By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Back when I was an undergraduate majoring in chemistry, the University where I attended housed my program in their College of Arts and Sciences. (In case you’ve ever wondered, a “college” is a collection of typically related programs, and a “university” is a collection of colleges.) I love all disciplines of science (this is why I went into Chemistry as it is central to all other sciences), but I also truly love art. I wish I had artistic talent, but I really don’t. I tried to play guitar, but after twenty years I reached a skill level of noise. I did paint (acrylic on canvas), and wasn’t too terribly bad at all, but my then-wife threw them all away, so she must have thought I had not talent. I tried drawing a stick figure the other day, but failed. It’s kind of sad, really.
At a local community college, I taught a science course. One day, a thought crossed my mind for an interesting concept for my students to contemplate. “What is the difference between art and science?”
It’s really an interesting question. Before we get into what the difference might be, let’s take a little time to consider what is similar. In our society, we have a habit (or, perhaps have been trained to) blurt out answers quickly. In the class, the first answer blurted out was “Science is based on experiment!” While this is true, the reality is that so is art. If you are not an artist, ask one, and you will most assuredly be told that art is a lot of experimentation, trial and error, and just like failed experiments in science, it is learning from failures.
Science is founded on the scientific method, but I respectfully submit here that, although they would not use the term, so is art. Let’s consider the steps:
Observation. In science, a question is asked based on something that is observed, either firsthand or in the results of other scientists. Art is the same. Inspiration for art often comes from an artist’s surroundings, experiences, or the work of another artist.
Research. In science, the next step is to search the literature to see if the answer to the question has already been found, although a scientist might continue to pursue the study if the answer does not seem satisfactory, or if the answer raises new questions. Art is the same. An artist will consider different methods for their inspiration: choices of painting; drawing; photography; music; creative writing; poetry as well as media. For example, if painting is chosen, then there is the choice of oil paints, acrylic, water color, mixed media, and on what the painting will be created. This is the equivalent of a literature search in science.
Hypothesis formation. Once the literature search has progressed sufficient, the scientist will form an opinion, basically an educated guess, as to what the answer to the question might be. In art, this would be making the choice to express the inspiration, with the knowledge that the first choice might not be the best.
Experimentation. Once a hypothesis is formulated, scientists want to test it to see if it could be the correct answer. If the hypothesis is correct, it should be able to accurately make predictions in similar but different situations, which is what the experiment is meant to do. In art, experimentation would be creating that piece of art in the manner chosen.
Analysis. Once the experiment is complete, the next step is to analyze the results to see if the hypothesis seemed to hold true. If so, further experimentation is typically pursued. In art, the same thing occurs. The artist will assess the resulting work, and may try different variations.
Hypothesis refinement. If the hypothesis did not seem to hold up, then it is refined based on the knowledge gained by the experiment before further experimentation. The artist might do the same thing, if the inspiration did not seem to be justly fulfilled with the media chosen.
Reporting. In the final step, a scientist, once comfortable that the hypothesis is reasonably accurate, will publish the findings. Of course, the artist’s goal is to release their work to the public as well.
So, now I will present my hypothesis to the original question based on my observation and love of both science and art. Before I do, I should mention that I did test this hypothesis by presenting it to a friend of mine who is an artist. Although she did not disagree, she had her own answer that was similar, but different nonetheless. This does demonstrate that there can be multiple answers to this question, and I encourage my readers to ponder the question for themselves and come up with their own answers. It is actually a fun exercise.
So, my hypothesis. It seems to me that the goal of scientists is to understand and explain the world around them, while the goal of an artist is to create something that has not previously existed. Both are expressing themselves, but for different reasons. When I shared this, there was an objection in my class that not all art is permanent, and this is very true, although not as true as one might think. Music, for example, is gone as soon as it is played, but the sheet music still exists so others can recreate it. Something like snow art, ice sculptures or even “light art” (quick motion of a source of light, often a flashlight or LED, in the dark) is most certainly transient, but in that time, the art, which never existed before, did.
Okay, you’ve heard my thought on the subject. Have fun coming up with your own, and please feel free to share. I would love to hear your hypothesis.