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Disturbing The Comfortable: The Oneness of Art and Science

“Man is not unique because he does science, and he is not unique because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.” -Jacob Bronowski, Mathematician and Poet

A metal tray, a 10-blade, a pair of forceps, the rhythmic beat of a heart monitor, several statuesque hands. A man enthralled in his pencil, fingers scratching rapidly, scoring stark lead figures into a sheet of paper. This is the predominant perception of science, dictated by exactitude and tedious computing. What many fail to consider today about science and mathematics are their true governors: spontaneity, creativity, and fearless innovation. Science and art both have the capability to define movements, inspire divergence from the norm, comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

For the preponderance, science and art are two entities juxtaposed, never in correlation, let alone coincidence. However, this could not be further from the truth: physics, medicine, calculus: these are arts, these are fluctuating and plasma-like lifeforms, constantly evolving. Science is alive, its future cannot be determined. The beauty of science is in the mystery: Take Maimonides, Benjamin Rush, Elizabeth Stern, Alexander Fleming. When these minds carved pathways of innovation into the history of medicine, they were only speculating an outcome, not prescribing one. It is in this spirit that science and art are so intertwined. The painter spatters flamboyant colours across a blank canvas, improvising and allowing their brush to be taken by their mind. While the piece created by this painter appears different than a table filled with thousands of slightly varying decimal points, both are art in their own right, both were conceived in solitude and transcribed to be delivered to the benighted.

The Fibonacci Sequence manifesting in the eye of a hurricane.

Art is defined as the creation of beautiful or significant things, the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. While upon hearing this definition one might not think immediately of Pythagoras or Euclid, there is something irrevocably, incontrovertibly beautiful in Fibonacci’s Sequence or Pascal’s Pyramid that demands attention. These theories define beauty. They reveal something, oftentimes obvious yet overlooked, within ourselves or the world around us.

Galileo’s phases of Venus, a convincing display of heliocentricity
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, commonly known as El Greco (1541–1614)

They are simple yet complex, they share insight and stimulate feelings, discussion, and progress. Since the beginning of human consciousness, the Earth was believed to be the center of the universe. Thus, when Galileo observed phases of Venus and presented his findings to the Church, his subversive theory of heliocentricity was immediately rejected. His peers couldn’t comprehend that the universe was imperfect, that it digressed from a determined striation, that there were craters and blemishes on the moon. The reality of his findings, while deemed acceptable years after his death, earned him a lifetime of adversity. The canvases of El Greco, a mid 15th century artist, share a similar story. Centuries before the artistic revolution gained momentum, El Greco began to create pieces indicative of the impressionist movement, which speaks more to an artist’s interpretation of a subject rather than the subject itself. Because the vast majority of artists at the time conformed to a gothic style defined by heavy religious influences, El Greco’s staunch modernism was perceived as sacrilegious and his work was quickly dubbed as blasphemy. Both artists utilized their art to cast tempestuous upsets into the placid waters of society, where everyone shied from divergence. These artists, with brushes and styles unique, allowed for the public to gain the intrepidity necessary to confront conformity.

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man accompanied by a self-portrait
The Astronomer — Johannes Vermeer

During the time of these great minds, art and science plaited naturally — Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomically correct paintings were groundbreaking for the artistic community and fueled the High Renaissance movement, but they were only able to be made because he studied anatomy and physiology so intensely. Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer of the Netherlands embodied his country’s inquisitive spirit with The Astronomer, which depicts a man in traditional Dutch scholarly robes entranced by a globe. The piece celebrates intellectual curiosity; it even depicts a globe, which represents a marriage of art and science in its own right, using delicate brushstrokes to illustrate geographical landmarks. By lauding an intellectual in lieu of an aristocrat, no small feat for a pre-Enlightenment artist, Vermeer uses his art to implore the public to continue to inquire about and explore the world around them.

So why, when there are more social issues than ever for science and art to tackle together, does our nation seems void of great philosophers? People are forgetting that these schools of thought must be taught and received together, with equal gravity. Ever since the 1970s, college students have been choosing ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ majors that would translate literally to a specific field. Those who choose less concrete subject matters, such as theater, art history, and literature, are excoriated for studying under what business-minded people might consider fruitless degrees.

This stereotypical concept of diametric opposition between art and science has evolved fairly recently due to strong emphasis on STEM subjects from as early as primary school. The prioritization of science and technology over the arts is a driving force within the economic infrastructure of nearly every school district, often due to state wide testing or other mandates. The push for STEM doesn’t end when a child leaves secondary school. Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has proposed rewarding state universities that cultivate a greater number of graduates with STEM-based majors with more state funding than one that produces, say, a profusion of fine art graduates. “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than french literature majors. There just will,” Bevin told reporters in January 2016. “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” (Beam) Bevin, and those likeminded, are playing a dangerous game. Not only is this nationwide art-shaming deterring students from turning their passion into a career, but causing an entire field to become devalued.

However, even with gross increase of STEM focused students, there seems to be a nationwide epidemic at large: a fear of maths and sciences. This anxiety, often based in feelings of ineptitude and doubtfulness, is cyclically perpetuated through negative communication between age groups, parental figures, and the media. “In North America, we are taught to fear math. We are told that math is the sport of geniuses… We can’t keep kids from learning advanced math simply because we’re afraid they will fail — doing so discourages them from ever succeeding.” The children who fall victim to this misconception of incapability often turn to the arts as a secondary career path. While the arts are as dignified a career as one rooted in the sciences, the danger of leading a life without a balanced knowledge base is as prevalent in this case as a mathematician with no education in the arts.

A world lacking either science or art is one left banal and austere, void of creativity and imagination. We must put a halt to this culture of debasing art and preaching the unattainability of science and math. Science cannot exist divorced from art; they feed off of one another’s energy in a conscious symbiotic relationship of abstraction and progression. Once we learn not only to accept, but to embrace the coexistence of art and science, our world will once again be filled with theorists and philosophers in lab coats and painter’s smocks: true artists.

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