The Art of Scientific Knowledge

I find myself musing again on the links between Art and Science. No, not the fact that the latest Booker prize winner apparently has an astrological structure, sigh. No, not even The Falling Sky, intriguing blend though it is of academic angst and lesbian lust. No. Umm. Where was I? Oh yes. Art. Grayson Perry has been delivering the first ever cross-dressing Reith Lectures  and very fine they are too. Yesterday’s was about how you judge quality in Art, a famously heated topic. (Can you have a heated topic, rather than a heated debate? Ed.)

There is no objective formula. The choices seem to be (a) The Market. (b) The Club – curators, critics and successful artists. (c) Public Opinion. All the tension seems to come from (c) disagreeing with (b). I have always been fascinated by the way folk are not content to just not like something; they get angry with Art. “My Johnny can do better than that” etc. Oh. Right. How come your Johnny ain’t famous then? I saw this in action the previous summer when visiting a Tracey Emin exhibition at the lovely Turner Gallery in my old home town of Margate. (An art gallery! In Margate!!!) Tracey is not quite my cup of tea but I was giving it a go. Suddenly there were staff scurrying around because a small child had drawn on one of the sculptures. The crowd was instantly split into the horrified bourgeoisie and the cheering polloi. Pardon my mongrel language approach.

So. Thats Art. Science? When we try get all philosophically rigorous we also find it really hard to pin down an objective assurance of truth. Cue pub argument about Hume, Popper, Feyerabend etc. But day by day the situation is the opposite. We know in our guts that the whole point of science is the search for objective knowledge, and that we have found a strange paradoxical but reliable method of getting at it; knowledge comes from honest scepticism.

We also take for granted that the arbiters of good science are us gals and guys in the club. (More gals please.) We don’t think the public should vote on whats true and whats not. There is no market in science. You can’t simply proclaim yourself an expert (though some try). There are not even any gentleman amateur scientists any more. You pass your exams, convince an interview panel, take the Government Shilling or the University Penny, expose your work nervously at conferences full of other club members, and try to decide whether you want to play the Herd Member route or the Lone Wolf route. They can both work, as long as you keep publishing, although the latter is a harder trick to pull off.

But public opinion? You will note its called Public Outreach, not Public Insertion. We generously give them the benefit of our wisdom. Oh, but please, do explain again why you personally believe Einstein was wrong because public opinion is very important to us.  Yeah, right.

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48 Responses to The Art of Scientific Knowledge

  1. “There are not even any gentleman amateur scientists any more.”

    Really, Guv’nor? What about Julian Barbour? After completing his doctorate, he’s never had a paid academic position, but is respected in his field, as a gentleman, a scientist, and an amateur in the original sense of the word.

    I won’t mention any other names (Julian has never made any bones about being independent), but there are probably more than you suspect. Many have some sort of “guest scientist” position somewhere (which might or might not mean that they spend a significant amount of time there), but don’t loudly announce the fact.

    • andyxl says:

      Stirling Colgate is pretty impressive too. But these are rarities.

    • andyxl says:

      Well, oversimplifying – he is from a rich family so could do what he liked. But actually he has earned all his positions in the regular way as well.

      • The Colgate family, right? (If any time is appropriate for a smiley, this is it. :D )

        My definition of gentleman amateur scientist is someone who does genuine science without a paid academic position, whether or not by choice (such as Bernhard Schmidt, inventor of the eponymous camera, who preferred to work as a commercial lens- and mirror-grinder and retain his independence, rather than be employed at the Hamburg Observatory) and whether or not he is independently wealthy or does some other work to earn money (such as Julian as a translator).

  2. “There is no objective formula.”

    I propose the following: a double-blind test. Let one team of art experts come up with a sample of various good works of genuine Art. Another team, in a double-blind test, has the task of distinguishing these from paintings by apes etc. I don’t think the second group would pass.

    Read up on the Nat Tate hoax to see just how gullible these types are.

    • andyxl says:

      err… crikey. Think you are proving my point. Not content to agree that Art is Subjective, you seem to have an emotional need to prove via Gedanken Experiment that “these types” are cynical charlatans with no actual skill etc etc. What did they ever do to you? Chill, Phil.

  3. andyxl says:

    Who are “these types”?? Strawmen are too easy to knock down Phillip. Name names. Quote Quotes. Disagree with something specific.

