The conference, session 1, presentation 3: Lyudmila Voropai, The Discourse on Interaction of Art and Science: Historical and Institutional Perspective


An ‘interaction’ of art and science has a long and rich history, which influenced certain developments in these both for more than two centuries institutionally differentiated other fields of activity. However the problem that I am going to analyse in this paper is the growing instrumentalisation of this subject caused by some recent tendencies in the cultural policy and art education as well as its consequences for a contemporary art practice.

A common allegation that this ‘interaction’, or, as some official institutional documents frame it, “collaboration”, is indispensable entails a danger to eliminate not only practically, but also discursively a good old modernist autonomy of art. Attempts to make the system of art education and art practice itself more ’scientific’ are not just an outcome of the notorious Bologna-process, but also a manifestation of some much older structural problem resulted from a role of contemporary art in the society. The more precarious it gets for the art community, the more intensively a mutual enrichment of both art and science through their fruitful collaboration and the perspectives of their desired symbiotic future are depicted in the art discourse. Publically expressed scepticism and irony towards this agenda are perceived as a kind of a guild interests betrayal. The functioning of today’s ideology is not any more based on a classical Marx’ naiveté-model “They do not know it, but they are doing it”, but rather, as Sloterdijk [1] and Zizek have already poited it out, on a maxim of the so called “cynical reason”: „They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.“ [2] 

“We know very well that formal “scientification” of art often brings quite debatable artistic results, but in spite of that we still make it to our official agenda” – this statement could be an articulation of a common attitude within an institutional art and especially new media art field. An integration of media art theory and practice into an academic science context promises at least some teaching and other positions, while critical questioning usually ends up with an absolutely unbeneficial resentment.

These observations prove an efficiency of familiar repression mechanisms in service of ideology apparatus, which transform this “cynical reason” background into some saving “new naiveté” that noticeably coins the present discourse on “collaboration of art and science” and invites for an application of discourse analysis methodology.



Let us first briefly overview conceptual history of this discourse and some key notions which were used to theoretically legitimize this “collaboration”.

The Renaissance-career of the artist from craftsman to polymath is well researched in the art history. Functional division of labour between art as producing techne and science as analytically-contemplating theoria, articulated already in Plato’s and Aristotle’s texts, is often considered to be left aside in early Modern epoch. The whole history of Fine Arts from the treatises on central perspective in the late Renaissance to manipulations with DNA-code in bio-art projects is supposed to deliver further proofs of the on-going “scientification” of art. But actually this process proves only the fact that the old, already by Plato articulated hierarchy, in which scientific activity has a higher social status than artistic one, remains essentially unchanged. However the reason for this higher prestige of science has changed as well as a factual content of scientific activity.

Science today is not anymore some pure self-sufficient reflexive and contemplative theoria, but, similar to any other forms of current social production, is a complex of rational goal-oriented activities, aimed at achievement of particular practical results. Being oriented primarily at solving certain practical problems natural sciences take today in economical perspective entirely different position than modern Fine Arts with an crucial for them claim for autonomy. This inevitably shifts an economic value of Fine Arts into a category of luxury and “status symbol” goods. Natural sciences are considered to be ’useful’ for a society and (even if in a long-term perspective) economically efficient, while Fine Arts can be used only as storage for a temporary economical surplus, as Adorno once put it. In addition, this temporary storage can only function, if its real economical meaning is kept hidden behind the façade of the key ideological concepts that constitute modern notion of art, such as “creativity”, “geniality”, “self-expression” etc.

Historical basis of this economically grounded demarcation is a direct use of scientific achievements for technical innovations during the period of the so-called “industrial revolution”. In his early text “Technical Progress and Social Environment” famous German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas has pointed out that pre-industrial forms of practical professional activity didn’t imply any connection with the theory. [3] Only with the process of industrialisation a systematic implementation of scientific achievements in the practice has been started. Natural sciences thus became a source of new technologies and inventions, which result from this implementation.

This was accompanied with the process of institutionalisation and professionalization of sciences themselves, which was manifested in a differentiation of various scientific disciplines and establishment of particular institutions like Academies of Science etc. A new social group of professional scientists has emerged. In their undertakings they were driven not only by a kind of “the will to knowledge”, but also by the will and even need make their own livings on this activity. This process was also manifested in the English-speaking context by an emergence of the very notion “scientist”, which slowly replaced some earlier terms such as “natural philosopher” or “man of science”.

British polymath William Whewell has introduced the term “scientist” in one of his texts published in 1834 in Quartely Review as a reaction to a changing character of scientific work. This introduction had first a slightly satirical tone: „by analogy with artist, they might form [the word] scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this term since we already have such words as economist and atheist.“ [4] But later, in his “The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences” (1840) Whewell was not anymore ironical about this term: „We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.“ [5]

But a real popularity the term scientist has reached only at the end of the 19th century. Opposite to German term Wissenschaft, French science or Russian наука, the use of the word science in the English-speaking context became reserved for exclusively for natural sciences related activities, while humanities (in the continental Europe largely known as Geisteswissenschaften) could hardly claim for the status of scientific activity. Since Francis Bacon British “men of science” were primarily empirically and practically experimentally oriented, in contrast to their continental colleagues with their affinity for voluminous metaphysical speculations. A notoriously pragmatic Anglo-Saxon spirit has conceived practically useless non-profit humanities as a kind of wasteful, but in fact pretty harmless entertainment for „gentlemen of leisure“ with „old money“ and „old privileges“, similar to Fine Arts.


