Visual art leading research - it's not happening.

Can the production of and inspiration by visual art lead to new areas of scientific research?
It's not happening. At least not often, and not in any organized sense.



Anthropometry, 2009 © Glendon Mellow. Ink on latex gloves.

A couple of years ago while attending ScienceOnline09, I spoke to the group about my not-yet-fully-formed ideas on this matter. I said that visual art ("art", for the sake of brevity in this post) was largely parasitic on science.  It takes a lot of cues and inspiration from science, but seldom do sculpture, painting, drawing, collage or even photography give anything back.  

Some in the room were not having any of this: they cited the inspiration of film and movies, and of children's book illustrations as being catalytic to becoming interested in science in the first place.  Scientific illustration aside - and leaving aside the grand inspiration from film, which is not the type of visual art I am referring to- the field of science-art may contribute heavily to the cloud of inspiring the next generation of scientists, but it doesn't shine down, illuminating new areas of research. 

At the time, I put out a sort of open call to anyone who could think of specific examples of art leading to a new field of research.  

I've really only received one example, from paleontologist Andy Farke: 
In fact, it was art that led me down a very productive avenue of my own research. I had seen depiction after depiction of horned dinosaurs fighting each other. . .(a rendering by Bill Parsons sticks out in my mind, in particular). . .and this got me thinking. What evidence actually was there for such behavior? Could Triceratops even physically lock horns? I used scaled sculptures of Triceratops skulls (artwork in their own right) to test this idea. . .the results were published in Palaeontologia Electronica. This in turn has led to other projects (all ultimately inspired by those artistic restorations).  (Comment made here)

Since then, there have been other examples from literature, from film again, from science-fiction novels, but not visual art. And thanks to everyone who has provided these examples; it has people's minds ticking, and I appreciate that.  I so-o-o appreciate that.

I've briefly raised the issue at each ScienceOnline I've moderated a session at ('09, '10 and recently #scio11) and each time at least a few people tell me they can't let go of the idea. It's intriguing isn't it?  





But perhaps some of the fault is mine. You see, in my recent post for Scientific American's Guest Blog I criticized the idea underlying a symposium discussing "Art as a Way of Knowing".  I said that art is more a Way of Exploring. It doesn't provide new knowledge, only creates new, imaginative, metaphorical links between areas of knowledge.  And that really isn't the same as creating new knowledge, it's more a kind of visual noise, albeit a provocative, fun and challenging type of noise. 


I put wings on trilobites in my paintings. That isn't new knowledge, but it raises questions we can explore. Trilobites were aquatic arthropods that lived before wings.  Could they have evolved them? Does it recall the hoax of the Fiji Mermaid? If animals had a Creator, why are the forms only explainable through evolution? Bat wings on trilobites seem more Creator-ish.

Just because you can put two things together in a composition, doesn't mean you've created new knowledge, any more than saying "tension along the Afghanistan/Michigan border" has created new information in a sentence.


Trilobitlepidoptology, © Glendon Mellow 2008. Pencil on bristol.

Let me jump tracks for a moment.  I devour atheist blogs, and love reading about the tension between science, truth, atheism and religion.  And something that comes up a lot from both theists and atheist accommodationists is the idea that religions can provide us with special knowledge, different from that of science. Most atheists, myself include, decry this idea, it's kind of silly.  Any real knowledge found in religious scripture is either blindingly obvious from the human experience or else there by cultural artifact or accident.  

Yet so many religious sites (looks askance at BioLogos) would like to be able to claim to provide Knowledge as Important as that of science.

And so I have to ask:  am I guilty of doing the same thing?  In my quest to find and perhaps one day, create visual art that leads to new areas of scientific research, perhaps I am overestimating art as a stimulus tool. A stimulus tool able to pique working researchers to drop what they're doing and pursue a notion they had while browsing some science-art.

It may be that science-art will remain a curiosity, an homage, fanfic tributes on canvas. Contributing to lay people's curiosity is a noble thing, but I still harbour hopes that art inspired by science will one day rise to become a catalyst generator for research.  Maybe we artists don't try hard enough yet.

I could write my feelings about science-art's potential off as science-envy. Showing art is about hearing stories on what thoughts and feelings the art generates.  And hearing stories about the thoughts and feelings my art generates amongst scientists and science enthusiasts nurtures selfish noble hope that I'm somehow contributing.  

Slate fragments, © Glendon Mellow 2010.  Oil on slate.
But I want to find a way to contribute more than fragments of ideas, more than droplets to the science-inspiration cloud.


- - - - - - - - 


Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow