The Parallels of Art and Science

Every picture paints a thousand words, but the challenge is to string them together in a language that translates clearly into something far greater than the result of an exercise on black velvet for the masses.

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The cyclotron shown above was the first sub-atomic particle accelerator. This device, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and subsequent gigantic versions that are miles in circumference, enabled physicists to split the atom and probe its constituents, thereby making a quantum leap in our understanding of the nature of matter. Ernest Lawrence was awarded the Nobel Prize for this achievement, and this single breakthrough engraved Berkeley’s name permanently in the upper echelons of modern physics research.

Wassily Kandinsky was arguably the world’s first abstract artist. Although the abstract shown dates from the early 20’s, Kandinsky’s move toward abstraction started at the beginning of the 20th century and essentially coincided perfectly with Max Planck’s discovery that energy is quantized into discreet indivisible units. Energy is not a continuum, but rather is digitized like matter. Kandinsky’s desire to move away from a “real” image on canvas in order to focus on the elemental constituents of art  was revolutionary, just as was the notion of quantized energy to physics. They both represented radically new paradigms and there was no turning back.

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As nuclear physics moved forward, one of its more culminating and forebodingly awesome practical achievements occurred in a New Mexican desert on July 16th 1945. From that day onward, we have been forced to deal with the consequences of this event. For the first time in history, humans would now have the capacity to destroy the world as we know it, and we have been groping continually with the need to control and contain this ability ever since.

At virtually the same time in history, Jackson Pollock essentially atomized Art with the creation of his “drip” paintings. By physically detaching the brush from the canvas, Pollock blew the lid off the Art world, and essentially created a dead end in painting. What else could be done now? Well, Art has certainly continued on since Pollock, but many would argue that its direction has been ill defined since then. Just as The Bomb did to modern society, so did Pollock leave the Art world groping for purpose and control.

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In this last example, we enter the 60’s. This era, beginning a bit before this and continuing thereafter could be referred to in many ways. But I think one binding moniker is that of the “plastic society”. Many descriptive associations can be attached to this term: cheap, reproducible, artificial, transient, etc. However, one quality of this period that distinguishes it from the past is an enormous preponderance of many things exactly the same. Hand-made objects become a comparative rarity at this juncture in our history. It is a time of pre-fabrication, of readily recognizable ubiquitously present icons. Everything is present in multiple copies and the human signature is fading into obscurity.

This is also a period where Andy Warhol championed the era of Pop Art. It was a form of generic art, almost an art without personal identity. After something like Pollock, it seemed totally natural for artists to become, in essence, detached from their work. Our burgeoning technology in the atomic age has done the same to us. We are less tangibly connected, in a personal sense, to the world around us.

So, what’s next? Well, if I knew that, I’d be rich. Our science and technology have become far more cybernetically based in the past decade. Much of our research and day-to-day experience is now channeled through the virtual world of computing. Maybe this our extended legacy? But my point here was not to predict, but rather to show by example how the Arts are NOT some sort of misguided satellite of human endeavor. Far from it! The operations and evolution of a society depend on the multiple and diverse facets of which it is composed. And Art, along with Science, is one of the more pivotal components. It monitors the pulse of society and, in turn, by its actions, also imparts a directive impetus into the engines of continual change, be they for advancement or regression.

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