Writer_ Rob Setz
If there is a distinction to be made between the ‘artistic’ and the ‘scientific’ then I would have to be placed in with the artists. ‘Science’ reminds me of staring at a meaningless periodic table in a cold classroom with gas taps in the desk. No matter how many times you put litmus paper in acid it always goes red. You make a prediction: it will turn red. Prove it: it turns red. Then you’d draw a graph, ‘next week – colloids’. There is no room for ideas or debate in the laboratory whereas ‘art’ is precisely about arguing meanings, feelings, and contesting views. Science is about forming probabilities, art is about endless possibilities.
Aged 13 I received a telescope for my birthday. I rushed straight out to set it up and point it at the brightest star in the sky. I realised that what I was looking at was in fact another planet, I could just about make out the faint bands of cloud in its atmosphere. I was looking at Jupiter, or more accurately the weather on Jupiter, 400 million miles away! Then I looked at Andromeda, a fuzzy blob 2.5 million light years away containing billions of its own stars yet ultimately just another galaxy burning amongst billions of others in an apparently expanding universe. The human mind seems to be unable to compute such vastness. What you’re looking at is 2.5 million years old because that’s how long it has taken light to travel here. For me this is close to time travel.
Sadly this was not the view of my science teacher who had previously sent me from the class for insisting that, ‘atoms aren’t real.’ Indignant, I vowed to follow the ‘artistic’ path where ideas and expression were permitted. After all, scientists are boring people with no imagination who peer into microscopes and get excited by data, right? Science has given us animal testing, nuclear weapons, anxiety about cloning, stem cells and ever increasing technological improvements that overwhelm and estrange us. Art has given us the mechanism with which to express and endure our existence. Science may be about discovering significance but art is about giving significance.
Classical mechanics, natural selection, general relativity: they are all fine theories. Science is about facts, or rather it’s about facts waiting to be disproved. Recent developments suggest that atoms may not be real after all. Physicists struggle to resolve the ‘measurement problem’ – where sub-atomic particles only exist while they are being observed. Last month (Sep 2011) CERN uncovered results suggesting that sub-atomic particles may travel faster than light. This presents challenges to our idea of reality and asks exciting questions about the ability of the human mind to comprehend answers.
As the foundations of science are re-assessed does the discipline not begin to function as art should, to engage and challenge? In turn, does contemporary art’s preoccupation with shock and provocation (see Andres Serrano’s ‘self portrait in shit’) not turn it away from its obligation to significance? Modern science moves into a profound and uncertain age while postmodern art now offers merely promiscuous superficiality and decorative distraction with little in the way of meaning. If visual art is dead then I nominate scientists to become the new artists and paint a new reality.