By Allison Norman
What is the boundary between art and science in the current era, if there is one at all? And what does this mean for the contemporary artist?
“Art is the Tree of Life; Science is the Tree of Death” —William Blake
“When machines have come, art has fled”—Paul Gauguin
Art and science are generally viewed as opposing disciplines, and for good reason. Art is inherently subjective, emotive, and is usually somewhat related to culture, whereas science is objective, empirical, and must be universally valid in order to be of any value. Beauty, of course, is traditionally seen as residing exclusively in the realm of art; a person is said to be “as pretty as a picture,” while the scientific genius is popularly viewed as inept in matters of style and aesthetics, with unkempt hair and rumpled attire. And yet, beauty today is closely tied to science: cosmetic plastic surgery is common, architects design with function rather than form in mind, fashion designers defy anatomy, and artwork borrows from technology. The boundary between art and technology is rapidly blurring as technical proficiency becomes a requisite for many contemporary aesthetic techniques. This trend signals the demise of art for critic Donald Kuspit, who writes that, “Clearly, art, aesthetic contemplation, beauty, eternity, freedom are experientially and conceptually passé in a world of relative values and technological necessity” (158). While Kuspit is certainly correct that art has lost much of its former cultural prominence, I contend that it is the traditional role of the artist which has become passé, not art itself. On the contrary, an examination of the history of the interaction between art and science reveals that art evolves as our conception of beauty is redefined by technology.
“In order to achieve a perfect beauty in a naturally imperfect world, humans must turn to technology.”
What, then, is the basis for human concern with beauty? As far as current research can tell, human physical beauty seems to be based in biological evolution. Nancy Etcoff, a prominent psychologist and beauty researcher at Harvard Medical School, writes that, “We love to look at smooth skin, thick shiny hair, curved waists, and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals…had more reproductive success” (24). Physical appearance matters to humans primarily because it provides information on the health and virility of a potential mate, for the purposes of sexual reproduction. Over eons of mate selection, these primordial cues for suitable potential mates eventually developed into instinct, and finally into consciously recognized aesthetic preferences—the birth of beauty.
Artists throughout history have accentuated these physical characteristics in order to portray an “ideal beauty” which they thought various beautiful individuals gestured towards. Titian’s iconic Venus of Urbino (fig. 1), painted in 1538, is a rendering of a nude woman—representing the Roman goddess of love—who displays several standard features of beauty: smooth, even-toned skin, an abundance of hair on the head, round hips, and facial symmetry. As a goddess symbol, the image is meant to convey perfection, and the perfection here is entirely natural; no artificiality is portrayed in the image. And yet, artificiality is what is necessary to translate the perfection of the canvas into a real-life semblance of perfection. Etcoff writes that, “The reason we have a universal passion for adornment, the reason that photos are doctored and painted representations idealized, is that we long to be not only works of nature but works of art” (14). In order to achieve a perfect beauty in a naturally imperfect world, humans must turn to technology.
This is anything but a new development. In the Renaissance, artists also began attempting to introduce mathematics and science into concepts of beauty by defining the proportions of the ideal human and using these proportions to render beautiful people. In fact, Renaissance artists conceptually hacked the human form into a series of related segments. Titian’s contemporary, Leonardo Da Vinci, demonstrated this early fusion of math and art in his famous illustration of the Vitruvian Man (fig. 2) in 1521. Da Vinci was inspired by the principles used by Vitruvius, an ancient architect who studied human proportion and used it as a basis for designing a basilica1. Da Vinci incorporated Vitruvius’ proportions into a drawing of a man within a circle and a square, shapes which symbolized perfection. This illustration was widely used as a guide by Renaissance artists, but recent studies have found that the postulated proportions may not be especially beautiful in reality (Etcoff, 141). According to Etcoff, “Measurement systems have failed to turn up a beauty formula,” and computer-constructed images of “ideally proportioned” faces have not actually been judged in studies to be more beautiful than non-ideal faces (14). The Vitruvian Man remains, however, the seminal image of the fusion of art and science in creating the beautiful. It is the precedent for the subsequent interaction of art and science which continues in the present day.
“…demands for a return to the past fail to acknowledge the evolutionary nature of art and beauty.”
