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Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Good" Art and "Good" Science

Yet another random thought: Thomas Wolfe, the conservative counterpart to Hunter S. Thompson (sort of), wrote a bright piece of non-fiction about "modern art" called "The Painted Word". Specifically, he was criticizing the Pop and Op Art movements that developed around the 1960's. One of his crucial points from which the book derives its title is that rather than the critics sitting at the feet so to speak of the works of the artists and coming to discover and appreciate the value within them, it seemed that the art was driven by the critics stipulations as to what counted or did not count as art. The theory drove the art, and so what was "painted" was a set of conventions; the painted word. Wolfe imagines that a future retrospective of this period would not have the actual paintings from this period but rather just a display of the original articles that appeared in various critical reviews, as the true representation of what this period of art was about.

The criteria stipulated by these critics seemed to completely ad hoc. For example, the painting had to be something that could be seen "fast", that is, the viewer could immediately appreciate what the painting was about. Imagine seeing a painting of three concentric bands like a target each of different colors -- you got it in one. Another rule was that the painting had to have precisely the same amount of paint in each area, the painting had to be uniformly thick. It seems clear that on Wolfe's account, the critics were trying give an analysis of art -- a work A is art if and only if a work satisfied a set of empirically verifiable features, a kind of aesthetic positivism, one that dictated what could and could not be a possible work of art. It is also possible to imagine a work of art just falling out of the sky.

In the linked article, Phillip Johnson compares the thought of two outstanding evolutionary scientists, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Pierre Grassé. Grassé was considered a heretic scientist because he only accepted evolution as term describing the general phenomena of zoological distribution and rejected the idea of natural selection as a plausible account of species variation. Dobzhansky rejected this conclusion in his review of a book by Grassé, but made it clear that this rejection was to imply any demerit or lack of qualification on the part of Grassé, who was Dobzhansky recognized as one of the most distinguished French zoologists and as having an encyclopedic knowledge. In other words, Grassé thought that explanation for the appearance of genetic information in natural history could not reasonably be explained by natural selection and common descent given a knowledge of all the facts and further even if we knew all the facts we would still not know the answer to the question.

Dobzhansky, on the other hand, while affirming that we cannot question Grassé as being unscientific, rejects his position. We must accept the natural selection account because it allows us to keep doing science. While the facts provide no support for thinking that selection model provided for us in microevolution within also applies to macroevolution of new species, we "must" apply it as such as the best candidate that allows us to continue doing science as normal. It seems in this case, it is a matter of following the rules rather than sitting a the feet of the object. As Johnson points out, modern media is more apt to say, unlike Dobzhansky himself, that Dobzhansky is doing is science and Grassé is being unscientific. It seems that, here as in Wolfe's case about art, what counts as science is deduced from certain stipulations which are prior to the work of research. Will the Smithsonian someday display the columns of commentators as the achievements of modern science? In this context, Johnson brings up Larry Laudan's criticism of the idea that we can demarcate science from non-science. He might also have mentioned O. K. Bousma's remark about the only girl for the boys in the alley is our girl Sally.

One other point. Wolfe points out in an afterword that one particular phase of the pop art movement led to an other than expected responses from the critics, namely so-called "Photographic Realism", where paintings seem to be paintings of photographs as photographs. The thing about such paintings is that they satisfied all the stipulations set by the critics, and yet the critics hated them. One suspects that what irritated the critics was that such paintings were able to restore what was hoped to be eliminated by the stipulations, namely representationalism. The photographs that that were painted were already photographs of something or another.

On the other hand, the hope in the stipulations of science is that by only allowing explanations that fit the rules they will still "capture" representationalism or at least the phenomena we call representation, along with features that like representation, are irreducibly complex or which require more than just two mutually interacting terms to explain. Perhaps both science and art in this sense hope to isolate and remove "naive" representation but the trouble is that the specter of representation will not stay away. And if naive representation exists, it seems certainly spectral.

Anyway, its just as clear that one cannot answer the charge that Intelligent Design is not science by affirming that it is as it is that one cannot complain that Photographic Realism is art but shouldn't be.