The last two weeks have been a bit of a blur. After completing several layers of cells, I have hit a wall and decided that I needed a break from this project. I feel like it is the time to decide on where to put the clear white jewel in the background before it will be covered with strings of beads and become very difficult to access. Similar to my previous work, this jewel would represent hope. But I am stuck on deciding where it should be and feel like I can’t move forward without making this decision.
In following multiple artists on social media, I have long been intending to adapt the practice of working on several projects in parallel. So I finally decided to leave “Mapping Manhattan” alone for a while and let it breathe. But of course, my hands cannot stay still. I decided to return to a project that I have put aside at the beginning of this residency and begin filling in the background…
...and I played around with digitally manipulating the current work in progress.
This week I also attend a very inspiring talk by Amy E. Herman on “The Art of Perception” in the Art of Medicine seminar series at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Amy refers to herself as a “recovering attorney” and has a M.A. in art history. She uses art to communicate the importance of being objective on our observations and decision-making. Every single slide in her hour-long talk was a piece of art without a single word of text. And every single image had a very specific message for the audience. These included:
It was quite fascinating how so many questions could be simultaneously applied to both viewing art and treating patients and it made me think back to the core message I see behind SciArt - breaking the communication barrier between the biomedical community and general public/patients.
While physicians may try to simplify their terminology and use visual aids to demonstrate complex medical concepts to the patients, the patients themselves may also need a more universal language. The patients often feel afraid of the physiological processes they do not understand and reframing disease into beautiful scientific, yet approachable images, may bring them a sense of comfort. This may be especially true for patients who recover. There is a wide spectrum of approaches patients take to communicate what they have gone through. Some are very brave in openly speaking about their experiences, but some still feel very stigmatized. I believe that scientific artwork can serve as an icebreaker for such difficult conversations. But does every piece of art need to have a specific message?..
So I have finished the painting. There is a mixture of loss and relief in finishing an intricate piece like this. The questions begin ... “when to stop?”, the... “what next?” and a burst of new ideas that have to be sorted and culled. The hardest question to feel good about is, “what was that all about”? Do research scientists ever feel that way? Well, maybe when things go wrong, but there is always the sense in scientific research that it is always “worth it”. Worth the effort. That it is meaningful and important for human understanding.
The sciences and their subsequent applications have made human life easier, healthier and more affluent than ever before. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now gives reams of statistical evidence to this. Science has given us modern medicine, communication, travel, education, improved labour, cultural openness, and leisure, for the arts. The list is inexhaustible as science continues to help solve humanity’s problems. Maybe not fast enough to save our planet home from our thoughtless overuse but worth the effort to try. Better than the alternative.
Does art have this same saliency in the modern world? Is art less important than it used to be, before the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thinking? Do we, or even can we understand what the arts are really for? In this blog series, I have given a number of tries at an explanation. At least, the motivation to do art and the capacity to enjoy the art of others. However, when it comes to my own artwork I am often left mute as to any greater purpose other than to satisfy my own curiosity. This is probably sufficient because it keeps me open, learning and discovering. Many scientists are motivated but just this urge. The desire to know and then, to know more.
So in this way, there is equity between the arts and the sciences but I’m not sure that this value extends beyond the communities engaged in scientific or artistic work. I feel that the arts get lost in the noise of commerce. Does science also suffer from this? Science is institutionalized by universities and funding agencies that make it more efficient, rigorous and protected. More and more, the arts are being unhinged from their original institutions. What is the consequence of this? Does it matter that so many of us are out there drumming without the rest of the band? A modern problem allowed by leisure and to some extent, wealth.
So...only questions? That is what finishing an artwork does to the artist. I want to just throw this painting out there into the world and with it, some of my inevitable disappointment in its manifestation. I want to discover what others see in it...if anything. Is it meaningful or beautiful? Does beauty matter? Does anyone care? Am I the only one being fed in this process? Is the world making me feel this way or is it simply the ancient struggle of the risk taker.
Reading Steven Pinker reminded me that our perception of beauty may be related to our positive response to order as opposed to the more disturbing qualities of chaos. In the living world, we have circumvented entropy for as long as the sun has shone. Time and the sun’s energy drives the increasing complexity of life in an orderly way. Even if we don't survive as a species, other life forms will, until our sun’s energy alters dramatically.
We exist in the self-organizing world of nature, which is unusual in the universe where the normal trajectory is towards disorder or entropy. And so we may have evolved to recognize order as a positive part of the process of life and our own survival and then, eventually named it beauty. Understanding our world is what being human is about. What are these recurring patterns? Why are they around us? How is it that we can even think about them? Is this the beauty we all seek, in science, the arts and each other?