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Art, Science, and Cultural Understanding

by Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim, Editors
Common Ground, Champaign, Il, 2014
234 pp.  illus. 19 col.  Paper: $28.96
ISBN: 978-1612294865.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This interesting collection on the nowadays no longer polarized fields of artistic and scientific research (the infamous “two cultures” of C.P. Snow) can be read at various levels and should be of interest for various groups of readers. First of all, it is a book that accompanies the shift from the SciArt program funded by the Wellcome Trust, that came to an end in 2005, to the broader ArtScience movement, as defended and illustrated by Leonardo (the journal as well as the creative and institutional network that the journal’s editor has managed to build). It continues and deepens the critical evaluation of Glinkowski and Bamford (www.wellcome.ac.uk/sciartevaluation) while looking for new forms of theorizing practicing the mutual involvement of practice-led artistic research and empirically-driven hard science with the help of models, ideas, and authors that one finds in the Leonardo environment. Second, it is also a book that aims at defining, although not in a very theoretical way, the notion of “transdisciplinarity” (mainly via some brief references to Helga Nowotny). Co-edited by researchers from the ScienceArt “Project Dialogue” at the University of West-England in Bristol (www.projectdailogue.org.uk), this publication offers a mapping of a wide range of existing initiatives, best practices, and collaboration in this highly dynamic field, but the overview it offers cannot make any claim of completeness (it is quite astonishing to notice for instance that the flagship project group for transdisciplinarity work in the UK, based at the University of Plymouth, is not even mentioned).

The book is neatly divided in three parts, each of them composed of four chapters. “Arguments”, the first part, is the most theoretical one and addresses the possible benefits of a transdisciplinary dialogue between arts, sciences, and humanities (with humanities clearly lining up with the arts rather than with the sciences). It has a strong focus on the philosophical discussion of scientific theories and epistemologies, but all contributions take as their starting point the necessity for empirical scientists to question the axioms of narrowly defined scientific procedures, methods, and belief systems (the very idea of science as a “belief system” being already a very postmodern approach of science). All essays in this section come back on the science wars of the 1980s and demonstrate in a quite balanced way that the excesses of these years have now been overcome and that a real dialogue is now possible, not only because it is no longer possible to uncritically embrace the often naïve critiques of science by socially committed non-scientists, but also because scientists themselves have become more aware of issues and problems such as the historicity of truth systems or objectivity, the limitations imposed by short-term market constraints, or the dramatic impact of the social and material environment on the work of individuals in laboratories. Part two, “Advocacy”, takes as it starting point the notion of embodiment and the sensory experience of life as an ideal bridge between scientific research and artistic production. This section is perhaps the most representative of the ideal of transdisciplinarity that the editors tend to exemplify, and demonstrates very convincingly the mutual enrichment of scientific and artistic inquiry and problem solving (the chapter on colour perception and reproduction, by Carinna Parraman, is an excellent example of the encounter between both fields). Part three, “Agency”, makes room for artists linked in some way with “Project dialogue” and presents a sample of often fascinating works in various media. Here as well, body and embodiment are key notions, and this centrality has certainly to do with the fact that health sciences are probably more than other, more theoretically oriented disciplines, are directly confronted with questions that cannot be solved by technicians alone.

This very useful book, well edited and open to a wide selection of voices and examples, will be of interest for all those working in the ArtScience field. In spite of the fact that it does not propose new major theoretical insights of statements, it offers a valuable critical reflection on the threats and opportunities in the field. It establishes very clearly for instance that the steadily growing dialogue between artists and scientists continues to suffer from a fundamental imbalance. Indeed, if the ArtScience collaboration undoubtedly benefits artists, the same cannot be said of scientists: the former has a vital interest in collaborating with scientists in all possible ways (the profit for artistic invention and change as well as for new forms of dialogue with a larger audience is absolutely clear); the latter may be amused or intrigued or challenged by this collaboration. The actual impact on scientists’ work is still open to debate (contrary to artists, scientists are not paid for discovering new questions, but for finding new answers, and these answers must be assessed by very different stakeholders than those of the artist). The imbalance has further to do with the fact that artists seem to benefit from any kind of science whatsoever, whereas the possible profit for scientists comes less from a dialogue with art itself than from a dialogue with humanities, more particularly with those branches of humanities that help bridge the gap between the sometimes dry and abstract procedures in the laboratory and often dramatically concrete needs of the real world “out there”. Here as well, however, health sciences may be the exception that confirms the rule: issues of pain, life and death, the narrativization of bodily experiences, for instance, are no longer issues that can be addressed by reading figures and graphs on a screen, and the many examples of this book show that medicine is today one of the spearhead of ArtScience. The good mix of theoretical debate, quasi-anthropological research, reports of participant observation, interviews, case studies, and self-evaluation makes this book, despite a certain number of limitations, a valuable contribution to an essential debate.

Last Updated 4th January 2015

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