mirrorshard: (Terrella)
Somhairle Kelly ([personal profile] mirrorshard) wrote2014-12-03 11:41 pm

December Days: Art & science

I had a choice of two icons for this post, both very appropriate in different ways. One is one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, and of course he's seen as the embodiment of the crossover between the two. The other, which is of course at the top of this post, is a terrella - a spherical magnet, a little Earth - used by William Gilberd in his research into magnetism. They're both my own photography, and being in the presence of these artifacts - in the V&A and the Science Museum respectively - was a wonderful feeling.

Part of the reason I decided not to use the da Vinci icon was because the need for a crossover at all is a modern illusion. Art, as in artisan and artificial, has only recently acquired the airy & impractical ivory tower connotations it has today. In previous centuries, the artist was a tradesman, or at best a professional, on a conceptual level with a plasterer or a chemist rather than with a prince of the Church or of the counting-house, and their labours were devoted towards distinct objects rather than concepts or creations.

As so often happens, the change was (partly, or even largely) due to advances in technology. On the one hand, industrialisation and laboratory-made pigments were making true, vivid colours much cheaper and more common, and more accessible to everyone. Before that point, if you wanted a true vivid blue then you had to buy a very specific kind of stone from a particular mine in Afghanistan, and go through a long physical & chemical process which needed quite a lot of skill to do right—if you don't grind the lapis lazuli perfectly, you end up with something a lot like washing powder, a slightly bluish-grey-looking white, and your entire investment (often twice the mineral's weight in gold) is wasted. If you wanted a true vivid (and lightfast) purple, you were entirely out of luck, and your best bet was to wait four or five centuries then go to the shop. So artists had to find new techniques to maintain their social monopoly, and redefining Art was one of them.

On the other hand, Art was becoming much more available through advances in reproduction technology. Even before monochrome cameras (let alone the early and limited colour films) engravers of great and obsessive skill were making detailed copies of Great Works, but you can only pull a certain number of copies from brass engraving plates before the metal deforms and the engraved lines soften & blur. Advances in steelmaking, partly driven by weapons technology, were mitigating that, though, and once you had a film camera and a bit of chemical skill then you could churn out as many reproductions of Great Works as you had the supplies and the patience for. They could even be published in newspapers, and where were artists then? Reduced to mere suppliers of the prototype for an industrial process, and that's not interesting. So the locus of value kept shifting, and artists shifted along with it, towards Theory and Concepts, and through Romantic genius, Modernist optimism, Postmodern yesbuttery, and take-it-or-leave-it mysticism.

Which isn't to say that the people who are artists today are the same kind of people who were artists in the past. It takes a different—though overlapping—set of skills, and more critically we're working in a completely different market area.

Interestingly, Science codified itself more or less around the time that Art went through this change, and in a similar direction, embedding much more Theory into itself and synthesising all the discrete chunks of lore held by guilds, armies, and trades with the Classical Greek approach of attempting to subject the universe to the penetrating gaze of Pure Reason Unsullied By Commerce. Gilberd, whom I mentioned at the top of this article, was a very good example of that, though he was really a pre-scientist (he floreated in the 1590s, around Bacon and well before Newton, Hooke, and Boyle)—he had an absolutely burning and overriding desire to prove that the Earth had a soul, but he did this by experiment, including designing and commissioning his own experimental tools like the terrella in my icon, and he spent a great deal of time learning from navigators and sea-captains.

So one way of looking at the soi-disant split (which is much more marked amongst critics and followers, rather than active practitioners) is that they grew from the same base, the impulse to Do Things To Stuff And See What Happens, and along similar paths, but in different directions.