Cajal’s Revenge, 2007
I think that lay audiences approach scientific art differently – perhaps more credulously – than they do other forms of art, simply because lay audiences feel insecure and uncertain about basic science. Audiences may have so much respect for science, that they extend respect reflexively when science appears in other contexts – like art or entertainment. Anyone who’s had to field the incredulous question “can they really do that?” from friends or family after an especially inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster knows exactly what I mean!
So: when artists specifically represent their work as scientific, or informed by science, or based on science, do they then have a certain responsibility to be, well, scientific? Or is that simply not part of the artist’s role? (more)
In Part Two, we focused on the messiness of data, and how even the collection of experimental data is inevitably an act of interpretation:
It’s not enough to collect a data set; it must be filtered for noise, analyzed, interpreted, and ultimately converted to a representation that viewers can understand. At every step, choices are made. At every step, the technology used by the scientist leaves its imprint. The final product of this process is idiosyncratic, not inevitable. . . .Scientific figures, like art, are interpretations of reality.
Artists may take more license than scientists – much of the time, at least – but even something as dispassionate as an X-ray or photograph distorts reality in certain ways. Our eyes and ears are far from objective; our brains and memories even less so. Pushing past our biases, biological limitations, and technological limitations so we can study what is actually there (whatever that means!) can be the hardest part of science. (more)
The point of these posts is that when you try to fold art and science together, you end up facing certain difficulties. When you try to figure out where those difficulties come from – how exactly artistic interpretation and scientific interpretation diverge, and what that means for scientific visualization – you can pinpoint some interesting aspects of both disciplines.
For this post, I’d like to ask about the audience – what role does the audience play in the artistic endeavor? More specifically, can scientific art ever be equally effective for both a layperson and a scientist? A work of art that manipulates the visual vocabulary of scientific expertise – whether physics, math, or anatomy – must almost always be experienced in a profoundly different way by an expert in those fields, as opposed to a nonspecialist. The expert brings a lot of baggage (esoteric background knowledge) to the gallery. But is that baggage a hindrance or a help to the artistic experience?
At some point in high school or college, you were probably assigned T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s one of my favorite poems, but students often complain that unpacking Eliot’s collage of literary fragments requires an unreasonably broad knowledge of Western literature and culture. Literature always requires some preparation from its audience. You have to be able to read the language. You should be somewhat familiar with the author’s culture. If you really want to get into the weeds, it helps to have read the author’s major artistic influences. The Waste Land pushes these prerequisites toward the limit; while you don’t have to recognize all Eliot’s references, the more you know, the more appreciation you have for his work. This is generally true of art – or at least I always thought so!
Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder if art inspired by science may be constrained in the opposite direction: that a certain scientific naivete in the viewer is expected, and too much knowledge may actually diminish the process of appreciating the art. Let me elaborate.
A few years ago, I visited a physics-inspired show with a fellow scientist. She hated it – specifically, she was disgusted that the equations scrawled all over a large canvas didn’t balance! Aesthetically, as lines and curves, the equations were very pleasing (Hogarth would have approved). They may even have been more graceful and attractive than the balanced equations. But the equations’ incoherence was a fatal dissonance for my friend. She was used to looking for beauty and meaning in the sense of the equation, not just its forms.
Personally, I cared more about the aesthetics of the artwork than the sense of the equations. But then I’m not a mathematician – and more generally, I often find myself relaxing my expectations of scientific art. I make excuses for it, like “perhaps this is more exciting/interesting/attractive to someone unfamiliar with genetics/anatomy/molecular biology!” or “Wow, this is probably a great way to introduce the concept to a layperson!” or even “Wow, this is a really good anatomical illustration for someone who has never had anatomy!” The more I find myself having this (vaguely patronizing) inner dialogue, the more I want to step back and ask this question: shouldn’t good scientific art work for scientists as well as nonscientists?
Golgi’s Door, 2007
Let’s return to the paintings that inspired this post, by artist Katherine Sherwood. When I saw her work for the first time, I instantly recognized the bold, semi-abstract shapes as neurons – specifically, illustrations of Golgi-stained neurons by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. (note the titles of the work, which pay homage to Cajal and Golgi). I liked the paintings, but I also grumbled to myself, yet more trendy art inspired by vintage anatomy. (All of that took about half a second.)
