In this his third blog, Ciaran Benson teases out this question and suggests that maybe we begin to challenge our own thinking a little.
In the last blog I mentioned a conclusion from Jacques Barzun that I have long liked: that the arts involve knowledge of the world, and science knowledge about the world. I would like now to consider another implication of this.
Knowledge of the world is deeply personal and tied to the person who knows. It is my knowledge, my way of making sense of things, and I take responsibility for owning it in my way. With great art we can tell ‘a Rembrandt’ from ‘a Caravaggio’, ‘a Yeats’ from ‘a Henry’, because each artist succeeded in making work that was a clear, identifiable extension of themselves; hence our use of that most modest of little words, ‘a’ as in ‘a Rembrandt’.
The value of an arts education has to include the idea that the person making the work – or the person being taught how to make such work – is finding ways of extending them-selves into the world through what is made. They are unfolding in public what initially is private. In doing this, and in seeing or hearing what they have made, they can discover aspects of themselves, of what they are interested in and value, of where in their past those interests and values might have had their roots. This may surprise them. In this sense, the arts are deeply personal. They are about people’s knowledge of the world, their particular and often idiosyncratic take on things. The arts are also about this ‘take’ becoming part of a shared world.
There can be developments of all kinds in art but not, in the strict sense of the word, progress. The arts build on their own traditions, of course, but not in the spiraling way science builds on the history of its own past achievements. That is because artists and scientists are doing different kinds of thing.
Artistic thinking is not scientific thinking. It is the nature of empirical science to understand how the world works. Science has developed methods of extraordinary power that are fundamentally agreed upon, and shared, by all good scientists. Science progresses because in its dialogue of theory and experiment, in its ever-more detailed and precise descriptions of the natural world and explanations of its causes, it can use those advances to control ever-greater aspects of the natural world. The methods that science has available for this work are becoming more productive with every passing year.
This is far from saying that there is no art in science, no passionate personal engagement, no creative thinking and deep intuitive leaps. Of course there are. ‘Art’ and ‘Science’ are not sealed into spheres forever unconnected with each other. Scientists for example, and especially mathematicians, often use the work ‘beautiful’ to describe the solution to a problem. They take that very ‘beauty’ as evidence that they have achieved the best solution. While working towards the solution they will have been thinking as scientists but once they have achieved it they regard it aesthetically. They can now feel and appreciate the intricate sequence of work that has led to the qualities of this solution. What they feel is how it all hangs together, how it works.
In this they are like artists who have finally succeeded in crafting a successful work. But what each is doing, scientist and artist, is different. If you want a current, thought-provoking show that prompts reflections like these, then see Blood in Trinity College’s Science Gallery. It runs until January 2015.
I am aware that I may be making a ‘straw man’ of Eisner when I challenge his ‘lessons’, and I suspect that his shortened list may distort more extended arguments he may have made to support these ‘lessons’ elsewhere. But the list is what it is and appears to be presented to stand on its own. That being so, it seems to me that scientific thinking, and by implication scientific education, could also claim to teach most of the ten ‘lessons’ that Eisner claims exclusively, it seems, for ‘artistic thinking’. The exception among Eisner’s lessons are Lesson 7 and Lesson 9. They do strike me as distinctive to the arts.
More on that in Blog 4.