When Art, Science, and Technology Were One… and Could They be Again?

How to unite disciplines for future innovation

Julio M. Ottino
Dean, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
Northwestern University

Adrian Randolph
Dean, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Northwestern University

One of us is dean of a school of engineering and whose research touches on chaos and complex systems, the other is dean of a college of arts and sciences, whose work examines the art, architecture and culture of the Italian Renaissance. In our administrative roles, we see extraordinary individuals exploring new territories, often through brave interdisciplinary research and teaching. Nonetheless, we also continue to witness enormous gaps separating our students and colleagues both at our institution and others. We would like to call for the bridging of one of these in particular, the gap separating the arts from science and technology.

Why is this important? Put simply, we see the interaction between these fields as pivotal in today’s knowledge economy and as crucial in developing broad cultural understanding of our technologically-complex world.

The gulf separating art from science and technology is the product of long and intricate historical developments. But it was not always this way and perhaps the past can offer productive examples for us to emulate. One period in particular, the European Renaissance seems particularly rife with rich examples of productive fluidity between art, science and technology.

In 1418, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) – trained as a goldsmith and active as a sculptor – was charged with completing the cupola for Florence’s cathedral, a staggering feat of architectural engineering not seen since the construction of the Pantheon in Rome some 1,500 years before. Brunelleschi emerged in the early decades of the quattrocento as a pre-eminent designer not only of buildings but also of extraordinary machines that permitted new types of construction. And if his biographers are to be believed, Brunelleschi also performed at least two optical-geometrical experiments that were pivotal in the development of systematic linear perspective – a means of reproducing three-dimensions in two, which was to become so important for the development of European art, but also our visualization technologies of today. Brunelleschi traversed all manner of “disciplinary” boundaries to make breakthroughs in architecture, engineering, and art, including writing poetry and designing settings for theatrical performances. Brunelleschi played transformative roles in the field of sculpture, painting, and architecture, as well as engineering and, through perspective and geometry, he contributed to key areas in what we today think of as “science.”

Brunelleschi does not stand as an isolated example. The names Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415–92), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) all represent artists who also explored the spheres of mathematics, architecture, various branches of engineering, physiology, optics. And these are only a few of the best known of many individuals whose interests spanned such fields.

It was, however, was not only artists seeing the value in the sciences; the reverse was true as well. The Franciscan mathematician Luca Pacioli (1445–1517) appears to have collaborated with both Piero and Leonardo. Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) mingled geometry and optics with art and architectural theory, while also practicing as an architect/designer. And Niccolò Tartaglia (1499–1557)– mathematician, military engineer and surveyor – bridged the gap between military architecture, ballistics and geometry.

Such crisscrossing was fluid: artists as engineers and designers developed technology, and sometimes practiced geometry and mathematics. At the same time, mathematically-oriented thinkers moved into architecture and the arts. While there are examples of such thinkers and doers from other cultures and times, there are particular socio-cultural reasons for the emergence of so many such individuals in the late middle ages and Renaissance in Europe. This fluidity emerged from a swirling mercantile culture, which married a certain wonder at nature’s invention (usually understood in this period as produced by a divine artificer) and the reception of ancient Graeco-Roman texts, along with complementary Arabic texts, that privileged an encyclopedic and empirical philosophical approach.

Regardless of the cultural causes of this phenomenon – which are far more complex than we can suggest here, and clearly involve a broad range of learning including what we call the humanities – early modern Europe saw both the development of autonomous spheres of “art” and “science,” but also their joining by certain individuals and social groups. While there were of course important developments that did not depend upon this, and while some of the advances mentioned above served particularly martial ends, we nonetheless discern in the fluidity between the arts, science and engineering a model worthy of emulation. We also claim this while recognizing the exclusion of women and others from many of the realms of knowledge and practice we are discussing during the European Renaissance.

Successful emulation of this Renaissance “interdisciplinarity” is impeded by the cultural and institutional histories that led to the separation of art, science and technology.

C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge, “The Two Cultures” is the most (in)famous attempt to capture and lament these histories. The lecture is, as many critics and admirers have revealed, both profoundly true and simultaneously misleading. Snow posited a split between the worlds of “science” and “the humanities,” bemoaning the lack of investment in the former. Without delving into this text and its mixed reception, we believe it is sufficient to posit that while there may be “third cultures” – or indeed multiple cultures – and while there are absolutely individuals and groups that transcend Snow’s binary, the fundamental gap he and others have described remains broad and deep. Moreover, it was centuries in the making.

