Emotion in Science and Art

What is the role of emotion in art and what is the role of emotion in science? Is science really the realm of the cold intellect, and art the dominion of the heart?  Is getting people to care about science dependent on finding ways to pull at their heartstrings, and what is the role of science/art collaborations in this context? This was a question recently posed in a thoughtful blog post by Lizzie Crouch, which has inspired me to think about what my take is on this important question.

Does this emotionally engage you? Methoxyverapamil (1991) Damien Hirst (image Damien Hirst/Science Ltd/Gagosian Gallery)

As a someone who identifies as both artist and scientist, I recognise methods as key to both practices. Science generally proceeds in one of two ways; the first is the scientific method, in which a hypothesis is developed and tested. In the second, a scientist uses particular methods  to explore a large dataset to see if it contains information that answers a key question. In principle, both of these techniques should be carried out in a cold and analytical manner, not allowing the scientist’s personal hopes and aspirations to enter the equation. And while that is something that all good scientists aspire to, it rarely equates to the whole picture. Even if we exclude things like confirmation bias or the ‘Decline Effect‘ in which scientific results have been shown to ‘wear off’ with time, most  scientists would probably argue that they find science to be an emotional venture. After all, there are underlying ideas — be it curing cancer or exploring the universe that drive the scientists onward, and which they care passionately about. That larger picture can take on almost mythic dimensions in the context of understanding the place of humanity in the universe or understanding whether consciousness is something that separates us from other forms of life. While the means of exploration of these concepts might be methodical and cold, they tap into the same emotional core within us that is often filled by religion (I will emphasise here I am not saying science is a religion or substitutes for religion or as some would argue, art). In her post, Lizzie emphasises that when communicating science, one must make people care about what you are doing; i.e. you must tap into that emotional core. Is art a way of doing that?

My answer to this is maybe. In his art history classic The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes argues that it’s hard to think of a piece of visual art that has fundamentally changed the world. There’s a beautiful naivete in thinking so, but there is actually a question of whether art incites us to act. Hughes argues “We have political art, but no effective political art.” Art can raise awareness, it can cut through to our hearts, but to what end? Do we act as a result? Perhaps on an individual level, but Hughes argues that its hard to think of a piece of visual art which has saved a single life. And so too is it in terms of art inspired by science? Some, such as Antony Gormley (in a Guardian editorial) are hopeful, asking whether art can play a role in terms of how we reinterpret our relationship with a changing planet. But is this realistic?

I do not see art as a visual communication tool; that responsibility belongs to graphic design. Art expresses; it imagines; it challenges and interrogates, and isn’t necessarily linear. I do not see sci-art as a form of science communication per-se. That doesn’t mean it can’t perform this role, raise awareness, etc– but take for example Ackroyd and Harvey’s Polar Diamond (2009), in which they made a diamond from a polar bear bone. The piece itself speaks to the fact that rarity creates value. Through the process in which the bone was combusted and an ‘immortal’ diamond was made from the carbon remains, CO2 was emitted– which is in fact playing a role in the destruction of the polar bears’ habitat. There is a feeling that is evoked through this piece– though it is hard to say what, precisely, is being communicated. It makes me feel sad; it’s a bit of an elegy. But it’s certainly not a message, and I can’t claim I’ve learnt anything. Putting aside the argument as to whether people respond to doom-and-gloom messages, I would say this piece has the potential to raise an eyebrow, to make somebody who already cares care a little bit more, for a time. And maybe that’s enough.

But coming back to the role of emotion in art and science. I think it’s in both places, but we have to recognise the subjectivity of all of this. Different individuals are touched by different things. It’s nearly impossible to make somebody care about something if they aren’t naturally inclined to care. I must confess, Damien Hirst’s spot paintings (image above) do nothing for me. Nothing. Many people, art critics included, seem to love them; they respond (in some sense emotionally, I guess?). Me, nada (unless it’s rage at what these paintings seem to sell for). And so too it is with science. I care about climate change, the environment. I’m fascinated about what neuroscience can tell us about our humanity, and am riveted by the photostream from NASA’s Curiosity rover. But I must make a confession. Solid state physics? Mechanical engineering? No disrespect, and I intellectually understand why they are important– but I confess I’m not exactly engaged. But I’m keeping an open mind and would love to have it changed by some brave artist.


About sciartsci

I would like to consider myself both scientist and artist and am profoundly interested in the overlap, intermingling, and interface between these two worlds. I had an academic position (in science) at a university in the USA, which I left (in part) to spend a year in London doing art in a Foundation programme at Byam Shaw/Central St Martins. I now find myself back working in science but maintaining a high level of involvement in art (sculpture, painting, drawing, photography). I have a pretty cool job and this blog reflects only my opinions and not those of the fantastic institution I happen to be lucky enough to work for.
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