  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    Don’t know about chimpanzees, but there are plenty of aspiring elephants out there. Personally, I rather like Lucky’s oeuvre:

  5. andyxl says:

    OK, I got 67%. I am starting to understand. Phillip’s problem is not with Modern Art, its with Abstract Expressionism. How very fifties! The chimpanzee would not to be able to mimic a Damien Hirst or a Tracy Emin. That test would be very easy to pass. A chimpanzee would definitely not be likely to accidentally saw a shark in half. And yet these are the works of Art that today get people hot under the collar. On the other hand, if a chimpanzee can make pleasant abstract daubings, whats the problem with that? Well, I guess its not a problem for the idea of art, but it is a problem for Art as a Business, for the kind of reasons Mike mentions re Pollock and power spectra. By the way, I reckon you at least need the bi-spectrum to capture Pollock.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      A little digging seems to indicate that it is the fractal dimension that provides the Pollock signature, and even when in his career a work was painted:

      • andyxl says:

        I just tried the “Pollock vs Birds” test and that one was very easy. 100% and I didn’t even pause. I was relieved because I like Pollock. I also like Rothko. None of the chimp paintings looked Rothko-like. So it occurred to me that even for Abstract Expressionism, the test is a bit of cheat – they had to pick examples that looked like the chimp paintings. So it casts doubt on a small subset even of Abstract Expressionism.

      • “they had to pick examples that looked like the chimp paintings”

        Perhaps, but even the fact that this is possible says something.

      • But isn’t this sad? “Scientific objectivity proves to be an essential tool for determining the fundamental content of the abstract paintings produced by Jackson Pollock in the late 1940s.”

        Surely, art has some intrinsic worth. If this worth needs science to find it, it is not truly artistic worth. There are forgers who can forge convincing copies of paintings by famous artists. Even the experts can’t tell the difference. It’s a scientific analysis of the pigments etc which convinces the court to put the forger in jail.

        Try to write a song which sounds like it was intended for Revolver or whatever. I think most Beatles aficionados would be difficult to convince. Yes, one could come up with some sort of pastiche (the band Badfinger comes to mind), but I don’t think that many people would be fooled.

      • andyxl says:

        Phillip you are still struggling to find intrinsic worth, when there is none. There is no objective art. Art is a conversation. It is a shared culture. It means nothing to those not involved in the conversation. You hit the nail on the head precisely when you say Beatles afficionados can tell the difference between the Beatles and Badfinger. Yes they can. But I bet a classical music fan who has no interest in popular music *cannot*. S/he might then conclude “well, that proves its worthless nonsense compared to Beethoven, which is True Art”.

      • Maybe you’re just playing devil’s advocate. Yes, of course art is subjective. Yes, a conversation, influencing and influenced by the zeitgeist. We’re in agreement here. And, yes, I have met people who can’t distinguish the Beach Boys from Black Sabbath, nor Bach from Brahms. My point is that, in some circles, even people who see themselves as experts in a particular field can’t separate their own wheat from their own chaff.

    • I got 83%. :-)

      Yes, not all “modern art”. Ditto for music. I can’t stand Cage, Stockhausen, Schönberg etc, but there are some good 20th-century composers even in the “classical” field (Joaquín Rodrigo comes to mind).

      Yes, no-one would confuse Hirst with an ape. However, it seems to me that once one establishes a reputation as an enfant terrible (this is probably where the true art lies) or whatever—by whatever means and whether or not it is justified—this is essentially a guarantee that essentially everything one does in the future will be loved by “these types”. At the same time, someone else who comes up with essentially the same thing as that of an established artist is usually not recognized. Compare this situation to, say, rock music. The existence of the one-hit wonder shows that not everyone who was successful can count on this continuing into the future. On the other hand, an unknown band can easily score a hit.

      I have no problem with “it’s not the ability needed to execute it, it’s the idea”. My problem is with the fact that even the ideas are not evaluated based on what “these types” truly feel, but rather on community buzz etc.

      • Norman Gray says:

        Well, I find it difficult to enjoy music between the 16th and 19th centuries, inclusive (a category which includes the majority of 20th and 21st century popular music). Mozart was addressing just as many technical problems as Schoenberg was, but I don’t know enough about music to understand what those problems were, nor how his solutions contrast with earlier ones. Without that knowledge, Mozart just sounds ‘nice’ (I can only appreciate it on that level) and ‘normal’ (this is very like the music I’ve been exposed to for a long time). 20th century art music and ‘early music’ at least sound interestingly unexpected, and I can see there’s a puzzle being solved there and take pleasure in engaging with, and becoming familiar with, the resulting sound.

        Similarly, visual arts from the same period – artificial and contingent though they are – are addressing technical problems which I don’t understand; they just look ‘normal’. Thus, for much of modern art of whatever type, the question is at least as important as the proposed solution. What the hell _should_ ‘a nude descending a staircase’ look like in 2-D? It had never occurred to me to ask that question.

