Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 1999
Caroline A. Jones Picturing Science, Producing Art Ed Peter Galison New York: Routledge, 1997. 528 pp.; 79 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (0415919126)

Although drawn from such disparate fields as art history, anthropology, philosophy, and the history of science and technology, the nineteen essays of this collection revolve around a central theme: how art and science have distinguished themselves—in practice and product—from one another, or how each has been shaped through its perceived relation to the other.

Construed in one fashion, the question of how art and science are related has been of rather longstanding concern. In recent history, the concern with that relation animated the debates over C. P. Snow’s controversial The Two Cultures, entered into the works of philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, and, of course, defined such art-historical approaches as Ernst Gombrich’s embrace of Karl Popper’s model of scientific method in explaining pictorial progress, Erwin Panofsky’s classic “Galileo as a Critic of the Arts,” Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s account of early twentieth-century artists’ uncomprehending response to nineteenth-century geometric theory, and Martin Kemp’s studies of the actual scientific aspirations and achievements of artists in optics and color theory.

The editors of this volume, however, seek to explore a novel formulation of the question of how art and science are related, one that promises to eschew any binary opposition between the two, or conceptual analysis of their boundaries. The approach here is resolutely historicizing: the essays in this volume inquire into “the conditions under which objects become visible in culture” as artifacts of, alternatively, science or art. Thus the traditional question “What is the distinction between art and science?” is not so much put aside as given various specific historical and contextual characterizations. The issue is precisely how the practices of “science” and “art” were understood, and how such understanding shaped the creation and categorization of the objects of study in either field.

The book is divided into five sections—"Styles," “The Body,” “Seeing Wonders,” “Objectivity/Subjectivity,” and “Cultures of Vision”—each containing essays that explore one aspect of the volume’s organizing theme. However, not all the essays are as germane to the volume’s topic as the somewhat over-long introduction by the editors would have them be. (In particular, the pieces by Donna Haraway on “gene fetishism” and process philosophy and Krzysztof Pomian on the history of epistemology both seem out of place.) On the other hand, there are essays in this collection that, alone, might have appeared relevant to just art or science, but, in this context, take on added dimensions of interest to scholars working in both domains. Limited space requires a discussion of only a few representative pieces:

Carlo Ginzburg’s “Style as Inclusion, Style as Exclusion” traces the ways in which historical, biological, and anthropological understanding of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shaped the concept of style and, in the work of early art historians, gave the concept of style a nationalistic, racial, and ethnic inflection (if not outright identification in some cases). Ginzburg’s essay is particularly suggestive in its meditation on the tensions within art history and criticism between the apprehension of individuals and cultural artifacts as each possessed of a unique character and the conception of them as parts of larger (national, temporal, generic) wholes.

The title of Londa Schiebinger’s “Lost Knowledge, Bodies of Ignorance, and the Poverty of Taxonomy as Illustrated by the Curious Fate of Flos Pavonis, an Abortifacient” recalls the scientific tracts of the period her essay features. In describing the early eighteenth-century female naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian’s accounts of the plants of Surinam (then a Dutch colony), Schiebinger focuses on the ways the local medicinal knowledge of Surinamese women is suppressed or effaced in the discourse of British naturalism—both because the study of the anatomy and morphology of plants supplanted the cultural and geographical knowledge of their use and because of the parameters such forms of science placed on what constituted the nature and knowledge of the body, and what sorts of knowledge were of value.

Caroline A. Jones’s essay “The Sex of the Machine: Mechanomorphic Art, New Women, and Francis Picabia’s Neurasthenic Cure” describes how the artist responded to the diagnosis of his persistent neurasthenia as based in a sexual disorder, requiring, on his part, a proper channeling of supposed reproductive and electrical energies. Here, in the context of a discussion of the gendering of machines in the inter-war period, Jones shows both how Picabia’s line drawings give form to the current medical and technological views of the sexual body, and how they undermine such knowledge through hybrid and hermaphroditic imagery.

