Text for a presentation at Cardiff Psychology departments PhD evening

This is a text defining my position within the arts and sciences. It was originally written to be presented at the graduate centre, but not delivered due to the time constraints. I welcome peoples thoughts on this first draft… (although I know there are typos in there)


I am not going to stand here and tell you why I think scientists should work with artists.

There are lots of arguments, often relating to audience engagement and outreach or simply to make things more interesting (which is as worthy a cause as any) – I’m sure Julia (Thomas) and Rhys (Bevan) will talk a bit about this.

The circumstances are always different and each of you will come to your own conclusions as to whether this is something you may want to explore.

Instead I want to start by stressing how important it is that artists work with scientists. This is for the health of the arts, and their relevance in contemporary life.

In the 1980’s art theory was founded on the postmodernist writings of Roland Barthes, later Deleuze and Foucault. Without going into too much detail about French postmodernist philosophy their ideas did not sit well with academia or the sciences. And their began a deep seated separation between the arts and the humanities and the sciences.

Postmodernism was characterised by a rejection of objective knowledge. Objectivity was claimed to come with too much baggage. Too influenced by the overbearing interests of a faceless elite of straight white males and their institutions. Instead, postmodernism was supposed to champion the individual and his subjectivity, and therefore giving a voice to the people and putting minority groups on a level footing. In Modernism hegemonies of taste and beauty were rejected and replaced by an averaged mean, or an ergonomic efficiency, stripping away decorative and commercial concerns for the benefit of the people.

Postmodernists spoke of a power struggle waged between the commercial leaders, the tastemakers and the working public. Capitalism and the cultures that came with it were critiqued by a blinkered socialist academia as a soporiphic drug fed to the people to keep them benign, whilst this elite prospered from their labour.

Of course I am characterising the theories, but you can see that at their most excessive postmodern theories are not so far from the Lizard people elite, suggested by the paranoid delusions of David Ike! (He has a soft spot in my heart due to his former career as a reserve goalkeeper for Coventry City football club)

In this climate when artists considered their relation to the sciences, they were forced into an increasingly uncomfortable position, which has many similarities with Goethe’s reaction to Newtonian physics in the Enlightenment at the end of the 1700’s.

Pre-enlightenment science had a deep vein of mysticism running through its medieval origins all the way back to Aristotle, and of course further. This mysticism was a mix of the few objective facts about the world and culturally constructed myths born largely of the subjective positions of the elite in the church. Newton, changed this. For Newton, and other scientists like him, the world could be dissected up into its atomic parts. By doing this, the world became measurable and could therefore by defined in the language of mathematics. The implication was of a clockwork universe running to universal laws which, would one day lay bear all the mystery in the natural world. This philosophically is a positivist position. Before I go onto to offer a counter view to this it should be stated that many scientific instruments that we rely on today and most of the great discoveries in all the sciences have been born from this logical position.

Goethe was an extraordinary polymath, living at the same time. He was in many ways the epitome of a Renaissance man. He was a playwright, musician, aristocrat, diplomat, scientist and poet, although noticeably, he wasn’t a mathematician. For many of the modernist and postmodernist artists Goethe has been something of a hero. His theory of colour, written in opposition to Isaac Newton’s Optics, was a key text in the foundation of the Bauhaus, particularly for Johannes Itten. Even today the theories of Goethe provide the inspiration for works examining the territory between the arts and sciences. As exampled by the recent work ‘The Urpflanze (Part 2)’ by artist Melanie Jackson, curated by Arts Catalyst and supported by the Wellcome Trust. This explores one of Goethe’s theories relating to a seed that contained within it the potential for all plant forms.

The current trend in arts academia is to view Goethe’s work, particularly on colour, as an important predecessor to the phenomenological theories of Merleau-Ponty, which were born out of French Existentialist theories in the 1940’s. The phenomenologists challenged positivist science by reasserting the embodied nature of our perceptions and enquiries into the natural world. By reasserting subjective experience over objective measurement phenomenology provide an important critique of positivist science.

On the face of it Goethe’s theories seem to pre-empt this. With his work on colour stressing the importance of observation and his notes on scientific theory priortise observation over the application of abstract theory. The many art academics this provides some sort of validation to their view of an arts practice that is subjective in nature, in response to the threatening authority of the sciences in the modern age.