Given that art and science have a historical relationship, I return to Kuspit for an assessment of how that relationship has manifested itself in the present age. Kuspit suggests that the process of discovery provoked by a good work of art is no longer valuable to most people. He believes that the public wants immediate gratification, and it is true that technology provides this much more effectively than art. Kuspit refers to people today as “ingenious, hyperactive corpses” and “robot-like corpses” (159). The images of both extreme activity and of death suggest a kind of physical vitality coupled with an intellectual death, the end of reflection and curiosity. He views modern humans as being over-stimulated yet empty, like so many accelerated particles annihilating themselves in bursts of light on a screen. He continues, stating that “technology has come to replace theory, social criticism, and the unconscious” (105), and that art has become the “fiefdom of technology,” (105) an accessory that can be added to the force that controls our lives. To Kuspit, this is the era not of the portrait-master or the poet, but of the industrial, graphic, or product designer, epitomized for him by the bright, mass-produced images of Andy Warhol: “Warhol…symbolizes the primacy and power of the machine on modern society” (163). He finally contends that “there are no uniquely cultural objects” today(175).
This is a bleak portrait indeed, not merely of art but of humanity. The solution proposed in the postscript of Kuspit’s The End of Art is a return to the sanctuary of the artist’s studio and a reexamination of the world’s Titians. Kuspit’s demeaning stance toward technology and contemporary art—he calls it “postart”—and demands for a return to the past fail to acknowledge the evolutionary nature of art and beauty. When Kuspit speaks of “’beauty,” he speaks of traditional Renaissance ideas of beauty, a beauty unblemished by science or current social or environmental realities. He even claims that ugliness “has reached a kind of crescendo in modernity” (185). Kuspit’s equation of beauty with old art and ugliness with new art certainly facilitates the defense of his philosophical position, but it does not account for the fact that our conceptions of beauty were not only originally formed by external factors—the need to reproduce—but have since evolved to meet the changing external factors presented by technology. Three aesthetic/artistic areas in which the changing nature of beauty is especially important today are plastic surgery, sustainable architecture, and fashion design.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons posted on its website that in the year 2004 alone, there were 9.2 million cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States2. The advent of plastic surgery radically redefined what it means for a human to be beautiful, not only by exaggerating the natural but by creating new standards for human beauty. The growing accessibility and social acceptance of plastic surgery means that people are no longer forced to live with unattractive features, or anything less than beauty, for that matter. In keeping with basic evolutionary cues, breasts are enhanced, noses are straightened, wrinkles are smoothed, waist fat is removed, and hair is restored. Beyond these basics, social and competitive concerns enter the picture: ethnicities are denied by changing eye and cheek structure, breasts and lips are inflated to cartoonish proportions, and legs are artificially extended. Add cosmetics, hair color, and colored contact lenses, and a person can be whoever he or she wants to be, regardless of genetic makeup. This means that we can engineer our physical identities and create new norms, trends, and ideals outside of what is naturally possible. Guterl and Hastings write that “Back in the days when we expressed our beauty preferences in our choice of mates, the course of human beauty was determined by natural selection. With cosmetic surgery, there’s no need to wait until the next generation to fiddle with the beauty equation.” While this may pose a few problems from the biological standpoint—there is no longer any reason why unattractive genes should be subject to natural selection, so it is possible we might all begin life as uglier people one day—it is tremendously liberating to the individual deemed ugly or defective. Where does art come into this? I turn to the surgeon as an artist-figure. The surgeon is empowered by technology to recreate the human body according to the concept of beauty held by its owner; he steps outside the bounds of empirical realities, of genes, and into the subjective realm of beauty. Beauty is dependent upon technology in the case of plastic surgery, but the technology must be applied artfully, since it has already been shown that mere calculations do not equal beauty. Without both art and technology, plastic surgery would bring no beauty at all to humanity, much less a vast array of new possibilities for human beauty.
