Aesthetics and the Two Cultures: Why Art and Science Should be Allowed to Go Their Separate Ways

Several times I have started and abandoned a book project with the title The Drunken Conversation of Science and Painting. The title was meant to conjure a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, and the drunkenness was to imply that the two sides have some infatuation with one another, which compels them to keep talking without really connecting or making too much sense. 

The book never materialized, mainly because interest in art-science collaborations (or "art-sci," or "sciart") continues to grow exponentially, and most participants are enthusiastic about the expressive potential of unusual communications between the fields.

This essay is an attempt to gather--and argue against--the strongest arguments in favor of the idea that art and science can generate a dialectic exchange. It includes discussions of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Leo Steinberg (who wrote an excellent essay on the subject), David Freedberg, Galileo, Escher, Picasso, C.P. Snow, linear perspective, the science in Seurat's Grande Jatte, Hans-Otto Peitgen, chaos theory, Zizek's "Looking Awry," Mark Tansey's engagement with fractals (this was the first chapter of The Drunken Conversation of Science and Painting), and the cognitive scientist Ellen Winner.

It was originally published in Rediscovering Aesthetics, edited by Tony O’Connor, Frances Halsall, and Julia Jansen (Columbia University Press). An earlier version appeared as “The Drunken Conversation of Chaos and Painting,” Meaning 12 (1992): 55–60; see further “Who Owns Images: Science or Art?” review of an MIT conference, “Image and Meaning,” June 2001, in Circa 97 (2001): 36–37; and the review of Picturing Science, Producing Art, edited by Caroline Jones and Peter Galison, in Isis 97 no. 9 (2000): 318–19.