Camara lucida drawing of a Purkinje cell in the cat cerebellar cortex
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
Gray’s Anatomy, Lea & Febiger, 1917
My reaction, though, was hardly the reaction an “average viewer” would have. Critic Georgina Kleege (who is not a biologist) describes her own response to Sherwood’s paintings quite differently:
For me, the brains in Sherwood’s paintings are not always so readily apparent. And even when someone points them out to me, they sometimes look like something else – an ear, maybe a lung, a. . . what is that, a kidney? Forms recur. Patterns repeat. There are echoes of other organs and vessels here, blood vessels, intestines, fallopian tubes, branching nerve fibers, which also resemble the roots of plants, some sort of seaweed. Corals, brain corals, cauliflowers. For some there is a shock when what seems to be pure abstraction turns out to represent or recreate these bodily forms.
I appreciate what Kleege is saying here. Visual echoes are part of what makes life pleasurable for me – when I see a red coral, I also see a neuron (and a tree, and a circulatory system); when I see a split cauliflower, I see the form of a cerebellum. The problem is, while this process of associating one biological form with another is enjoyable, it’s also very familiar to me, almost routine. I can’t repeat the initial shock and surprise I first felt when I initially recognized the kinship of those natural forms. (I talked a little about the “a-ha” moment of recognition in my SEED piece on Christopher Reiger’s Synesthesia #1 earlier this year). I suppose recognizing the neurons in Sherwood’s paintings did give me certain elitist pleasure, a sort of fanboy smugness about recognizing references that would be opaque or obscure to most. But I don’t need art to feel that way – I just need xkcd!
Anyway, because the shapes Sherwood uses in her paintings, the outlines of neurons, are second nature to me, I wound up standing in the gallery thinking not about the painting before me, but about Sherwood’s influences and sources: Golgi, Cajal, and the Neuron Doctrine. The Golgi of “Golgi’s Door” is Camillo Golgi, a prominent 19th century scientist best known as the namesake of the cellular organelle called the Golgi apparatus. During Golgi’s time, neurons were thought to be fibers of a continuous reticular network; there was no way to determine otherwise, because it was impossible to dissect a single neuron out of the entangled mass that comprised the brain, and the gaps between neuronsa were far too small for a light microscope to reveal. But Golgi’s method of staining cells, invented in 1873, offered anatomists like Santiago Ramon y Cajal a way to isolate individual neurons visually and delineate their structure. Cajal’s work provided key support for the Neuron Doctrine – the idea that individual neurons were discrete units.
Here is one of Cajal’s drawings next to a Golgi-stained specimen of a similar neuron:
(I)Pyramidal neuron from postcentral gyrus, 1899
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
(II) Photomicrograph of a Golgi preparation of postcentral gyrus, from the collection of Santiago Ramon y Cajal
from DeFelipe and Jones, Cajal on the Cerebral Cortex, 1988
source: Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Javier DeFelipe, MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1998
Normally, a slice of brain tissue is so tangled with neurons, isolating just one is like trying to trace the branches of a single tree in a forest. The beauty and utility of Golgi’s method is that it selectively stains only a few random neurons. The yellowed slice of brain on the right contains thousands of unstained neurons, which remain invisible, while the blackened neuron leaps to the visual foreground with all its twists and forks. In his autobiography, Cajal marveled at “the wonderful revelatory powers of the chrome-silver reaction.” Executing this stain in the histology lab is like unwrapping a gift – you never know what graceful branching pattern will appear, nor how many neurons will be stained.
The example above shows how faithfully Cajal’s drawings followed his Golgi-stained specimens. Yet the drawings were viewed with skepticism, partly because they were aesthetically beautiful (were they art or science?) and partly because they supported the controversial Neuron Doctrine. Nevertheless, in 1906, Cajal and Golgi shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine – Golgi, ironically, still clinging to the reticular model of neurons that Cajal’s work had discredited.
The Golgi stain’s crucial value to neurobiology is its ability to simplify the brain just enough to make its complexity accessible. A good scientific artist is like Cajal working with Golgi’s stain: the artist plucks one exquisite concept out of a vast morass of jargon and esoteric knowledge, making it visible to non-scientists. To achieve this clarity, the artist must distill a morass of literature and/or data, isolate some key points, and juxtapose and translate them for the viewer. In this process of translation, complexity is lost. So while the simplified result can enlighten viewers by making hidden patterns obvious (as Golgi’s stain did for Cajal), it can also disappoint those who are familiar with the depth and detail of the original – those who know there are thousands of neurons in the brain slice, not just one. (And then there are those like Golgi, so deeply committed to their own worldview that they can’t see anything else.)
When I read The Waste Land, my familiarity with (some of) Eliot’s references in their original context does not, as far as I can tell, diminish the experience of the art – it enhances it, adds another layer to its complexity. Yet I feel that my knowledge of Cajal, Golgi, and the neuron doctrine does not add to Sherwood’s work in the same way. It’s actually a distraction. The paintings reminded me how interesting Cajal is, at which point I went on the internet and started browsing Cajal’s drawings – not Sherwood’s paintings. My attention shifted completely from Sherwood’s artwork to the scientific illustrations it referenced. That’s not the same as my experience of The Waste Land, in which my attention stays on the poem, not its references. And although one could argue that the painting succeeded in getting me thinking about science, I hardly think that was Sherwood’s artistic intent – that I look at her paintings for less than a minute and then go start reading anatomy textbooks. That’s certainly not the effect the paintings had on Georgiana Kleege!
While Kleege enjoys the mystery and ambiguity of the branching forms in Sherwood’s paintings, finding them strange and portentous, I can recognize Cajal’s Purkinje cell a hundred feet away. To me, the entire process of wondering and examining and searching for a context for this mysterious shape is bypassed. I don’t get to meander along the scenic route, so to speak. And that’s too bad, because I don’t get to experience the exploratory process that Sherwood may have intended. Did my knowledge of neuroanatomy somehow disqualify me from enjoying the same process of appreciation and discovery as Kleege? Was a relevant scientific background like mine not a help, but a distracting hindrance?
Hush Hush, 2006
To make things even more complicated, let’s pose a related question: should scientific art be required to to stand on its own merits, outside the scientific/social dialogue it invokes? Consider Christy Rupp’s sculptures of extinct birds. In his perceptive critique, Christopher Reiger asks whether the art is “wholly successful,” and decides perhaps not, except in conjunction with the scientific issues that inspired it:
Her work may be best delivered (and absorbed) in conjunction with the ideas that compel her; I see nothing wrong with that approach. I do wish, however, that there were more outlets for such alliance.
Is artwork which serves mainly to illustrate and provoke a dialogue about scientific issues fully successful as art? If it is less interesting or moving or dynamic when removed from its scientific context – if it needs that background to be successful – is that okay?
The hard thing about this question is that it doesn’t just apply to scientific context. There are all kinds of context that add value and meaning to art – personal history may be the best example, although it leads to counterfactuals best suited for happy hour small talk (Would Van Gogh be Van Gogh if he hadn’t cut his ear off? What if Frida Kahlo had never been in that bus accident?)
Katherine Sherwood suffered a stroke ten years ago. Does knowing that change your appreciation of the artworks in this post, or not? Are her canvases more (or less) successful with the framing knowledge that, in addition to Cajal’s drawings, she works with images taken of her own damaged brain? Understanding an artist’s mental state or personal history is certainly relevant to appreciation of the art, but in this case, more so because the artist is using her medical history as raw material. Georgina Kleege again:
At what point do I talk about Katherine Sherwood’s disability? . . . After the stroke she had to learn to walk, talk, and paint all over again. She now lays her canvases flat on a work table and paints with her left hand. She circles the canvases seated on an old, wheeled office chair. In press accounts of her work, Sherwood’s stroke is often represented as a fortuitous mishap. With the censoring functions of her left brain switched off, her painting became more fluid, her process more purely intuitive. In this interpretation of Sherwood’s stroke there seems to be a longing for some sort of divine intervention granting compensatory powers for lost mobility. But Sherwood insists that her work has not really changed that much.
Media accounts of Sherwood’s process emphasize her stroke and recovery, as if they define her art, probably because it’s infinitely easier to write about art from a human interest perspective. Her personal story is a way to approach the scientific content of her work, to render it universally accessible (note that in telling the story, the press disagree with Sherwood herself about how her work has “changed”. Let nothing interfere with a good human interest story!) But does knowing Sherwood’s personal history make her artwork better? Does having a background in anatomy make her artwork worse? Is it significant that very few members of the audience will be neuroanatomists, but most will have friends or relatives who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries? How much of our personal knowledge-baggage should we expect artists to anticipate, foresee, and engage with their work?
Katherine Sherwood’s paintings are aesthetically lovely, intellectually intriguing, and highly personal. They are all those things at once, and they work on multiple levels for multiple people. The fact that I have a different experience of them than a nonscientist doesn’t mean they are unsuccessful. But I do wonder whether it is possible to make an artwork that uses elements of science and is equally powerful for both scientists and nonscientists.
What do you think? Any examples?