Another art attack?

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
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The Independent Culture
I appear to have sinned, or at least transgressed some forbidden boundary. The editor of the renowned medical journal Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, is so concerned about my health that he has even suggested that I am mad. And I have raised to quite unhealthy levels the blood pressure of a colleague who normally is sympathetic to my scientific ideas. What have I done?

Picasso and Damien Hirst, forgive me, but I have had the intemperance to criticise something in the art world. I have spoken about the arty- babble of some of the writings about art. I was unaware of the strength of artism which insists that art is the only true route to understanding and is beyond reproach. I have no regrets and I do not apologise. So now let me try to clarify some of the differences I see between the arts and the sciences.

There is a widespread view that creativity in the arts and sciences have much in common - Jacob Bronowski has written that the act of creation is the "same act in original science and original art." I, by contrast, think this is a romantic delusion because the differences are so great. Artists quite rightly would like to be thought of as similar to scientists and the same applies to scientists with respect to the arts. How cosy and comfortable for all of them. Of course, there are similarities in all creative acts but I have never heard artists or scientists claim that their creativity was just like that of creative accountants or businessmen or tennis players.

Unlike the arts, science is ultimately an anonymous enterprise, for scientists contribute to a common body of understanding, and individual contributions, with rare and famous exceptions, simply disappear. A measure of a good scientific paper is how many other papers it makes irrelevant. Given a community of creative scientists, then, sooner or later everything we now know would have been discovered. Science is about progress, art about change. Science now is better than that of Galileo, but our art is only different from that of Leonardo.

In the arts it is the original creation that is all important. The artist's work is not assimilated into a larger body, and its essence is its individuality. Artistic works may have an emotional content that is completely missing in scientific understanding. They also express the personal views and feelings of the artist while scientific ideas are, in the end, free of any emotions that the scientists may have had.

Art has contributed little to science, but science has had an enormous impact on the visual arts. In Martin Kemp's beautiful and scholarly book The Science of Art (Yale) he shows the importance of science in the efforts to imitate nature, and thus develop perspective. Scientific theories about colours also influenced many artists. Naturalistic paintings, he rightly points out, present us with a model of the world. Art does not explain, but broadens, our experience, both intellectual and emotional. We should stop pretending that art and science are similar, and rejoice in the different ways they enrich our culture and the ways that they can interact with each other.

Dr Horton thinks that the value of science lies not in its ability to explain, but its "true worth is in the beauty of its discovery." Science can often, but not always, be beautiful. The chemical structure of cholesterol is not particularly beautiful but it is right, and is the elliptical motion of the planets more beautiful than circular motion? The history of science shows that beautiful ideas lose their lustre when they turn out to be wrong. If science is only about beauty, as Horton claims, are all the efforts of those who try to provide a scientific basis for medicine nothing more than an artistic exercise? Should contributors to the Lancet abandon attempts at explanation? The doctor should think about curing himself, though I regret it is probably too late. He is suffering from a terminal case of artism.

! Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London

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