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Arts and sciences

Ofer lellouche

Arts and sciences


The idea of bringing together these two disciplines is not new.  In almost every age, art and science have had a difficult and fragile relationship. Where does this mutual fascination come from? What are the limits of this dialogue? How can we avoid misunderstanding, and manage this encounter in a productive way?

As an artist, I am often asked “Why do you need this?.”  Actually my answer is that I do not know.  I do not need it to paint, nor to ameliorate my art, and even not to reach new directions of exploring. Five years ago I participated in a seminar regrouping ten leading brain researchers with ten leading artists.  For three days, artists and scientists spoke about their work. It seemed to me like two parallel monologues that can never meet; scientists spoke about science and artists spoke about their art.

As a painter, I was fascinated to discover during the seminar that what we artists always knew, in an intuitive way, had a theoretical basis. I could better explain, for instance, why there is a huge difference between painting from nature and painting from photography. (So many art students think that it is the same!).

But, naturally, this symposium did not influence my way of painting; for me, as for many other artists, the moment we create must be completely intuitive.  It slightly resembles the moment the goalkeeper of a football team reacts in front of a penalty shot: a mixture of extreme concentration and of emptiness of the mind. But in order to arrive to this second where everything is possible, he has to suffer many trainings.  In a way, the seminar was for me part of this training.

The language of art is a highly sophisticated one, and it is obvious why it is a privileged subject for sciences of the brain. Nevertheless, sciences, or any other rigorous communicative language, cannot explain art. The first sentence of Semir Zeki in his book Inner Vision is, “This is not so much a book about art, it is more a book about brain.”  This impossibility is not due to a provisory lack of information, but because of the very different structure of the language of art and the language of science.

First of all, can we speak of art in a general way? As if to suggest that the term has had the same sense throughout the ages and across the world?  What is certain is that art has existed for as long as we can remember.  But, do we have the right to group together all the activities that we call “art” under one definition?  

I write these lines in my apartment, surrounded by African sculptures.  I say “sculptures,” but are they really sculptures – in the sense in which we understand the word, based side by side with modern sculptures – when they were originally cult objects with precise magical functions? Is sacred art the same art we go to see on weekends in museums? What is the function of our art, if it has one?  

Do we have to speak about the function of art, or, does art transcend its function? Magic, fetishism, representation of power, entertainment, pleasure, representation of nature…  In my opinion, it is important to speak about the function of art, but only in order to get rid of it. To me, as an artist, there is no hesitation: there is something in art that transcends its functionality. A Madonna painted by Raphael survives throughout the centuries when exactly the same composition painted by some mediocre painter will not.  The portrait of Charles V painted by Titian still amazes us, while hundreds of thousands of portraits of Stalin and Saddam Hussein end up in the flea markets.

We could speak of the “beauty” of art as a constant throughout the ages.  Although the criteria change over time and across cultures and countries, there is, nonetheless, a constant.  In contrast to post-modern theories, I think that even if people do not relate to some pieces of art, they have a feeling of their quality.

What do we expect in the contemplation of a piece of art? For us, moderns, it certainly does not have a magical function (like Egyptian Art, for instance, a function which has a real influence on the real world).  When art lovers are asked to better define why they need art, they speak of pleasure.  But what kind of pleasure?  Is it the same kind of pleasure that one derives from a good meal?  Should painting be studied by scientists as gastronomy is?

This comparison hurts the artists. (Although, alas, art critics and restaurant critics share the same page of the newspapers!). When people are asked to be more precise about the word “pleasure,” they speak of “emotion,” they evoke the feeling of “diving” into the piece, to “forget themselves,” to identify themselves with the subject, they speak of a “dream awakened,” – all are feelings that you could not have while sitting in front of a plate of seafood.  A piece of art makes us dream.

Of course, a piece of art also delivers an aesthetic pleasure in the “gastronomic” sense of the word, but this is secondary.   In what way does a piece of art make us dream? Why can we not stop looking at the Madonna by Raphael, while the (almost) same painting by a different artist leaves us indifferent? Why does the Montagne  Sainte-Victoire painted by Cézanne makes us dream, while a photograph of it just looks like a mountain?  Art is not a representation of nature in a beautiful way; It is a different kind of signification.  There is a deep difference between the language of art and the language of everyday.

The language-of-everyday is based upon the assumption that you can understand what is said.  The more accurate it is, the more communicative it becomes. (For instance, in writing these lines, I make great effort to be as clear as possible).  Sometimes, perfectly understanding this language is a question of life and death; if you do not understand the signification of a red light, for example, you might have a car accident.  The language of law and the language of the sciences should be as precise as possible.  The most minimalist expression of this language is the pictogram.  When you see a sign representing very schematically a man and a woman – often just a circle representing the head, a triangle for a skirt and two rectangles for the trousers – you understand that this signifies the restrooms.

But just suppose this sign is found by future archeologists who have no understanding of its meaning; they will understand it through associations, they might hang this piece in a museum of art next to Adam and Eve by Durer, a Fang wooden sculpture of a couple, an Egyptian painting of Nout (the deity of sky) and Geb (the deity of earth), Joseph and Miriam by Rembrandt, and many other pieces of “art.”

