Social Science blog

25 February 2013

Encounters Between Art and science

The Library's Encounters Between Art and Science exhibition promises to be a fascinating investigation of the complex relationship between these two domains. In this post Toby Austin-Locke, inspired by the context of this exhibition, reflects on what he considers to be a fundamental and inextricable relationship between artistic and scientific practices.

Science and art may appear as incommensurable, as the common narrative goes: science deals with facts, art opinion; science is about objectivity, art is about subjectivity; science is based on empiricism, art on aesthetics. But science and art need not be so divergent, there are many times when artistic and scientific practices cross paths. I’m not only thinking of creative understandings of science such as the literary explorations of physics made by J.G. Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970); or Proust’s famous investigations of memory (1996) that blur the lines between literature, neuroscience and psycho-analysis. Nor am I only thinking of times when the role of the scientist and the role of the artist converge in one institution or person, Leonardo Da Vinci being the exemplar of such convergences which can be more widely demonstrated by the British Library’s Database of Italian Academies project.


The Leonardo Notebook - Page 22  Copyright © The British Library Board. Sound and light ff. 174v-175. Leonardo made extensive observations and experiments on the production of sound. The wind instruments and drums each has a different mechanism for varying the pitch.

There is a more fundamental convergence between scientific and artistic practices. As Bourdieu puts it in The Rules of Art, “each field (religious, artisitic, scientific, economic, etc.), through the particular form of regulation of practices and the representations that it imposes, offers to agents a legitimate form of realising their desires” (1996: 228). Both science and art show means of understanding the world in which we find ourselves, in Weberian language they offer systems of rationalisation that constitute, form and represent worldviews. Science and art both offer methods of bridging the existential gap between ourselves and the external world; or in the words of the notoriously trendy and esoteric Deleuze and Guattari, art and science “cast planes over the chaos” (2003: 202). A Wittgensteinian understanding too seems to point towards both science and art just as one means of understanding the world, for if we accept his proposition that to know the limits of thought we would have to be able to think both sides of that limit and as such go beyond what was thinkable, we have to conclude that “the subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world” (1922: 5.632). In short, science is as bound by the limits of subjectivity, of the world, as is art. This does not equate to entirely dismissing that perhaps science has a greater claim to objectivity than art, but instead, quite simply, does not ignore the role of subjectivity in objectivity, in the practice of science.

I’m sure there are some of you out there, who have more rigorous and scientific minds than myself, who are despairing right now – yet another anthropological and philosophical pontificator missing the point that science is factual, it represents reality whereas art mystifies it, acts as fetish. The view of the work of art as fetish may appear to separate it entirely from the cold, factual gaze of scientific observation. But we only need to follow the etymologies of the words fact and fetish to their common Latin root of factitius, meaning artificially created or made, to see that they are not all that foreign to one another. This is something that Bruno Latour, following from Bachelard, has demonstrated exceptionally well - that we need not pick between constructivism and realism (2010; 1988).  Latour points out that Pasteur “asserts in one and the same breath that the ferment of his lactic acid is real because he carefully set the stage on which the ferment revealed itself on its own” (2010: 17). The scientist must carefully organise all the element of their laboratory in order to produce the real fact that results of experimentation.


Pasteur in his lab from Musee D’Orsay  6a00d8341c464853ef017d40ff8b67970c-800wi  Albert Edelfelt, via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons

From such a standpoint the artist and scientist are united by at least one characteristic: creation. Both engage in creative activity, bringing the Jungian archetype of the artist-scientist into clear view. The Dialectic of the Enlightenment (Adorno & Horkhiemer 1999) is certainly not behind us, but more and more, through the discourse of the likes of Latour, and the popularisation of post-modernist and post-structural thought, is the understanding of the role of science not as that of discovery but that of creation becoming more and more prominent. Such an understanding of science, as not entirely separate from creative-artistic practice, perhaps brings the reuniting of the artistic spirit, the religious spirit and the scientific spirit called for by theoretical physicist David Bohm (1998) closer to fruition. But, before the legacy of the Enlightenment can truly be left behind, there are certainly plenty of Dawkins-esque dogmatists, who would deny such convergences, to be convinced. Perhaps the Encounters between art and Science exhibition now at the British Library can help in starting to show how art and science are not, and never have been, in total opposition to one another.  


-       Adorno, Theador & Horkhiemer, Max (1999) The Dialectic of the Enlightenment, London: Verso. British Library Shelf Mark: X.529/37191

-       Ballard, J.G. (1970) The Atrocity Exhibition, London: Flamingo. British Library Shelf Mark: YA.1997.b.3784

-       Bohm, David (1998) ‘On the relationships of science and art’ in On Creativity, Lee Nichol (eds), pp. 27-40, London: Routledge. British Library Shelf Mark: YK.2006.a.12583

-       Bourdieu, Pierre (1996) The Rules of Art, Cambridge: Polity Press. British Library Shelf Mark: YC.1996.b.5503

-       Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix (2003) What is Philosophy?, London and New York: Verso. British Library Shelf Mark: YC.1995.b.6266

-       Latour, Bruno (1988) The Pasteurization of France, London: Harvard University Press. British Library Shelf Mark: YK.1989.b.2449

-       Latour, Bruno (2010) On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Durham: Duke University Press. British Library Shelf Mark: m11/.11912

-       Proust, Marcel (1996) In Search of Lost Time: Volume One: Sawnn’s Way, London: Vintage. British Library Shelf Mark: H.2001/1040

-       Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922) Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Routlegde and Kegan Paul. British Library Shelf Mark: X5/9907

Toby Austin Locke is currently working in the British Library social sciences team on the Social Welfare Portal and is due to start working towards his doctorate in October 2013 at Goldsmiths College, University of London. You can contact him on twitter @tobyalocke or read more of his blog-posts at 


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