Signs of Our Times: Art, Science and the Real–
Some Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light
Anyone who has evinced at least a casual interest in the visual arts, would have necessarily, at the outset, experienced certain amount of discomfiture at encountering the art of the modernist and postmodernist generation. In comparison with the western Classical and the Renaissance art products the twentieth century’s art output is not easily understood—in other words, their meaning is not freely comprehended without a certain amount of mental struggle. Pablo Picasso’s “Maids of Avignon,” or Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” or Jackson Pollock’s numbered Action Paintings, do not appear to please as effortlessly as a painting by Rembrandt Giotto or Leonardo. Even a most enthusiastic art lover would pause to reconsider before passing judgement on a work by the eccentric genius Andy Warhol or by the abstract expressionist Jasper Jones. Not to mention the innumerable inexplicable innovations of the post Avant Garde generation of artists in Europe and America. Very much like in the realm of music and poetry, the proper appreciation of the visual arts certainly calls for an expert initiation. And what is often tragically overlooked is that art necessarily calls for the inculcation of a visual culture, something that is qualitatively different from a verbal and auditory one. The reason why these artists created the things as they did and the manner in which they chose to express themselves, similarly runs deep roots in human history and psychology. To understand and appreciate modernist and postmodernist art per se, one has not only to seek for historical roots but also to engage in a creative dialogue with the evolution of ideas in other allied disciplines too.
Here one might be tempted to say that an apparently innocuous piece of canvas or board stretched on the wall marked with strange hieroglyphic and patterns of colours is not at all that simple as it appears to be , but bears the historical record of the enterprising human psyche. Painting and sculpture, over and above their commonly held aesthetic magnitude, do something more than please or beautify, but on the other hand demand something from the sahrdaya. As Leonard Shlain in his book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, (New York: William Morrow, 1991), argues, the western artist’s concern with space, time and light, in a mystical manner, anticipate and to a certain extent, explicate and valorize the intellectual advance of modern physicists. The parallels are what his exciting book sets out to demarcate and explain. And he does so with justifiable élan.
It is now more than a decade since Shlain’s book was issued. And yet the astute manner in which he has traced the connections between these two divergent spheres of human activity, remains fascinating reading. As it is generally held, artists are concerned with interpreting the visible real, through their medium, and the physicists, on the other hand, are involved in explaining and charting the working of the world of reality. By virtue of their inherent preoccupations, art and science have been held to oppose each other; one is held to be a purely subjective enterprise, while the other purely objective; there doesn’t seem to be a common space. But in this erudite and penetrating study, running close to five hundred odd pages, worked out in twenty nine chapters—each encasing apparent binary opposites like Illusion/Reality, Sacred/Profane, Rationality/Irrationality, I/We, Dionysus/Apollo, etc, Shlain establishes that art and physics are not opposed to each other but complementary. He provides numerous illustrations of art’s precognitive power, showing how artists repeatedly conjure up revolutionary images before physicists formulated new configurations of the world. In order to substantiate his theory, Shlain marks out as his area the turn of the twentieth century when some of the most stunning examples of deeply revolutionary art in western history were made and side by side two thought-changing branches of physics were emerging – relativity and quantum theory. To quote Shlain:
Our present world full of computers, lasers, space probes, transistors and nuclear energy attest to the great power of prediction implicit in these two theories. Most members of contemporary society still have not processed the profound implications these two hold for their belief in commonsense reality. The new physics presently rests like a pea under the collective mattress of human kind, disturbing tranquil sleep just enough to begin to change how people think about the world. Art was there before to sound the clarion warning of the technostress to come. (p. 425)
In order to create a context in which to discuss individual works of art and how they relate to the theories of physics, Shlain begins with ancient Greece where many of the premises of the present day thought and value systems is held to have originated. Although many of the ancient insights were discarded by advances in modern science a basic structure can still be discerned: if the ancients attempted to trace all experience to certain primordial element or elements and conceived of a four-fold paradigm, a similar structure persists in the twentieth century paradigm of space-time-energy and matter. Space and time constitute the grid work within which we construct and conduct our everyday real life, while inside their frame work energy, matter and various other combinations thereof create our world of appearances. These four elemental constructs form a mandala of totality. All perceptions created in the dream-room of our minds are built from these four building blocks. Another mysterious element which is in a way a connecting link is light. Both fields of relativity and quantum theory rose out of the two unsolved questions about the nature of light. Very much in similar lines, Shlain argues, artists over the centuries have been concerned with light, space and time. And it is in the struggle of the modern that this concern comes into the limelight.
Launching into a comparative study of classical physics and pre Renaissance art, Shlain traces the nuances through Platonic and Aristotelian thought and Greek and Roman art, until the discovery of perspective by the Italian artist Giotto ( 1276-1337), the persistence of the Euclidian notions of space and time. During the rise of the Newtonian system western specifically European art had also been concerned with the concrete objects of the external world. Perspective distinctly separated the “I” from the “It” and painters very much in the manner of physicists examined the world from a stationary and privileged standpoint. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artists began to tamper with the hitherto hallowed rules of perspective, the virtually straight horizon line and the vanishing point. While the elucidation and the formulation of the concept of space as curved was almost fifty years away, Impressionist painters like Eduard Manet and Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne had anticipated the idea in a painterly manner. Cezanne devoted a life time to studying the relationship of space light and matter. His investigations of loaded space, static light and multiple perspective were to wait until the advent of relativity theories to be appreciated and comprehended. To a chapter entitled “Einstein/Space, Time and Light” Shlain prefixes as epigraph a quote from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” With the inception of the observer dependent theories of physics, the Newtonian world view with its rigid vantage points and privileged positions had to yield to the human imagination. The special and general theories of relativity are so remote from our commonsensical world view that they call for particularly strong visual imagination.