        Now, a lot of contemporary visual art appears to depend rather too much on the caption, and I can’t help feeling that a piece which depends that much on the textual explanation isn’t doing enough work of its own. But I’m prepared to believe (or at least give head-room to the claim) that the caption is just a necessary bit of ‘outreach’, and that any enjoyment of a work of (any-medium) art which I can gain from a position of technical ignorance, is a bit of enjoyment that is not worth having (my _actual_ position is slightly moderated from this, but not that much).

        There are of course some bits of music, of various periods, which I enjoy just because they damn well sound good. But I don’t imagine I’m ‘enjoying art’ at that point; I’m just getting a warm glow (not to be despised, of course, but a different thing).

        [And anyway, part of the fun of philosophical aesthetics is this business of grasping the barely graspable]

      • Well, I find it difficult to enjoy music between the 16th and 19th centuries, inclusive (a category which includes the majority of 20th and 21st century popular music).

        Can you explain this?

      • “Well, I find it difficult to enjoy music between the 16th and 19th centuries, inclusive (a category which includes the majority of 20th and 21st century popular music).”

        Can you explain this?

      • Norman Gray says:

        > the 16th and 19th centuries, inclusive (a category which includes the majority of 20th and 21st century popular music)

        In the latter (derived, as far as I can tell, from the former), there’s the same emphasis on the well-tempered 12-semitone scale, on low-numbered even-denominator time-signatures (4/4, 3/8, and so on; popular music obviously uses a smaller range of these than the art music), on time-signatures, on harmony as the principal (or at least a very prominent) texturing mechanism, on assonance in harmony (so small-LCM harmonic ratios), on recapitulation with variations as the large-scale structuring mechanism, on a specific set of instruments being used, on a relatively small range of allowed structures (eg ‘sonata form’ or ‘verse and chorus’), and probably others.

        Certainly, it’s easy to find counterexamples to all of these; the ‘derived from the former’ isn’t fully accurate, since post-war popular music took important aspects from Africa via the american south; and there are ready examples of people pushing on the edge of those traditions while still being clearly within them (people like Richard Wagner and Burt Baccarach). But there’s still a _lot_ of commonality to a _lot_ of ‘normal’ music – it’s solving the same problems in fundamentally the same way.

        The same is not true of ‘early music’, of folk music (which is possibly classifiable as relic ‘early music’), of what is now called ‘world music’, or of 20th century art music. The interest, as I say, is in the different questions: ‘do we really need time-signatures?’, ‘you mean there are _other_ ways of dividing up the octave?’, or ‘can I write music with mathematics?’

        There’s probably a mixture of reasons, to do with awareness of the past, and awareness of other cultures (generally immediately after shooting/colonising them, but still…), why modernism became more aware of the larger possible palette here.

        I should probably stop here, since I’m close to the boundary of my limited musicological knowledge, and indeed am not positive which side of it I’m currently standing on!

      • andyxl says:

        In harmonic and melodic terms, much popular music is pretty similar to classical music. Doesn’t apply to early Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, or Mark T’s favourite band Bum Gravy

      • OK, I get you now. I thought that might be what you meant, but wasn’t sure. I was also confused by the fact that you don’t like it. :-|

        As far as so-called classical music (in the broader sense of non-pop, non-rock, non-jazz, non-folk, not in the sense of 1750–1820) goes, quality plotted against time is roughly a Gaussian, with the peak at about 1715, though tilted a bit so that earlier stuff (before the peak) is better than later stuff. Stuff before is good, but not really complex enough. Afterwards: classical (in the narrow sense) is OK to listen to, but doesn’t bowl me over. Romantic stuff is still music, but appeals to me even less. 20th-century stuff is a further step down and I’m lost when the avant guard arrives.

        Things pick up again with rock music, probably because of what you say, in other words, music was the goal, not the intellectual equivalent of trying to be too clever. (Of course, I listen to only a small fraction of all rock music, whereas most Baroque music is actually good.)

        Somewhat parallel to these trends are traditional (or folk) music and medieval music (which is really a separate tradition from the ars antiqua–ars nova–renaissance–baroque–classical–romantic tradition, though there is an overlap in time with pre-renaissance “classical” music). Of course, folk-rock, Blackmore’s Night and so on have provided some unification at some level, and rock music has drawn on various influences (think Jethro Tull’s Songs From the Wood, say). Off the beaten path in rock music you will find more interesting things such as less common time signatures, modes other than major and minor and so on, but usually as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      The fact that a particular piece of art is forge-able doesn’t invalidate its value, any more than a scientific paper that was plagiarized detracts from the original piece of work. By buying an original, you are paying for the idea as well as the execution.