Historically, the gap can be encapsulated, perhaps, by the symptomatic claim recorded in Mécanique analytique (Analytical Mechanics) written by Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736–1813) and published in 1788: “No pictures are to be found in this book. The methods I explain need neither constructions, nor arguments from geometry or mechanics, but only algebraic operations, carried out in an orderly and uniform fashion.” This rejection of the visual, though not a rejection of “art” per se, does point to the author’s pride in the abstractions of calculus, freed from the material demonstration offered by illustration.

Meanwhile the arts in Europe developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along quite different lines. Perhaps characteristically, in the throes of Romanticism, the philosopher Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) collapsed the notion divine with the truly beautiful as figured in human form. This led to an equation of art and beauty that still lingers in today’s popular imagination. It also fed the mythology of the artist as a lone, heroic genius. Rather than the preceding apprenticeship Renaissance model of the workshop or studio, the newly waxing institutions of museum and gallery instead focused more sharply on the individual artist.

As “science” and “art” developed along independent trajectories, they joined the other disciplines within the emerging structures of the modern university. Founded on the concept of Bildung or “broad cultural knowledge” promoted by Wilhelm von Humbolt (1767–1835), the modern university sought to bring together all realms of scholarly endeavor. This also, perhaps ironically, led to the institutionalization of disciplinary framework within which research universities continue to operate.

Thus, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, professionalized educational systems increasingly sought to identify students’ particular proclivities and talents and steer them toward specialization. Professional societies defined and reproduced disciplines. Even art itself, largely continuing to base itself in emotion, intuition, and singularity, also emerged as an academic practice, in the new “academies,” which offered not only training, but also degrees.

Along the way, there were, of course, also myriad attempts to span the gap we see as separating the arts from science and technology, with varying degrees of success.

There are many cases of the art-science connections starting with the Renaissance. A few famous examples will suffice. The Englishman Thomas Harriot (1560–1621) and the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) looking, almost simultaneously with newly invented telescopes, the surface of the moon. But only Galileo had a “theoretical framework” to inform what he saw, craters in what up to then had been regarded as a perfect sphere. Galileo’s art training in perspective was his edge. The German-born botanist, entomologist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), whose Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) was the result of her researches in the Dutch colony of Surinam and transformed understandings of insect life. Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), who besides being an eminent scientist was also a talented artist, discovering chirality, molecules and crystals that have mirror symmetry. Pasteur’s artistic work in lithography may have been crucial in this regard. Niels Bohr (1885–1962), a founder figure of quantum mechanics and the originator of the concept of complementarity (to rationalize, for example, that light is both a particle and a wave), using Jean Metzinger’s cubist painting “La Femme au Cheval”, to explain visitors at his home how an object could be several things at the same time. And, as last example, the connection between Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912), a giant among mathematicians, and Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) who was possibly, along with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), the most influential artist of the twentieth century. Historians of science have argued that Poincaré’s work could well have increased the appeal of four-dimensional geometry for artists already attracted to the possibilities opened by these concepts. The working notes of Duchamp, record directly his debt to ideas linked to Poincaré.

There were several attempts that tried to add structure to foster these types of interactions. In the long eighteenth century, The Lunar Society in Birmingham connected the proto-scientists, technologists, and the entrepreneurs of the day, and ideas flourished. Although no artists formed part of this circle, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97) was an intimate of many of its members, and produced a number of paintings that are, arguably, visualizations of the group’s ethos. In the nineteenth-century, one could point to the development of panoramas, dioramas, and photography, and all the profound links between technology and art. These, in complex ways, are linked to the development of Impressionism as the “science of the visual,” and to some modernist streams of representation. In the twentieth century, as Snow’s “Two Cultures” exemplifies, there were various attempts to describe and repair the rift. Another example, in the 1950s, is Harry Holtzman’s short-lived magazine transformation which boldly declared: “Art, science, and technology are interacting components of the total human enterprise… but today they are too often treated as if they were cultural isolates and mutually antagonistic…” And today, initiatives like Pars, founded by Hester Aardse and Astrid Alben, helps facilitate creative interactions between artists and scientists.

Such heroic gestures toward reconciliation, both among artists and scientists, have nonetheless played out in a symbolic scape that would seem to have science and art not only built on very different epistemological foundations, but also develop within very different educational structures.