After 1905 fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality came to be challenged. Shlain sets them out like the following:
Space and time are relative, are reciprocal coordinates, and combine to form the next higher dimension called the space-time continuum. They are not constant, absolute and separate.
There is no such thing as a favoured point of view. For objects of substance there is no internal frame of reference at absolute rest, and ether does not exist.
The rules of nineteenth century causality under certain relativistic circumstances are invalidated.
Colour is not only not an inherent property of matter but depends also upon the relative speed of the observer.
A universal present moment does not exist.
Observations about reality are observer dependent, which implies a certain degree of subjectivity.
To believe Leonard Shlain artists anticipated each and every one of these without actually knowing the theoretical importance of their insights. Further as he endeavours to show, it is this prescience on the part of the creative artists that made their work totally opaque to their contemporaries. We with our present day knowledge and the advantage that hindsight offers us are now enabled to see the patterns of the future emerging as a jigsaw puzzle in the various misadventures of the modern artists.
With the development of quantum mechanics classical physics had died a natural death and contemporary theoretical physics has oriented our thinking in different directions. Instead of questing after primal building blocks physicist pursue the underlying entity, the field. If artists before 1920-s anticipated a great deal of what the general theory of relativity would effect in human thought and history the American painter Jackson Pollock in the sixties reiterated a profound truth that the later physicists discovered: that the field is more important than the particle, ie.the process superceded the object.
As Emile Zola observed art is nature seen through a temperament, and the nature of space time and light is revealed for those who want to see it through the creations of innovative temperaments of the great artists. This is Shlain’s professed objective in his work and he engages the reader through enlightening arguments and ample illustrations. The works of modernist artists like Cezanne, Picasso, Dali, Chagall, Magritte, de Kooning and Calder are examined in depth in the light of the history of ideas and modern physics.
Throughout the work, Shlain takes special care not to take a partisan view of things: the artist doesn’t seek the corroboration of the scientist at any point. Neither does the scientist. He fully agrees with Werner Heisenberg who said: Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language. (quoted p. 363)
If the works of the modern artists appear to be baffling and weird, equally, if not more, baffling and weird, would appear the language of the physicists who trace the birth and death of stars, white dwarfs, quasars, black holes, event horizons and singularities.The biologist JBS Haldane once remarked, “the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but it is queerer than we can imagine.” Towards the close of his book, Shlain draws together the insights of various minds like that of John Wheeler, the physicist, P.D Ouspensky , the Russian mathematician, Tielhard de Chardin, the Catholic theologian and postulates the possibility of a universal mind as another unity in the matrix of the
space time continuum. This is a natural culmination of the readings of parallels in art and physics, where each dovetails into the other perfectly. Shlain looks upon the sensitive artist’s mind as the space wherein the zeitgeist reveals itself.
If the artist’s intuitions are the first intimations of movement in the larger entity of universal mind , artists themselves can be seen to serve the unique function of seers through whom the zeitgeist appears . Visionary artists able to discern the what the rest of us still cannot embrace and announce through their art the principles emanating from this spiritus mundi. It does not matter if the critics and even the artists themselves are unaware of their singular purpose. If the artist’s work is truly the apparition of the zeitgeist it can become evident only in retrospect as society matures and its members achieve the same vantage point visionary artists occupied decades earlier. (p. 387)
In concluding his prodigious intra-disciplinary study Leonard Shlain remarks that the gulf that divides the right hemisphere of the brain from the left in western culture is very wide, while what is called for is a paradigm shift which could integrate both functions. Leonardo da vinci the renaissance man is the one notable example of the total integration of creativity’s dual aspects. According to him Leonardo emerges as the unique blending of seeing and thinking and the profusion of images and insights that emerged from that cross fertilization is cornucopian.
Shlain’s arguments linking painting and physical science make interesting reading for the depth of his analysis and the wealth and range of his material. Perhaps, even in spite of the insights he brings to bear upon his subject the connections might not serve to add anything new to the knowledge of the casual reader. However, Art and Physics would hasten in a paradigm shift in the order of perception. Art and science over the years have diverged so much, and more emphasis has been heaped on their singular ways rather than their unified visions. The consciousness of the modern was created in the minds of the creative artists who pioneered a new world view; perhaps they did not formulate the same in the language of science; the scientists who hastened the birth of a new age in science spoke a different language and seldom cared to seek corroborations in the a-rational world of the artist. The difference lay in the language. Art spoke in metaphors and metonymies; physicists spoke in mathematical symbols. Michael Phillipson in another groundbreaking work of equal significance speaks about this divergence in unity in this way:
(the) transformation of the artist’s relation to nature and tradition, which Cezanne’s work inaugurates, is a defining feature of modernity itself, and finds its parallel in modern science in the transformation of the observer’s relation to the observed in post Einsteinian physics. A necessary feature of this relativising of the relation is the way it begins to require and display an alternative sense of language , for if reality is not some absolute pregiven external to human being, is not a ‘transcendental signified’ but rather obtains its sense from the ways in which human beings methodically make sense of it from within specific contexts and languages, then the relation of language to its other (nature) can no longer be that of correspondence but rather of constitution. (p.50)
It was not much farther now for the radical ideas in western intellectual history like deconstruction and poststructuralism to emerge and challenge human perception and the order of things. After all the artists have laid the foundations and broke new wood.
Phillipson, Michael. Painting, Language and Modernity. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
Shlain Leonard, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light. New York: William Morrow, 1991.