However, there is a danger that we take Goethe out of context. His theory of colours exists in two parts and only the first part has been translated by Eastlake into English. Even this first part makes clear though, that his theory has been motivated by his believe that newton is completely wrong. In fact his belief that Newton is not just wrong but deluded and personally deficient. The un-translated second part is almost entirely devoted to vitriol against Newton. Why would Goethe be quite so upset by the Optics, and why could he not accept that there was some truth in it?

Goethe’s theories on colour are rooted in the Aristotelian belief that colour is produced by a mixture of light and dark. Although, he eulogises on the merits of first hand experience of colour phenomena, some of his examples are clearly wrong and others are quite obviously anecdotal. For Goethe, Newton had to be wrong for two reasons. Firstly, Newton developed the idea that world could be described by maths. Goethe, clearly couldn’t work in mathematics (and for that matter could not understand some of the Optics). His beloved science was moving away from him in a direction towards knowledge but away from the magic and mystery that he so loved. Secondly, the enlightenment seemed to make much of the pre-enlightenment science redundant. For a man of books like Goethe, this must have been most upsetting. His position, although it does have some similarities with phenomenological methods, is better described as an anti-rationalist position.

Returning to arts relationship to contemporary science we can see that the postmodernist position could not be easily equated with objective facts about the world existing separately to a cultural hegemony from the West. However, the theories of Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein and quantum physics seemed to herald a science that was unsure of its objective foundations. We now lived in a world were the influence of measuring the system changed its appearance, where everything was relative to everything else and scientists could not decipher the difference between particle and wave. This seemed to suggest that a subjective or philosophically idealist position may after all be the safest way to proceed. For a moment it seemed to allow the arts to take a subjective position that was equal in authority to scientific enquiry.

The role of art and science seemed to be clear, science was the objective ordering of the world and the arts were the subjective and emotional description of the world. The problem is that this condemned the arts to an anti-rationalist position much like Goethe’s.

Anti-rationalism in itself is not a problem. The surrealists made anti-rational art as a form of protest, and no one would claim that art has to be rational. However, anti-rationalist art is difficult for the public and educators. If everything is relative, then were do we start to make value judgements. If each subjective viewpoint is equally valid and the there is no role for an author, or an authoritarian position, then who can critique the arts?

In reality this means the arts become socially orientated. By this I don’t mean political socialism, but instead, the arts become dominated by a web of social interactions, or a scene. Like Kafka’s fort it seems that nobody is in charge and that there are no landmarks to help us navigate this shifting world. Far from being more representative of the people, it has produced an art that is exclusive in the worst way. Providing no way in for the un-initiated. No wonder artists are beginning to feel irrelevant.

Potentially this also, leaves the arts open to exploitation by pseudo artist mystics of the hippy variety and also by rampant capitalists who seek to impose commercial values for their own benefit. Again neither bad in moderation, they both have their place I guess, but together they don’t make a very healthy arts scene. I will leave it to you to decide to what degree this has or hasn’t happened.

The limitations of Post Modernism are now beginning to be well recognised. The fake postmodernist paper that was submitted to a prominent arts journal by the physicists Alan Sokal in 1997 famously ridiculed the postmodernist critique. This has left a legacy of distrust between the arts and sciences and has done much damage, although, Post Modernists probably had it coming. If you choose to use quantum mechanics to justify an arts position then you had better be very sure of the contexts that you are juggling. Despite the bending and breaking of Newton’s laws by quantum mechanics these happen only at the quantum level. If you want to use a cognitive tool to understand quantum effects, use quantum physics, if you want to understand earthly physics at a human scale use Newtonian. Most philosophers of science are now agreed that quantum theory does not force us to drastically alter the realist foundations of modern science.

It may also come as a surprise to many academics in the arts, but contemporary sciences are no longer characterised by a purely objective or positivist view of the world, and haven’t been for some time. In a framework loosely described as Post-Positivism, (or Hetero-Phenomenology by the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett) the sciences have been factoring in the appearance of phenomena and the social influences since at least the 1950’s. In fact the social sciences and much of psychology could not exist from any other position.

To give an example of this, relating to colour, it is worth noting the theories of Helmholts and Herring relating to colour perception in the early stages of the human visual system. Helmholtz, was an anatomist and prominent German scientist. In the late 1800’s he examined the anatomy of the eye and declared that there were three types of light sensitive cone cells in the eye. The logical conclusion was that, as it takes three balanced colours to construct all of the colour sensations possible (Newton’s three additive primary colours), was that these cells were responsive to red green and blue light. In 1892 Hering proposed an alternative theory. He observed that light or surface colors can produce a sensation of red mixed with yellow (orange) or red mixed with blue (purple), but never create the sensation of red mixed with green (“reddish green” or “greenish red”) or yellow mixed with blue (“yellowish blue” or “bluish yellow”). This proved to Hering that the visual substances were organized as antagonistic or opponent processes. It was assumed that this called for four types of colour cell and consequently his experience or phenomenological approach, was largely ignored until the 1950’s when research began to support his theory. A slightly adapted version of his theory is now the accepted model for colour perception.

This demonstrates what should be a fairly obvious feature of human cognition. That we don’t think either subjectively or objectively, they are not in opposition. They are both essential in any form of enquiry, be it an arts or a science based approach. (I have a similar response when I am confronted by the claptrap that says that artists think with the left side of their brain and scientists with the right – I prefer to use both sides of my brain!??)

Postmodernisms positioning of the arts and sciences in opposition hides the fact that they are in fact parallel process of enquiry.

However, it is not just the arts that have been guilty of reacting to this divide. Many scientists have dismissed outright the claims of postmodernism for a fluid and relative cultural system. Ignoring the postmodernism completely in this way is to do great disservice to a number of important thinkers from the last hundred years and speaks of an arrogance that can characterise scientists.

The work of evolutionary psychologists has often fallen into this trap. By attempting to define that arts through adaptive reasoning based on our human Pleistocene origins. For example Geoffrey Miller uses the Australian Bower bird as an example to illustrate the potential mating benefits in visual display. Backed up by his museum research that finds that the majority of the artworks in museum holdings are produced by men in their late 30’s, peak reproductive years. This description of art as a Peacocks tail, has some merit, but cannot be the whole story. Miller seems to forget that the museum holdings themselves were subject to a whole host of social, cultural and historical factors that have influenced their range. There are many offer notable theories, such as Ellen Dissenyake’s, theory of art making something special and the significance of emphasis. Again these theories may all have some degree of truth. However trying to define art is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. As soon as you think you might have nailed it slips away and turns into something else. There are always artists who do not fit into a definition. Something that even some of the greatest contemporary philosophers don’t seem to have noticed in their writtings on art. Many, including Deleuze, fall into the trap of stating, “art is….”.

How can we negotiate this divide between the relative aspects of culture and the objective nature of enquiry? Do we have to throw all of postmodernism away? That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water and there is another way.

To my mind the greatest theory of all time is the theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin. Not only did this theory pre-date all of the scientific discoveries that have endorsed, such as genetics and DNA, but it has managed to define nature without nailing it down. Evolution does define in an objective noun based sense, but instead describes a universal mechanism. Richard Dawkins points out towards the end of his book ‘The selfish Gene’ that evolution is inevitable. Where there is variation, inheritance and a limited carrying capacity in the environment evolutionary mechanisms will be inevitable. He goes on to describe the potential for culture to be considered in evolutionary terms. Units of culture, memes or perhaps just ideas, are based from human brain to human brain, selected according to their use or attractiveness and adapting through time. When culture is looked at historically, it appears obvious that ideas, institutions concepts and cultural complex are all evolving. I wont here go into the merits and ramifications of a memetic view on life. Look to Susan Blackmore’s book ‘Meme Machine’ or the work of Daniel Dennett if you are interested. Needless to say I believe that viewing culture as an organism unites much of postmodernist theory and contemporary science. Allowing us to have the best of both worlds.

For example, and this is just one point of unity, the role of the author is as uncertain in contemporary evolutionary theory as it is in French postmodernist literary criticism. Interestingly Dennett suggests in his theory of Intentionality that that the illusion of authorship is an essential part of human cognitive rationalisation of the world around them. Here we can clearly see how a synthesis of the two positions can give us a better understanding of the relationship between audience and author, which may show us a way forward.

As last note, it is important to clarify that there is no reason why art can’t be rational. In fact, all the most famous moments in art history from the Renaissance through to Impressionism and the foundations of Modernism have all been inspired or made possible by advances in science and technology.


About Phil Lambert

Visual artist based in Cardiff
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