      As for the arbitrary nature of what the art community decides is valuable, is that really so different from the behaviour of the scientific community? I am sure Andy, wearing his AGP hat (do you get hats?) could tell us how hard it is to get a project funded in an “unfashionable” area of astronomy.

      • “The fact that a particular piece of art is forge-able doesn’t invalidate its value, any more than a scientific paper that was plagiarized detracts from the original piece of work. By buying an original, you are paying for the idea as well as the execution.”

        Misunderstanding! I don’t mean copying a known painting and selling the copy as the original, but rather creating a completely new painting in the style of someone famous and selling this as a newly discovered lost work or whatever. For exampe, Konrad Kujau (check out the first external link at the bottom and spend some time in the gallery). (Interestingly, after his death, one of his relatives sold some fake Kujau paintings.)

    • Ross says:

      I got 100% – I went with the strategy “does this look like something my toddler drew” and it apparently worked very well!

  6. andyxl says:

    Harder but not impossible. If its exciting and convincingly argued it will get money. But of course psychologically its harder to sell. Now, if everybody included a free party hat with their application…

  7. We went to the Tracy Emin exhibition in Margate last summer when we were over. One of the attendants was being lectured at by an elderly couple about how disgraceful and disgusting this particular exhibition was (all the nudity), as if it was all her fault.

  8. martinstuartelvis says:

    Art in Margate is the coming thing! See the recent New York Times magazine article:

  9. Mark McCaughrean says:

    Rather late to this conversation, but since mentions of Tracey Emin on this august (or is it now october?) blog are likely to be relatively rare, I feel the need to share.

    Namely this: that my brother’s name was one of those appliquéd onto the inside of one of her most famous works, the tent entitled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

    They went to the Maidstone College of Art together and were close friends. My brother then went on to the Royal College of Art and Tracey didn’t. QED.

    Of course, since the tent was destroyed in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire and since none of the immediately available online photos show his name, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

    But I did get to check for myself when it was on display at the Sensation: Young British Artists show at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1998-ish.

    His name was there. Misspelled. Sigh.

    And for the record, this must be one of my odder blog comments, metaphorically dining out on the fact that my brother had carnal (I assume) relations with Tracey Emin. Hmmm …

    • andyxl says:

      Thank you for sharing, Mark. Are you a Man of Kent? Or merely a Kentish Man?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        There is nothing mere about being a Kentish Man.

      • andyxl says:

        Anywhere west of Chatham is basically London really.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Down hill all the way from Gravesend: quite a hoogoo by the time ya get to Chatham.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Neither, I am afraid, Andy: merely (and I mean that) a mongrel both in terms of geographical origin and geographical loyalty.

        Born in Plymouth of English-but-also-Irish-and-Welsh stock, we moved as a family through Newcastle, West Sussex, and Buckinghamshire before I span myself off into an international version, covering Scotland, the US, Germany, the UK (for a while), and the Netherlands to date.

        Inculcated with the same peripatetic upbringing, my middle (artist) brother covered Kent, London, Hong Kong, and back to London again, while my younger brother has managed the UK, Hong Kong, Brighton, Tokyo, and now London, albeit as an airline pilot, he seems to spend half his life playing golf in exotic locations.

  10. Norman Gray says:

    But were Magrave Mark to march east, downhill from Gravesend, into the damp eastern marches, he might find himself ankle-deep in a Kentish mere. He might be better advised to stay high and dry on a western Exmoor.

    Paronomastic maniac, moi?

    (it’s autumn, and I’m feeling borderline drookit)

    • andyxl says:

      I suspect the bottle to be almost drained in your Kelvinside abode

      • Norman Gray says:

        Well, what I _meant_ was that, it being autumn (season of mists and mellow et cetera), the usual bone-soaking miasma had appeared, which seemed to match the plashy theme of kentish meres. But yes, quaking at the threat of drizzle-borne osmosis, I had indeed taken the precaution of mild prophylactic anticipatory hyperhydration.

        It comes of spending the afternoon re-re-drafting an IVOA Proposed Recommendation. All those RFC2119-’must’s do dam a fellow’s flow most treacherously. Good thing this thread was here, else there’d have been a bright aureate explosion over west-Glasgow, sparkling the night sky with pretty pentameters (though mercifully free of mailing-list approvals).

      • andyxl says:

        Clearly I was wrong. There was still some left this morning

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