Put simply, in higher education we continue to operate within a system that structurally limits the opportunities for students of science to study the arts, and vice versa. We therefore call for a new Renaissance, one in which we seek to support the creative fluidity between the arts and science/technology. In order to support this fluidity, we must first understand the structures of how science, technology, and art grow and evolve. Most importantly, this is a perquisite for people who practice in the crisscrossing of domains.

Science builds on the past; although science occasionally produces radical disruption (like the discovery of DNA, quantum mechanics, or the Copernican worldview) the idea of incremental progress is wired into the very fabric of science. The biggest discovery of science is science itself; it is how science grows. Thus, in a normal mode, science is about methodically building and adding knowledge, though disruption, so-called paradigm shifts, certainly happen and are essential as well. In fact, the conservative culture of incremental scientific practice rejects radical innovators – sometimes Nobel Prizes come decades and even lifetimes after accomplishment. Darwin, for instance, refrained from publishing his world changing insight until the very last moment for fear of personal attacks – which came in droves.

Technology, on the other hand, is about both building and disrupting. In a way not dissimilar to science, most technology follows the pack and builds on what has already been accomplished. Most technologies are about technologies linking with other technologies. However, disruption, in either minor or major scales, is essential for growth. The culture of technology embraces innovators and has developed the mythology of the garage — HP, Apple, Xerox Parc, Skunkworks, etc. — the “startup” being technology’s disruption paradigm.

Similarly, art practice today tends to focus on particularity and disruption. The challenge for most contemporary artists, even those of an historicist bent, is not to build on the past in order to extend an existing historical cultural line (that role has largely been handed off to craft and to art historians) but to depart from that line to define unoccupied territories – a new form of expression that is not necessarily better, but different and distinct enough to be recognized as a novel. Derivative is bad in art, but not so in technology.

Such categorical statements implicitly will entail the definition of exceptions. But, we hold these descriptions to have some general truth, and understanding these distinctions and similarities helps to facilitate the type of border crossings we think are essential today. Knowing this, we can do more to support the type of intellectual fluidity witnessed during the European Renaissance. In particular, we wish to promote creative ways we might engage faculty and students across the respective boundaries that have come to separate art from technology/science.

The higher education system in the United States has the capacity to build a solid, broad base in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and arts. In most other countries, there is a rapid convergence following secondary education into law, engineering, medicine, or another specialization. This is the case in most of Europe – France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain – and in South America. In the United Kingdom, for example, specialization begins around the age of 15 or 16. The United States is different; these types of thinking can coexist far longer than other countries, especially but not only through the structures and ideas of the “liberal arts” and liberal education more broadly. At many top universities, where students may customize their education with internships, study abroad, mentored research and co-curricular opportunities, there are ample opportunities for adventurous curricular cross-fertilization. Nonetheless, there is more that can be done to produce the type of fluid boundary crossing we wish to promote.

For despite the opening up of interdisciplinary possibilities, undergraduate students still often opt for minors that are epistemologically close to their majors. More deeply, it seems to us that our educational infrastructure is biased toward extremes. It is no mystery that science and engineering encourage thinking that is logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, and skills such as sorting and organizing. Innovation, however, requires creativity, artistry, intuition, divergence, fantasy, emotions – thinking more closely associated with the arts. The cultures of art and science are different and do not seem to be converging in ways we feel are desirable.

It is easy to see why the existing system encourages bifurcation, especially at the graduate level. Most doctoral students in engineering and science are funded to go to school. Funding generally comes from grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and multiple other agencies, to this one may add corporate sponsors and foundations as well. Today, these grants support specific research executed mainly by Ph.D. students and post-docs. The demand for (often narrowly defined) research results, myriad compliance mechanisms, and the gravitational pull toward meeting (narrow) program goals that will, if successful, yield follow-on funding, act together to create a closed system within which there is little time or attention for ancillary pursuits, especially those understood to be idle exploration. This process can yield excellent researchers, but does little to form – and unintentionally suppresses – creativity and lateral thinking, bold risk-taking, and imaginative problem-solving. Some years ago, NSF realized that producing excellent research was not enough and added a requirement to research proposals: a section on broader impacts. A step forward, but a baby step.