Following this general ’ideological’ predisposition the theme of an interaction between art and science in the 19th century implies first of all the question, what Fine Arts can learn from Sciences in order to become ’finer’. A theoretically articulated programmatic rapprochement of art to science, e.g. to scientific knowledge and methods, had initially a purely instrumental background. For instance, John Ruskin in his „Lectures of Art“ (1870) and in „The Eagle’s Nest. Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art“ (1872) claims that landscape painter should study biology and geology and also use scientific drawing methods, to be faithful to the nature in their works, which is, according to Ruskin’s theory of art, one of the main virtues of Fine Arts. [6]

A further development of an instrumental approach to scientific knowledge and methods and their use for artistic purposes one can find at the beginning of the 20th century in the theory and praxis of Russian constructivism of the 20ies and in the study programs of Bauhaus.[7] The famous constructivist concept of “artist-engineer” should not be misunderstood as a sort of prelude to the today’s “art-science collaboration” agenda. Prominent representatives of Russian Avant-Garde, such as Alexander Rodchenko, Warwara Stepanowa or Alexei Gan, spoke about „production art“ (russ. производственное искусство), which makes a radical break with the l’art pour l’art attitude and formal aestheticism of traditional Fine Arts and offers instead an agenda of a better designing of human material environment. The new type of artist – “artist-engineer” – should resign traditional art forms like panel painting and „consciously manufacture useful things”, i.e. s/he should get involved into designing and production of functional objects. A prominent LEF-theorist Boris Arvatov wrote in one of his articles that the mission of a modern artist is “not to depict a beautiful body, but to educate real and harmonic people, not to draw a wood, but to plant parks and gardens, not to decorate walls with paintings, but to paint these walls.” [8] The notion of “production art” breaks therefore in its basic attitude with the modernist ideology of art autonomy.

 In the first half of the 20th century artists not only very often refered to the modern scientific theories, but also applied some newest technologies in their artistic practice. However this turn to science and technology didn’t have neither from the art-historical, nor from discourse-historical perspective any programmatic strategic character. A proclaimed “collaboration” of art, science and technology as well as certain “scientification” of art practice became a more or less articulated agenda only in the 1960ies, largely due to the cultural policy situation in the USA at that time.

In a situation of the armaments drive and generous support of research projects in the field of computer technologies during the Cold War in the USA, American universities and research institutes became a feeding ground for experimental technology-based art projects, which could provide a needed technical production base.

Numerous new art forms, practices and –isms emerged out of intense late-modernist impetus of the post-war art. They developed further a conceptual heritage of the early modernist art (from Dada and Supremathism to Constructivism and Bauhaus) and transformed it according to the changed social and technological environment. Endlessly created new art -isms represent this wide range of artistic experimentation with new technologies, materials and scientific conceptions – Computer art, Algorithmic art, Generative art, Inormation art, Evolutionary art, Process art, Systemic art, Cybernetic art, Kinetic art, Fractal art and so forth, and so on.

These artistic experiments needed of course a production base, which goes far beyond the possibilities of traditional artist studio. Art institutions of the 1960's-70's could offer only exhibiting spaces for a public presentation of these artworks. Appropriate production facilities could be however found only outside of the art institutions context of that time.

Laboratories and research centres at the universities offered in contrast to art institutions not only some technological and material production base, but also support from engineers and programmers, indispensible for a realisation of these artistic projects. This is of sure not a coincidence that many pioneers of computer- and technology-based art come precisely from this context and have their background in natural or computer sciences and engineering.

To mention only the most known examples, a famous pioneer of interactive art and earlier artistic experiments with virtual reality and augmented reality Myron Krueger was a computer scientist, who in the 70's has worked for computer graphics projects at the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Due to this job he could get a technical support of his artistic projects from a University staff.

A founding editor of Leonardo-Journal and devotee of Kinetic Art Frank J. Malina was originally an aeronautical engineer. Many European techno-art activists also came from similar professional contexts. A well-known Austrian enthusiast of computer art and computer graphics Herber W. Franke received his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1950 by writing a dissertation about electron optics. One should not forget here also Roy Ascott, who, before starting his artistic career, was an officer in the British Royal Air Force working with radar defence systems.

From the historical sociological perspective in the second half of the 20th century precisely scientific and technical manpower was primarily a feeding ground for a technology-based art, which has essentially influenced some of its aesthetical and conceptual particularities. Many protagonists of early techno-art were professional engineers, programmers or scientists, who out of various reasons have developed their interest for artistic use of new technologies. With their technical-artistic experiments they were stricto sensu hobby-artists, who, from a sociological perspective, have been producing a sort of ’technological Art-Brut.'

