanta Fugiens, one of the printed images mis-characterized as a “manuscript.”

Kamen’s refusal to recognize the difference between a manuscript and a printed illustration denies an important tenet of history: the use of actors’ categories. By imposing her own terms on artifacts from the past, Kamen is refusing to understand how those artifacts had meaning for the people in the past who made them. As a consequence, she can claim that these illustrations represent her ideals and values. They now reflect her own understanding of the relationship between science and art and become evidence for her argument that in the past scientists were also artists. In doing so, Kamen effaces the contributions of innumerable artists—the people who were commissioned to engrave the copper plates or cut the woodblocks or etch the steel and thereby turn the scientist’s sketch into a detailed illustration—as well as the other workers whose technical and perhaps tacit knowledge made those illustrations possible. She erases these people in order to make the scientist of the past into an artist. Historical scholarship in the past century has rejected this approach as inappropriately presentist or, in Herbert Butterfield’s term, Whiggish.4 Butterfield alerted us to the inherent problems of imposing our categories on the past—the celebration of our values by finding the roots of those values in the historical record. Forms of Whig history commit two problems: first, they distort the past to make it fit the present and, second, by imposing our categories on the past such histories locate the roots of our present values in that past and reinforce the privileges associate with those values. Such histories function like genealogies—they justify and validate current values and privileges. In her presentation Kamen uncritically celebrated the values and privilege of science.

The lack of historical sensitivity perhaps explains why some historians in the audience seemed less than enthusiastic about her presentation. Referring to the many illustrations Kamen identified as beautiful, a historian of science asked about the historical and contingent nature of beauty. How, he wanted to know, were the standards of beauty, precision, art, and science negotiated and established. Kamen’s response suggested that she had not considered the question. By contrast, the scientists in the audience were quite enthusiastic, nodding knowingly at certain times, smiling approvingly at others. Their questions were mostly laudatory comments.

When Kamen hewed closely to her art, her presentation was interesting. Her sculptures were thought provoking and attractive. When she turned her attention to history, her presentation was less compelling. Her efforts to draw on history to celebrate science and elevate her own art revealed the challenges of stepping outside of your area of training and expertise, and highlighted the perils of naive history.

1Kamen’s amazement reflect her particular relationship with history, as does her use of the term “manuscript”.
2Here my own bias shows through. Most of her examples were 19th century, which does not seem particularly old to me. She did have one sixteenth- and one seventeenth-century example, but neither was a manuscript illustration.
3 There is another issue in Kamen’s presentation, an extreme condescension on the past. Her surprise that people during the Ming Dynasty might have a sophisticated understanding of planetary motion and might have the artistic skills to represent that motion in a diagram reveal her lack of historical knowledge. Her repeated fascination with a diagram or an illustration in a 19th century text, or Apian’s volvelles reflects her own limited understanding of the past more than some preternatural talent by the historical actors.
4The classic statement of Whig history is Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History. Despite his thorough critique of Whig history, Butterfield himself had a difficult time avoiding Whiggism when he wrote his history of science.

Tags: art and science, athanasius kircher, historiography, peter apian, rebecca kamen