Similarly, the incentive structures for artists, as well as pervasive cultural misunderstandings about the very character of artistic practice, has resulted in art education to wither, de-funded because of its apparent lack of “utility.” We still often understand artists and artistic practice through the lens of Romanticism, when the artisan became the “genius,” art broke from craft, and the term fine arts emerged. But that image is out of date, for it overlooks the critiques forwarded by Modernism – the age that gave us Picasso, James Joyce, Berthold Brecht and Igor Stravinsky, and its embedded critique – and by Postmodernism, which has broken and reformed the gendered notion of artistic practice, splitting it from the centered human subject of Romanticism and Modernism.

The academy has responded to such developments, especially in the wake of World War II, when, in the United States in particular, MFA programs proliferated, and art became increasingly institutionalized. Such institutionalization did not bring with it stasis; to the contrary, artistic practice – inside and outside the academy – now engages with the mega-institutions of museums, transnational gallery-scene, biennale and expos. Within these structures, artists are at the van of entrepreneurial activity in today’s societies, even when they seek, individually or collectively, to undermine its premises.

Caught up in structures that, while sometimes enabling, both art and science/technology in higher education can benefit from some mutual disruption. We are not proposing that “art” be seen as some form of antidote for our students studying engineering and science, nor do we wish to correct art education by inoculating it with science. Rather, we see the increased exchanges between engineers, scientists and artists as mutually beneficial – and perhaps even essential – to deal with the complex problems facing the world today.

If this premise is accepted – and we understand that this is not a given – then how should we support such exchange? How can we emulate those characteristics of the European Renaissance that brought the arts and technology together in creative ways? Put simply, we feel it necessary to develop educational structures and systems that encourage artists and engineers to mingle and collaborate. This will lead to innovation, but perhaps more importantly to individuals who are flexible, agile learners ready to adapt to and face the enormous challenges are on the horizon (or perhaps better put, threatening us like an approaching hurricane).

Change in education ought to start as early as possible, with grade and high schools avoiding early bifurcation, routing students, either implicitly or explicitly, into pure “math and-no-art” and “art and-no-math” tracks. While tracks of one form or another may be necessary and desirable, we would plead for robust paths between these tracks and, especially given the funding of the arts in the United States, re-investment in arts education, not out of sentimentality but out of necessity.

From primary to tertiary education, we should incorporate the practices of artistic education into our science and engineering curriculum, and vice versa. In science and engineering, one learns perfection, foundational materials distilled through time. Most often, in training, problems have clear solutions, to be elucidated through systematic analysis and logical frameworks. Students recreate famous experiments with clear and predictable outcomes. In such an empirical setting, learning is absorption, followed by mastery, and then production. Demand for original thinking comes earlier in the arts (and, parenthetically and importantly, the humanities). Students are asked to dissect and criticize, to leverage their own responses in developing creative solutions. In today’s arts, there is a premium put on originality, responsiveness and expression. Exercising such faculties, students become at home in a context of emergent ideas. Contrast this situation with science; most often, it is not until reaching the long apprenticeship of a Ph.D. program that students are asked to exercise creative thinking and to develop creative ideas. There are reasons for this embedded in the incremental ways in which the methods of science can be understood. But by consciously producing intersections with art, science students might nurture creativity that can be unleashed in ways that might be transformative.

There is a long gap between absorption and production. It is first learning and then doing, not doing and then learning, or concurrent doing and learning.

Art is doing from the word go; an individual goal of perfection is a goal at the end; there is no single perfection. At its best art does not solve problems; is creates questions. “No technique before need” is the mantra in MFAs, meaning, for example, that if a project requires learning to code, coding will be learnt. Resilience is another component. “Artists, more than anyone I know, are capable of making something out of nothing…they find things on the street, they beg, they borrow, or create brand-new colors, brand-new objects, or brand-new ways of looking at the world…they have with them what I would call a resilient spirit that…infuses everything they do”, proclaimed a piece in ARTnews after Hurricane Sandy destroyed many Brooklyn studios. Resilience is not something wired into science, but it should be.

Art has not been a routine part of the augmentation of the thinking space solution in science and technology, but art can clearly enrich thinking. Art brings the ability to think with a clean slate, broad unstructured initial thinking, with painstaking attention to details at the end. Contemporary art, in particular, shows us the world under new, sometimes unrecognizable, light. Seeing things in a completely new fashion is ultimately what innovation is about.

