The contribution of science to art

By Professor Robyn Sloggett AM

It may be useful to understand that the Field A1 of the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) is the place where humans experience 'aesthetic emotion' (Zeki et al., 2014). This was the conclusion from a study that sought to correlate mathematical beauty and brain activity, (Zeki et al., 2014), in which sixteen mathematicians rated Leonhard Euler's identity:
as the most beautiful equation and Srinivasa Ramanujan's infinite series for 1/π:
as the ugliest. (Zeki et al., 2014)

Interesting, perhaps, for neurosurgeons, and on the basis of probability for mathematicians, but for artists understanding which part of the human brain elicits aesthetic responses remains a lesser order question than how to elicit such a response. Emmanuel Kant in §62 of his 'Critique of Judgment' conceived of 'Aesthetic judgments ... as expressions of our feeling that something makes sense to us'  (Brietnbach 2013, p. 961). This seems right. Humans construct art in order to grapple with the complexity of making sense of the world. Perhaps this is why the simplicity of Leonhard Euler's identity appears so attractive.

In attempts to find elegant solutions to complex questions, science and art are integrally intertwined. Both conduct research postulating, testing and rejecting or accepting concepts, materials, and behaviours; developing loci of production where the final form of the concept or product takes place; and building legacy, where the availability and influence of the work into the future is secured

In attempts to find elegant solutions to complex questions, science and art are integrally intertwined. Both conduct research postulating, testing and rejecting or accepting concepts, materials, and behaviours; developing loci of production where the final form of the concept or product takes place; and building legacy, where the availability and influence of the work into the future is secured (or not). Science supports art in all these areas.

In 1810, artist John Francis Rigaurd RA, voicing concerns about the poor quality of artists' materials, sought the establishment of an organisation where 'an able chemist should have the management of all that concerns the nature of colour, spirits or gums, and be ready to make experiments suggested to him by any artists' (cited in Gage 2001, p. 7). Rigaurd identified the necessary contribution of chemistry and physics to the production of art that is stable, and can properly represent the artist's conception and intention. Since then artists have worked with scientists, researching and developing materials to help achieve the aesthetic outcomes to which they aspire. The partnership between Yves Klein and Edouard Adam to produce Klein Blue is but one example.

From the beginning of the twentieth century a dramatic increase in scientific and technological development provided a vast array of new products for industry and domestic consumption. Masonite®, fluorescent light, alkyd resin, polystyrene, PVA, PVC, microcrystalline wax, video cameras, the internet and new pigments including the quinacridones, phthalocyanines, perylenes, and arylamides, became part of the vernacular of art production, and artists and scientists became enthusiastic partners in solving production issues.

Their creative solutions, in turn, created a new range of conservation issues, and conservators, chemists, physicists, engineers, IT experts, and others, engaged with artists to study questions of intent, analyse materials and techniques, explore deterioration and degradation mechanisms, and debate philosophical concerns relating to treatment and intervention. Studies in physics, engineering and conservation demonstrated how absorption of ultraviolet light by zinc oxide pigments caused brittleness and subsequent flaking of paintings containing zinc white. Conservators used optics to measure the changes in the wavelength of fluorescent tubes used in works by artists such as Don Flavin, in order to understand shifts in colour as these light sources age, so that future replacement lights can replicate the artist's original 'light palette' (Wander 2012).

Studies in physics, engineering and conservation demonstrated how absorption of ultraviolet light by zinc oxide pigments caused brittleness and subsequent flaking of paintings containing zinc white. Conservators used optics to measure the changes in the wavelength of fluorescent tubes used in works by artists such as Don Flavin, in order to understand shifts in colour as these light sources age. . .

Forensic science combined with art historical and provenance studies addresses issues of attribution and authentication, not only for the security of an artist's livelihood and their reputation, but also for the protection of national cultural identity. Pigment analysis, infrared imaging of hidden underdrawing, or measuring trace elements to parts per million to discriminate between a painting produced in 1978 and 1999, provide verifiable data to determine whether a work can be attributed to a particular artist or not.

Art practice and scientific enquiry have the same fundamental epistemological requirements; a broad and deep knowledge of the context in which they operate, the ability to contest and extend existing ontologies, and through this to be able to verify propositions in order to expand knowledge. It remains difficult, however, to conceive of a mathematical formula dripping with irony, pathos, anguish or exultation. So let's celebrate the integration of art and science, but let's conclude: 'Viva la difference'.


References

Breitenbach, A 2013, 'Beauty in Proofs Kant on Aesthetics in Mathematics', European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 23, iss. 4, pp. 955-977, viewed at 20 June 2014 <DOI: 10.1111/ejop.12021>.

Gage, J 2001, 'A romantic colourman: George Field and British art', The Volume of the Walpole Society, vol. 63, pp. 1-73.

Wander, R 2012, 'Interpreting an artist's intent involves a team of experts at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center', 30 March 2012, Stanford News Service, viewed 20 June 2014, <http://news.stanford.edu/pr/2012/pr-light-works-exhibit-033012.html>.

Zeki, S, Romaya, J P, Benincasa, D M T, and Atiyah, M F 2014, 'The experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates', Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 8, art. 68, viewed 20 June 2014, <https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00068>.


Professor Robyn Sloggett AM is Director of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation where she manages the diverse conservation, teaching and research programs of the Centre. With qualifications in Art History, Philosophy and Cultural Materials Conservation, Robyn’s contribution to research and teaching has developed in both an academic and professional framework. Her research interests span the materials and techniques of artists in Australia and South East Asia, ethical and philosophical issues in cultural materials conservation, the development of scientific techniques for conservation, issues in attribution and authentication, and the development of a National Conservation Program.