Lorraine Daston’s and Katherine Park’s essays each ask what makes an observer (of the thirteenth-century in one case and the seventeenth-century in the other) decide that an image-bearing stone or cameo is a natural formation rather than a human carving or an attempt to deceive. It is particularly the ambivalence observers felt before such objects that Daston finds compelling. She locates this ambivalence in the redrawing of the boundary between art and nature as “creative beings.” As the progressive de-anthropomorphizing of nature is simultaneously matched by a progressive anthropocentrising of the world, any design found in nature is ultimately taken to be necessarily the product of human or divine intelligence. In turn, Park shows the concern with such cameos (and the creation of such supposedly “impressed” images in general) to be bound up with contemporary philosophical and medical accounts of female physiology and reproduction. These two essays are exemplary in this collection for the subtle connections they trace between notions of artistic and natural creation.

Peter Galison’s “Judgment Against Objectivity” offers an ambitious historicization of the relation between scientific objectivity and the techniques of representation, specifically in the representation of astronomical atlases. While too many contemporary histories and sociologies of science are content with the bare assertion that the concept of scientific objectivity has changed over time, Galison provides a specific demonstration of how such a change is embedded in the material, technical, and practical changes in scientific pictorial representations. These changes bring with them a change in the identity of what would constitute an “objective” creator or recorder of the image. So as the place of the ideal recorder is occupied, successively, by the genius, the manufacturer, and the trained expert, the objective picture is reconceived, successively, as a quasi-metaphysical image, a mechanical image, and an image that requires judgment for its data to be discerned. Galison’s broad comments about the history of vision are substantially complemented by Jonathan Crary’s specific and methodologically critical inquiry into the role that the psychological and practical notion of “attention” came to play in the nineteenth century as a supposed guarantee of the unity of perception.

This volume will be useful to scholars seeking an introduction to the remarkable range of approaches that seek to connect art and science. In whole, however, it has a hybrid nature that matches its title. This is in part because many of these essays are selected from larger works-in-progress and feature only the scientific or artistic material from those works in which the connections between the two domains are made.

The more serious cause of the disjunction one senses between the, broadly construed, studies of science and those of art is an unarticulated (in large part editorial) assumption that the mere focus of an artist’s work on an object or process studied by science makes that artist’s work an expression of contemporary science. No one would argue with the editors’ claim that, for example, “[p]rocesses of doing science and making art involve the body . . . ,” it is an entirely different matter to assume that the art of the body necessarily is bound up with the science of the body. This sort of assumption permits a great inclusiveness in the volume (see the excellent essay by Arnold Davidson on the hagiographic and iconographic attempts to show the singular status of St. Francis’ receiving the stigmata), but its unquestioned status leaves unresolved the sense of a forced fit between the histories of art and the histories of science the collection contains.

There is, further, an unexplored explanatory assumption in many of these essays that changes in scientific representation can be identified as changes in the concept of representation per se and, a fortiori, representation in the visual arts. No doubt it is sometimes precisely in appeal to the well-articulated protocols of scientific practice that insight can be gleaned into how the culture as whole, and thus artists and their audiences, conceived of the nature of pictorial representation. But this is assumed too uncritically in many of these essays and in cultural studies as a whole, a field in which this volume finds a natural place. Is there no sense in which artistic practice might depart from, be immune to, or contradict the notions of representation inherent in contemporary sciences? One of the few essays exhibiting a critical concern for this question is David Freedberg’s study of the tension between the iconology of the bee, its employment by papal panegyrists, and the discoveries rendered by the new technologies of perception afforded through Galilean science. Precisely what was offered in the advanced scientific rendering of the bee’s physiology—as in engravings prepared for the Barberini Pope—threatened the iconological meanings the image of the bee once afforded. Here—somewhat against the editorial momentum—it is precisely through treating art and science as notions circumscribing different domains, that the interference and interdependence between one and the other can be comprehended.

Jonathan Gilmore
Society of Fellows, Columbia University