In this respect one could also say that many early technology-based art projects, whether in the field of Kinetic Art, Holography, Computer Art, Interactive Art, Virtual Reality or something else, were to a certain extent side-products and experimental deviations in a functioning of different research institutes and scientific laboratories.

Only later these products of rather creative than artistic in a strict sense activity were perceived within an institutional art field as art objects and interpreted as an extension and further development of the modernist art concept. The idea of “Collaboration of Art and Science and Technology” became thus pivotal for a conceptual self-positioning of New Media Art in the 1980's. 

A critical analysis of the discourse on interaction or "collaboration“ of Art and Science discovers also certain topoi, which play a noticeable role for a theoretical conceptualisation of this subject, although this role was taken due to some initial principal misunderstanding. One of these topoi, which is largely referred in numerous works on history of the “collaboration”, is the famous text “The Two Cultures” by British scientist and writer Charles Percy Snow. He describes an essential difference between the science culture and humanities culture, i.e. between the working methods, canons, systems of values etc. of „scientists“ and „literary intellectuals“ (that is how Snow defines representatives of humanities). His main pathos is to settle account with a notorious intellectual arrogance of "literary intellectuals“, and it is absolutely unclear, what techno-arts have to do with the contraposition of these “two cultures”. Since if they are supposed to have something in common at least with one of them, then it should be rather a kind of ’genetic relationship’ with science and not with humanities (at least precisely this suggest the most publications on this subject).

That is also why the whole “third culture”-motive, which is very common in the media art discourse since 1990ies, is based on some fundamental misinterpretation of both the Snow’s position as well as main statements of the book „The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution“, published in 1995 by John Brockman, an American literary agent and author specialising in scientific literature. In contrast to Snow, who optimistically wrote about a possible “third culture”, in which fundamental differences between science and humanities can be abolished through the communication between their representatives, for Brockman “the third culture” is represented by scientists, who are able without a mediation through literary intellectuals to present themselves the newest scientific developments to the general public.

Despite these definitions the term “third culture” was in the 90ies often used in the media art discourse to position media art itself as a new kind of the “third culture”. An intention of this positioning is quite clear – art, which works with technologies (i.e. media art par excellence), should be established in an academic institutional context and socially legitimized as a kind of mediator between science and general public.

Especially in the USA, where media art institutions were not that actively founded and generously supported by the state as in Europe in the 1990ies, new media art had a chance to institutionally survive only under the roof of universities and other academic institutes. Teaching and research positions in the academic field became for media artists almost the only professional option to make their living. But even if this positioning tactics in a sociological perspective is very understandable and even unavoidable, one should not ignore those conceptual problems and contradictions, which in a long-term, strategic perspective can lead media art to a real dead end.

Through accepting this merely mediating position, media art basically reduces itself to a kind of popular-educating and purely illustrative work. As a matter of fact, only through an abdication of its artistic autonomy and functional self-sufficiency media art can obtain an appropriate place in the art system. However the main question, which this situation provokes, is the following one – why does media art that positions itself in this way still need this disputable “art”-addendum, which only brings various practical complications and theoretical contradictions into this kind of activity? Why it does not call itself simply an audio-visual-spatial-etc. design and representation of scientific knowledge and technological achievements, which it in fact does?

Looking back to the history of art in the 20th century this would not be such a radical move. Was the “production art” of Russian constructivists not the first sober perspective onto upcoming tasks of art in light of its disappearing monopoly of visual production due to technical inventions such as photography or cinematography? Or was it not proclaimed by Gene Youngblood in “Expanded Cinema”, that artist should become a “design scientist” and practice an “aesthetic application of technology?” [10]

The “art”-label in the whole today’s media art enterprise should probably simply help to keep at least some tiny free space in an increasingly efficiency-oriented academic context of the present cultural policy of austerity. In addition, the term “art” in a mass reception is still reserved for some imagined romantic terrain of an alleged “freedom of individual self-expression”, which keeps on recruiting new apprentices into a shrinking media art guild.


References and Notes: 

1   See P. Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983).

2   See S. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London-New York: Verso, 1989).

3   See J. Habermas, "Technischer Fortschritt und soziale Lebenswelt,” in Technik und Wissenschaft als "Ideologie“ (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968).

4   Quoted in R. Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Pantheon, 2008), 449.

5   Ibid.

6   See J. Ruskin, Lectures of Art (New York: Allworth, 1996).

7   See W. Kandinsky, "Farbkurs und Seminar," in Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar 1919- 1923, ed. Karl Nierendorf (Weimar und München: Bauhaus, 1923).

8   Boris Arvatov, "Utopia and Science," in Lef, no. 4 (1923): 16-21.

9   See for example, V. Vesna, "Toward a Third Culture: Being in Between“ in Leonardo 34, no. 2, (2001): 121.

10              G. Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), 189.