A possible definition of Art and Science.


Last night I came across this video by Cliff Stroll defining science. Summarized he says Science is the pursuit of the unknown with no further goal other than the hope of understanding. The execution of understood things to solve a problem or goal is Engineering.

In every course Iv done, there has always been a goal. Solve this problem, produce a product to do this etc. My degree was titled computer science, what I was being taught more often than not was computer engineering. Even in my later, sort of but not quite arts computing games type degree. Yes, we were sort of arts. Really though, we were serious people engineering with games.

This on its own is a nice revelation. One that has helped resolve some internal dilemmas around what the purpose my dissertation is. To be more specific, my dissertation is in art and science, not engineering. Therefor its goal is not to solve anything, but to explore something interesting which I don’t yet understand.

That takes me to the only thing that’s not defined here. We know what science is now, we know what engineering is, but what is art? It has no goal, and it typically involves exploring something that is interesting. That sounds very much like science. Art is not science though, so what’s the difference?

Well, science is constructive or evolutionary knowledge, built on theories. When a theory is disproven by a newer one the scientific thinking moves forward and adapts. Perhaps art is not like this? Except that it is. Art is evolutionary. In medieval times art was a symbolic medium, which was then superseded by a greater focus on reality in the renascence, and so on to the present day where the concept of reality is old fashioned.

Art and Science are almost identical. However, they can possibly be defined in 2 simple ways.
Science is an exploration of physical and tangible things.
Art is an exploration of cultural and mental things.

Engineering in science is using known physical things to produce products.
Engineering in art is using known cultural things to produce products.

This may help explain modern art to those who struggle with it. A scientist does not think “I am going to write a great paper today”. They think “I am going to try and discover something new today” the paper is just the representation of the knowledge and the exploration. Likewise, an artist does not think “I am going to paint a great picture today”. They think “I am going to try and explore something culturally interesting today” the artwork is just the representation of their exploration. The purpose in both cases is to explore and gain a greater understanding of the physical or cultural place the person is in.

If you’re an artist, I’m sure you’ve come across the concept of beauty and aesthetics. By this definition, beauty is a component of the representation, not the art. Creating an aesthetic or beautiful artwork is engineering not art. An example would be, if a person did a perfect renaissance style painting today, no matter how skilled they were, it would be a historical and engineering activity. They would not be adding to the evolution of art.

Of course, we live in reality, it’s a little messier. It’s impossible to do pure science or art without doing a little engineering. You can’t test the speed of a ball falling without first making the ball (Well you can but you get the idea). Likewise the inverse is true, engineering projects sometimes have to step into the realm of art and science to solve their goals. For example a blockbuster movie is a typical artistic engineering project, taking known cultural parts and making a product out of them. Every now and then a movie finds something new to say or opens a question that hasn’t been explored before.

These definitions, like art and science are theories, they are evolutionary explorations of meaning. They might be wrong, and almost certainly they will be superseded by some new thinking in the future.