Ruminating on Art and Science

(Citation: Barusch, Amanda S. (2011) ‘Ruminating on Art and Science’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 54: 3, 243 — 245.)

In February 2011, Utah’s poet laureate, Katharine Coles, gave a reading of poems about Antarctica.1 They were sublime. One of her final comments at the reading challenged the notion that art and science are fundamentally different. Coles said, “Poets look for mystery and search from there, then find another mystery, and search from there.” This sounds a lot like what social scientists do—only we don’t call it “mystery.” We use more ponderous terms, like “research question” or “hypothesis.”

We’ve all enjoyed the solace that comes with contemplation of great art. But, as Susanne Langer argues, art is not just about solace or comfort. It’s not “a luxury product of civilization, a cultural frill, a piece of social veneer” (1966, p. 5). For Langer, art is “the practice of creating perceptible forms” that express the human experience (p. 6). Perhaps self-expression is a fundamental need, but art does more than that. It refines our emotional sensibilities and strengthens our capacity for empathy. Art delivers experiences beyond what life would otherwise serve up and in the process we become more—more aware, more human, more alert, more complex.

Like science, art may also contribute to the pursuit of truth. In their look at “Art in Science,” Eisner and Powell (2002) suggest that “artistic modes of thought and aesthetic forms of experience perform an important function in doing scientific research” (p. 134). These Stanford educators interviewed 30 fellows at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences about the role of artistry in the practice of science. Respondents used imagery and musical analogies to describe the development of research ideas, and suggested that writing up research called for a dramatic structure and involved a certain amount of improvisation. Several referred to an article’s “story.”

Eisner and Powell emphasized the role of imagination and visualization, somatic knowledge, and empathy in the scientific process, suggesting that these represent artistic modes of thought. They described an aesthetic in scientists’ descriptions of the places where they worked and the people who influenced them. In essence, these authors concluded that scientists behave artistically. In a similar vein, Chris Rust (2007) and others have noted that art can inspire science.

But Coles suggested a deeper connection between art and science. Read more . . .

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