As human beauty becomes a fusion of natural and artificial elements, it follows logically that our garments do too. A Metropolis magazine article by Mireille Hyde displays nine designs that exhibit radical artificiality, some inside and some outside. Four designs, in particular, interest me. There is a red dress made of a single zipper (Fig. 3), whose form obviously follows a desire for compact portability, but which nonetheless retains the classic female hourglass shape. There is a black, trashbag-like creation of torn, stretched polyurethane (Fig. 4) which is wrapped sumptuously around the wearer’s body like a toga. There is a beige hourglass shaped dress (Fig. 5) that stands by itself and is “virtually engineered inside, with millinery wire and interfacing” so that it has a skeleton of its own, eliminating the need for a perfect human physique. Finally, there is a black three-tiered cape-like dress (Fig. 6) that ignores the form and biological sex-cues of the wearer’s body, representing a transition to concepts of beauty that are independent from reproductive necessity. Hyde writes that, “certain extreme and wonderful designs can exist independently as works of art…certain pieces from avant-garde designers and haute couture houses are really feats of engineering, craft, and technology.” This parallel structure creates an equation of art and technology in the discussion of contemporary fashion design. Although designs that are too radical may result in the divorce of the garment from the body it was intended to complement, Hyde is suggesting that it is the technical nature of the dresses which creates the artistic effect. These designs represent the haute-couture fashion designer’s evolution into something like a combination of a sculptor and a civil engineer. Again, as with the plastic surgeon, the combination of artist and scientist within a single discipline and individual create an opportunity for entirely new definitions of beauty. These dresses are art-objects beyond doubt, yet their art lies in the creative manipulation of technology.
“Form Follows Function” is a familiar tenet of Bauhaus design. In the case of sustainable architecture, however, it would be just as valid to say that “Function Gives Form Meaning.” The modern attitude that beauty derives from meeting required tasks in a pleasing way is clear in the case of sustainable architecture. Sustainability in architecture is the concept that one can achieve a design that inflicts minimal environmental damage by carefully selecting the forms, materials, and construction techniques that are most energy-efficient, economically available, and culturally acceptable. Often, a sustainable design turns out to be a more technologically sophisticated version of a local traditional architectural form. What this usually means is that the designer is creating a dialogue between the old and the new, fusing technology with typology in order to address an environmental problem in a socially acceptable way. It is important to keep cultural aesthetics in mind, because if a structure is not used, it is not sustainable; it is a waste of resources. According to James Steele, architect Bénédicte Dousset recommends in her doctoral thesis that the sustainable architect or urban designer must “Mitigate the urban heat-island effect by selecting the distribution of vegetation, the layout of city blocks, building size and clustering, and properties of surface materials” (48). This approach could be considered to leave minimal opportunity for the architect to create with beauty in mind if it were not for the cultural element. Even though almost every aspect of the design is informed by function, without these conditions there would be no reason to build a building at all. The function of the building is the building’s context; within that context the architect must negotiate between his or her idea of beauty and the local population’s idea of beauty. Thus the sustainable architect becomes both a technical and a creative problem-solver who must address multiple conceptions of beauty in the same practical design.
Kuspit’s definition of beauty is too narrow to include human cosmetic surgery, architecture, and fashion design, all of which are areas of overlap between art and science, and he maintains that his traditional outlook on beauty discredits recent artistic innovations involving technology. However, when faced with these clear examples of evolving definitions of beauty, coupled with an understanding of the history of the interaction between art and science, it is much more likely that it is Kuspit and his outdated concept of beauty that are somewhat discredited. It is not that Kuspit is wrong to revere the old masters; certainly Titian’s work is beautiful. Kuspit is wrong to proclaim the death of art at the hands of technology, when, in actuality, art and science share a long history of creative vitality, birthing new ideas and new definitions of beauty in each age of humanity. In fact, theirs is a partnership that has only recently begun to mature.
What does all of this mean? If art is subject to an ongoing evolution corresponding to human embrace of technology, then it is logical to suppose that as our world becomes more wired, art will eventually merge completely with science. As both art and humans themselves become increasingly technological entities, art may cease to be a distinct field and instead become blended with production and science, as is already seen in the case of industrial and product design and even in cinema to some extent as computer animation, graphics, and editing become de rigueur. As art becomes mixed with science and technological aptitude becomes a requisite for accessing aesthetic tools, the “artist” in Kuspit’s traditional sense might possibly cease to exist as a distinct career or identity. However, art stands to reach a level of relevance it has not enjoyed for a long time, if ever. As for beauty, it will continue to evolve conceptually as humans do, endowing life with meaning and aspiration.