Friday, October 05, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist, part 3

I've been arguing that there are important differences between scientific and artistic values. It is not that one activity is more or less valuable than the other. It is that they pursue different aims. The artist does not have to be embarrassed about not discovering the truth. Likewise, the scientist does not have to worry about revealing a new beauty.

But Zorthian's complaint to Feynman does suggest that beauty and truth may share a common ecology. At times, the dogged pursuit of truth will interfere with the pursuit of beauty. It may even produce something ugly. The image of the "mad scientist" or "evil genius" offers something of a model here. It is not that there is no truth in what they do; it is just that they have abandoned all other values. Likewise, we must beware of the artist whose work overwhelms us with its beauty, blinding us to truths that we would like to know.

Under the "cold gaze" of the scientist, in the glare of the laboratory's lights, the flower (or the woman) ceases to be beautiful and begins to express a truth. But, by a similar token, the artist's studio sets the object in a light that obscures the truth, at least long enough to reveal its beauty.

So, I guess I side with Zorthian after all. Science can "subtract" something from our experience of beautiful things. (And if Feynman thought about it for a moment he would admit this, since he knows that in order to see one aspect of a thing, we must shut out a great deal of other aspects.) But I add the equal and opposite warning for the artist: You may have access to an especially difficult (and especially rewarding) beauty. But by bringing it before us, you blind us to the truth.

Like all valuable pursuits, it's not easy. There are tough choices to make. Might I recommend reading Albert Camus' "Helen's Exile".

No comments: