Heaviside once commented to the effect that you can’t have a scientific revolution in the absence of great art. I didn’t understand this until yesterday, when I was rereading the Reciprocality Project essay on the Ghost Not:
We shall begin by asking what art is for. What does art do? One answer to this question is to say that it is pretty – decorous. This though, is a very shallow answer. Great art does more than cause nice feelings for us by being pretty. Great art captures in one (convenient) form, some deep and powerful thing usually found in another form. A few dyes daubed on canvas or a piece of hewn stone can capture something of a natural movement or a human emotion that excites, or challenges, or puzzles us. What art does is to convey impressions. Here are the awe inspiring forces of a storm, captured in daubings by Vincent van Gogh:
When he pulls the trick off, van Gogh has to do two quite distinct things. Firstly, he has to spot something worth conveying. This might just be something direct, such a particularly spectacular view. More usually, an artist will try to convey deeper impressions than this though. Here, what van Gogh has done is notice that the wheat in the field has been scraped into the same texture as the stormclouds. Although invisible, the same force (the wind) is behind both patterns. His painting thus celebrates the power of the wind, which cannot itself be painted because it is invisible. He then goes beyond this though, and shows that the track itself seems to have been pulled in the same way the wheat and the clouds have been. Can it be that there is a deeper principle behind both the wind and the historic forces that define the path of a track? Perhaps a modern physicist might think about fluid dynamics here – certainly the philosopher Plato would be sympathetic to the idea that the equations of fluid dynamics are “deeper” than their resultants – wind and track paths. Then look at the crows in the sky. They alone are not distorted by the action of this principle – the wind and perhaps what lies behind it. Perhaps the crows both individually and in their flock, are in some way creatures of – their behaviour is governed by – the same deep principle. Then look once again at the wheat. The raw energy that has scraped it is not the only thing that causes it to resemble the clouds, which have been shaped solely by the wind. It is quite clear that the scraped appearance of the wheat ears derives in part from the regular planting pattern that we see at the front of the picture. Is there another creature about whose nature derives from the deep principle behind wind and crows, that has done this?
Quite a lot of ideas for one eyeful. The sensibilities and editorial skills of van Gogh spotted an impression worth conveying, that caused him to experience a great deal of the world, in its own context, in one go. To do the job, van Gogh must allow sensory data to enter his eyes uncritically, and wait for the relationships that are implicit in the data to emerge as he rolls the raw data around in his head. When he had completed this task, the job of finding something to paint, his second task began. The second task was now to un-notice what he had noticed. Rather than paint a cloud that looked like a field, he must use his technical skill with his materials and a kind of honesty to simply record the visual image that had brought the impressions to his mind. He must leave it to the viewer of the painting to either agree with him or not, that the data he has recorded suggest a relationship between say, planted fields of wheat, windtorn clouds, and farm tracks.
In both of these tasks, van Gogh must perceive uncritically. He must allow sensory data to enter his awareness without asking what it “is”, and only later in either his mind, or the mind of the viewer, should the pattern he will (or has) becomes aware of, take form. This is seeing like an artist. It is exactly the same as the honesty that the physicist Richard Feynman insisted is necessary to make any progress in understanding nature. See what is there, not what you expect.
Alan G. Carter
The Ghost Not
I’ve finally come to understand the nature of epicenter genius. In the van Gogh example, it was due to the expression of many sense impressions within a single form. Epicenter genius is therefore characterized by revolutions in perspective, rather than being mere archetypes formed by induction. This has the effect of producing a phase shift within a population of geniuses, rather than a population of neurons. It is an “Aha!” moment for all of them at once, after which they engage, as a group, in an exposition period analogous to the all-yellow state in a brain.
The scientific revolutions we observe in retrospect are products of these population-wide expositions, and we can therefore expect them to occur with regularity if some critical mass of geniuses are brought into close proximity.
Now, the character of the ideas which produce this sort of effect are similar to the van Gogh painting. An artist who’s been doing landscapes and portraits is going to be struck first by the impression of the image, and then his perspective shifts with a feeling like bringing one’s eyes into focus, and then the realization hits that “If this impression is possible, there could be a million others just like it!” After that, it’s off to the races. Example:
When Johannes Brahms, a great friend of Dvořák and one of his earliest supporters, eventually saw the completed score, he was said to have exclaimed, “Why on earth didn’t I know that is was possible to write a cello concerto like this? Had I only known, I would have written one long ago!”
Kenneth C. Viant
CONCERTO IN B MINOR FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 104
This brings me full-circle. Because phenomenology admits only general impressions as fundamental objects of study, art is the most general and the most powerful of the sciences. Therefore, a scientific revolution is impossible outside the context of an artistic revolution. And so, I conclude that Heaviside was right once again.