Likewise, science – the scientific process, analysis through mathematics and modelling, the extrapolation of insights from data – has not been a formal part of artistic education. By exposure and learning these rational tactics, artists may be surprised at how their work and outlook may change. Artistic practice has always transformed with technological change, and one could argue that knowledge of technology and how our society interacts with it is essential in today’s world.

In this particularly intensive moment of change, artists, technologists, and scientists would be well-advised to watch and play together, educating each other as we move into an uncertain future.

Ultimately, what we seek is a sustainable change in culture, a system that learns. A beginning is to think of designing opportunities for engagement, courses and workshops of various kinds to broaden the education of engineers, scientists, and artists. Artists engaging with science and technology, both through critique and through its very practice; artists learning about the process and passion that goes into science, and how engineers and scientists think.

But there are successful examples of programs that demonstrate that there are enough open minded individuals that successfully bridge the divide and create demand for such courses. An example here is a course called Data as Art, driven by engineering and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Another is a joint course between engineering at the department of Art Theory and Practice in the College of Arts and Sciences. The theme for this course varies from year to year. A recent theme was risk. “Engineering makes risk visible by first quantifying it to then make it disappear….Art looks to push risk forward as a way of dismantling comfort,” the course announcement said. There are many examples of these types of courses across the country, but we should push for more: courses that encourage practice across the divides, but courses that could examine the history and present of those divides and disciplinarity.

The courses above are about enriching and augmenting thinking. But courses where each party brings largely its own thinking are valuable as well. A local example is The Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS). The focus here is in conservation science and “objects-based and objects-inspired scientific research to advance the role of science within art history, curatorial scholarship, archaeology, and conservation”. The course links curatorial research at the Art Institute with that conducted by materials scientists, computer scientists, and art and cultural historians at Northwestern University. Naturally, courses can accompany these efforts.

At the root of any effort to change culture is people. And, going forward, this entails rethinking recruitment at all levels, a fraction of faculty and students who have non-traditional experiences, who defy preconceptions about disciplinarity. These people can have a disproportionate effect on the culture of a place.

A recommendation is to hire faculty, but also students, with non-monolithic educations. There used to be a time when the majority of people teaching in engineering had all degrees in engineering, chemical engineering faculty hired people with chemical engineering degrees, and so on. When everybody who with a Ph.D. in, say, biomedical engineering, had a B.S. degree in biomedical engineering. This is starting to change. Now we can see faculty members in Computer Science whose first degree is in philosophy and jazz composition, and joint appointments between Mechanical Engineering and Neurobiology are common rather than rare. Perhaps art, literature or music portfolios become part of the science and engineering undergraduate application processes. Graduate recruiting is more problematic. Processes are decentralized, department by department. But there is an eagerness on part of a number of Ph.D. students for programs that echo the experience of undergraduates.

But fundamentally we need new models of funding for graduate work that allow for flexibility and exploration. This is an opportunity for agencies but even more so for foundations, to imagine prestigious fellowships for the top kind of students that foster science and art connectivity. The Packard Foundation, for example, gathers all Packard fellowship recipients to expose of recipients to the array of areas supported by the foundation. But all areas, as broad as they are, lie wholly in science and engineering science. We need to go much broader.

We should exploit the desire of people in seemingly dissimilar intellectual spaces who have an appetite to bridge domains. This is true across some students and also across some faculty. We need to foster programs that put artists and engineers, humanists and scientists together in the same spaces—both real and intellectual spaces. These programs need not be courses. For example, promoting cross-disciplinary residencies for faculty members who can spend a term working near to those in a discipline across the divide. Thus, for example, a historian might spend a term in the physics department; having a humanist/artist be a resident in engineering; have a scientist lead discussions in, say, Science and Human Culture. We have experimented with artists in residence and we have currently a program in place between the Block Art Museum and engineering.

The common denominator is that underlying systems need to change to make these connections inevitable. Courses, residencies, and what kinds of people we bring in; these are all components of an integrated living system which, if successful, becomes a new culture where connections are the norm rather than the exception.

The next Poincaré-Duchamp pair collaboration may end up transforming entire fields; the next Brunelleschi could look at materials in architecture in a whole new way and design buildings that adapt to the environment and capture CO2 and do things we cannot imagine, and the next the Galileo could use art insights to understand the far reaches of the universe.

Discover the world of nexus thinking

In this provocative and visually striking book, Julio Mario Ottino and Bruce Mau offer a guide for navigating the intersections of art, technology, and science.