On Art and Science: The Enlightened Renaissance

Simona Zompi

The studies of art and science were not mutually exclusive until the late 19th century, when specialization became fashionable and separated the two. Science education became even more fashionable in the education system, as it was easier to measure as compared to arts and humanities—it’s easy to evaluate if a student has learned math, but harder to evaluate whether she is a good writer or a promising painter.

It was not until the late 20th century, with the boom of design into technology, that the arts regained a space in the innovation field. The explosion of hacker spaces and DIYbio laboratories became fertile ground to intersect art and science, and they’re both the consequence and the cradles of what I like to call the “Enlightened Renaissance.”

When we think about iconic figures mixing art and science, the first person who comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the archetypal Renaissance man. An artist by training, his curiosity in scientific observation and his accurate records in journals made him a scientist. He made exceptional contributions to the study of human anatomy, being one of the first to draw the internal organs and the development of fetuses in the womb. But more importantly, he linked the observation of the human heart with its physiology, describing how heart valves control the flow of blood, bringing together art and physiology. This was not science based on experimentation or testing of theories, but rather it was a different approach to science: intense observation and detailed recording.

Leonardo initially turned to science in order to improve his artwork; he studied the science of light and the proportions of the human body exemplified in the Vitruvian Man. But who are those scientists who turn to art in order to improve their scientific work?

Intense observation as developed by visual arts can greatly improve scientists’ observational skills. Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, a physician and researcher at UC Berkeley, told me that after she started painting human bodies and skin tones—mixing different pigments (Prussian blue, burnt sienna, cadmium red and yellow, and different greens)—she started examining her patients differently. Exercising her eyes through painting helped her medical practice by developing the range of colors and tones she could see.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882), the most famous natural scientist of his century, drew inspiration from the tradition of natural history and illustration, namely geological and botanical drawings. This closeness to nature is still inspiring today’s environmental scientists. In turn, Darwin’s theory inspired many artists, especially the French impressionist painters, such as Cezanne and Monet, and influenced the meaning of beauty. Sir Alexander Fleming (1881–1995), the discoverer of the popular antibiotic penicillin, was a scientist and also a painter and a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, a private club for artists. He mostly used watercolors, but he also used live organisms and was the first to experiment with microbial art in his “germ paintings”—Fleming would inoculate petri dishes with different bacterial species to create live paintings that would fade away once the bacteria died. In order to develop his microbial art, Fleming had to find microbes with different pigments and then time his inoculations such that the different species all matured at the same time. The inspiration for this art would drive the discovery of new microbes.

As he developed intense observation through his art practice, Fleming’s discovery of penicillin may not be as fortuitous as some may think. His discovery came about when he accidentally left on his bench several petri dishes plated with the bacteria staphylococcus. After a few weeks, returning from vacation, he noticed that a fungus, penicillium, had contaminated one of the petri dishes and that the bacteria directly surrounding the fungus were dead. Many before him probably had petri dishes contaminated by mold, but his observation skills made him see through the petri dishes and deduce that the mold had killed the bacterial colonies. Among all his germ paintings, he had made a masterpiece that would save millions of lives.

After Fleming, many experimented with living bacteria and art. Exploring the Invisible is a collaboration between the artist Ann Brodie and the microbiologist Dr. Simon Park. They used a strain of bioluminescent bacteria, Photobacterium Phosphoreum, as the source of light in a dark chamber called the bioluminescent photo booth. Volunteers were photographed or recorded in the booth exploring new interactions between microbes and humans. The Bioglyphs Project at Montana State Unversity uses bioluminescent bacteria to create all forms of art. Dr. Peta Clancy’s Visible Human Bodies uses inoculated petri dishes to “paint” human bodies just like Sir Fleming did before her.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, said that “innovation doesn’t just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly, to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts—listening to music, say, or seeing a piece of art.” Scientists are humans after all. He insists on the need to add an “A for art” to the mix of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs, creating STEAM.

Some schools in California have integrated STEM and arts. At UC Davis, the Art and Science Fusion Program follows Darwin’s path, combining natural history, environment, and art. At Stanford, the Senior Reflection (TSR) program, led by Andrew Todhunter and Dr. Susan McConnell, allows senior undergraduates majoring in science to create an art piece based on their favorite science topic. This art piece is meant to be the capstone creation of the students’ four years of college. The Center for Science Education at UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, directed by Dr. Laura Peticolas, integrates art and science by bringing artists in residence into the lab. Most recently, three students at UC Berkeley—Natalie Mal, Kimiya Hojjat, and Angela Weinberg—inspired by Stanford TSR, started leading a DeCal course on art and science to explore how the two fields interact and cross-fertilize. The launch of the DeCal earlier this year was a huge success. Many students had to be turned down, and only 16 students were allowed to join the class to keep the group small and interactive. This past December, an art show showcased students’ original work. Finally, the Leonardo Art and Science Evening Rendezvous (LASERs) started by Piero Scaruffi in 2008 has now piqued national interest, bringing artists and scientists together to foster interdisciplinary work. These meetings are open to the general public and take place in colleges and universities, bringing the public closer to academia.

The Renaissance was a time of wondrous discoveries, when any enquiring mind would be encouraged to pursue scientific discoveries. The Age of Enlightenment, beginning in the late 17th and 18th centuries, advanced knowledge using scientific experimental methods. During this time, scientific publications, salons, and debating societies bloomed all over Europe. Art allows more intuition and a larger perspective; it allows reaching the limits of what is possible, breaking of scientific rules, and creation of new and unique ideas. The hacker’s revolution is a return to the Renaissance age mixed with the Age of Enlightenment. It allows anyone to use scientific experimental models mixed with a broader artistic intuition. With hackers’ spaces and DIYbio spaces we are entering the age of the “Enlightened Renaissance.”

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