Art Works Blog

The Imagine Engine! or Art and Science—a True Story

“Signals,” a collaboration between Casey Reas and Ben Fry, depicts an image where each graphical cluster represents signals between networked proteins in a cancer cell as they change over time.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious—the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." --- Albert Einstein

The fundamental emotion described by Einstein above has been felt by artists and scientists across the eons. Increasingly, artists and scientists are eager to explore creative practices emerging at the intersection of their two fields. Some are motivated by how these ties can spur vibrant new economies for the 21st century. Others are interested in how they may foster creativity in our schools and in more informal settings. Still others share the same motive that likely drove the ‘seeker’ who turned the bone of a vulture into a musical instrument 40,000 years ago; a mysterious quest for beauty and meaning.

Terms like “art/science hybridity.” “inter-disciplinary,” “trans-disciplinary,” and even “anti-disciplinary” have emerged to describe new and fertile terrain that exists outside the confines of our traditional silos. The platforms for these new modes of investigation and expression range from theaters and museums and other traditional performance spaces to research labs, personal computers, health facilities, public squares, hacker spaces, Processing software, maker-faires, and cyberspace.

The “transformative impact of art” is a challenge to define, and tricky to prove. Recent neuro-scientific advances by Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel and others have shown that the brain constantly re-wires itself based on how we experience the world in our daily lives. It’s intriguing to think how we may one day (perhaps soon!) be able to build on this work to solve the mystery of what happens at the molecular level when our brain is “on art.” We sense that it enhances our awareness of ourselves, each other, and the world. In profound examples, it radically alters the perceptions of the person experiencing it, infusing them with new insight and understanding. Great moments of scientific discovery can produce similar eurekas. Artists and scientists both chase the exhilaration of  “knowing” something new and important. And the urge to share this new knowledge with others is strong.

The paths that artists and scientists take on their quests for truth can seem unrelated at the surface. The scientific method is, by definition, objective. Here, truth is typically pursued by designing experimental studies that test a hypothesis. The hypothesis must be proven to be repeatable before it’s accepted. Artistic method and evaluation can tend to seem driven more by intuition. Artistic truth is largely pursued via the creation of an art object, which may go through a series of drafts or revisions. Typically, when the object is finished, it’s time to move on. The work may be reviewed by others who will attempt subjectively to evaluate its merit, but John Lennon and his critics were not compelled to keep writing and recording “Imagine” over and over again to prove that it was true.

But at their core, artists and scientists are not so different from one another. Both endeavor to solve our greatest mysteries through the power of imagination. The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill described his work as an effort to explain the mysterious forces behind life that shape human destiny. I suspect Einstein could relate.

At their intersection, artists and scientists can borrow freely from each other’s methods and practices and share insights with each other that they might be unable to find on their own. The National Endowment for the Arts is eager to support this type of exchange through all of our existing mechanisms and disciplines. All this week, the Art Works blog will feature posts by distinguished guests who have been actively engaged in promoting art/science collaborations.

People interested in learning more about how the NEA can support art/science projects in the future are encouraged to join our art/science mailing list by emailing us at artandscience@arts.gov. We would be happy to forward information related to our upcoming Art Works application deadline on August 9th. In the coming months we will also host a webinar highlighting NEA’s funding opportunities and application process to provide further information on how art/science projects can be supported across all agency disciplines via our existing agency funding programs and mechanisms. We hope you’ll join us for these conversations.

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