There is, I think, a great difference between the language of art and the pictogram (or the-language-of-everyday.)   The language of the pictogram functions through the understanding of the negation, the language of art functions through associations and ignores negation.

One pictogram is enough to describe the universe. Take, for example, the pictogram of a tree. You can split the universe into “tree” and “not a tree.”  It would be a very poor language but it would be, thanks to the negation, enough to describe the universe.  But the painting of a tree means something else.

Many years ago, I painted my three-year-old son and my five-year-old daughter beneath a huge palm tree.  When my son explained the painting, he said, “This is my sister.  This is me.  And this tree is my father.”  In a sense, he understood that the question is not “Is this a tree or not a tree?” but about the different associations the tree can evoke.

I would like to be more precise about this notion of association and give a few examples:

1. Association to another piece of art: those three trees etched by Rembrandt remind us of the three crosses of the crucifixion, they remind us also of the hair of this self-portrait. Something of the “sense” of the crucifixion affects the “sense” of the landscape. Something of the curled hair colors the “signification” of the trees.

2. Associations within a painting: when Cézanne says that the shoulders of the women must be connected with the curb of the mountains, something of the “sense” of the mountain affects the “sense” of the women and vice versa. Those influences of sense occur all the time in a piece of art, and are absent in a “banal” photograph which has been “decorated” with artistic effects.


3. The association can work in the direction of the world to the painting, like in the case of my three-year-old son, but it can also work in the other direction: from the painting to the world.  I always say that for me the most important place in a museum is the windows:   A visit to the Louvre, and through a window I can see trees, cars, buses…  I walk a few steps and stand in front of a Poussin… a few more steps, and I reach another window, but the trees “have changed,” they look like the trees in the painting.  To me, probably the most important “function” of art is “to change our vision of nature.” An exhibition has a signification when I go outside and the street has changed.    

A few years ago, having been invited to a collective show on sculpture, I did a video performance.  I needed a few planks of wood for that purpose, and so I sawed some, and threw the rest to the side, expecting that the cleaners would throw them away.  They did not. When the visitors visited the exhibition, I was very surprised to see that they were looking carefully at those planks on the grass, as if they were a sculpture.  At first I laughed, but then I thought it was a beautiful thing that had happened: people could look at everything as if they were pieces of art.  They looked at life, ordinary life, the way we artists look.

Art accompanies us for a long time after we have exited the museum.  A few months ago, while immobilized for a treatment of acupuncture, I did the following experiment:  I tried to listen to the noises surrounding me as if they were a piece of music: the cars, the steps, the voices, the birds, the wind in the trees... (The day before, I listened to a contemporary music concert that used the same noises).  I was listening as if it “had a sense,” as if it was a piece of music written by some composer.  After only a few minutes, I was so exhausted that I could not go on. Being a painter, this is what I am doing almost all of the time with my sense of vision, and in a natural way, without difficulty. My many years of practice allow me to “see” the world as if it were a painting.

4. The list of the associations art can provide is as long as all fields of human activities: Music, poetry, philosophy, politics… I would like to give one example of those associations linked to movement and to sound: When I paint, or draw, I do not listen to music, since I think that painting is an activity of all the senses.  I like to listen to the noise of the pencil on the paper, together with the noises around me. I remember that while I was a student, drawing in a classroom with others, I could, just by the noise of the charcoal on the sheet made by the student who was behind me, know if he or she was a good or bad draftsman.  When the “music” had a kind of logic, when it was “beautiful,” most of the times the drawing was good as well.  Even now, when I see a drawing I can hear it.  Take, for instance, the etching with the three crosses made by Rembrandt; you can feel when the point just brushed against the plate, when it scratches it nervously, or even furiously.  You can follow there the tracks of movement, like you could for tracks on the sand – you can listen to them. (In a parallel way, it is the same for a violinist listening to a piece of music and feeling the movements in his fingers).

Language of art functions in a completely different way than the-language-of-everyday.  Moreover, the language of everyday is much too “poor” to describe the language of art.  Kantor demonstrates why a group (a,b,c…) is always “smaller” than a group of the associations of those elements (a, ab, abc, ac…). It might be possible to use this demonstration to show why our ordinary language is too poor to describe a piece of art (which functions through associations).  To me, it seems intuitively true.

Poets and lawyers speak two completely different languages with different rules even though they use the same raw materials of vocabulary.  This is why it is a nonsense to try to translate a piece of poetry into its own language, and why it is necessary to translate it infinitely into others, while a legal document needs only be translated once.  Furthermore, attempts to explain art using the language of everyday freezes the streams of infinite associations.

The notion of “sense” is completely different when it refers to a piece of art.  The question “what does it mean?” – which includes in ordinary language the possibility of saying  “what it does not mean” – has no meaning when it deals with art. One of my paintings was described by two prominent and sensitive critics as “a hymn to life“ and as “a march toward death.”  I did not feel any contradiction between those two statements.  Hamlet could be a young blond virgin actor, or a fat, unshaven, bisexual 45 year-old-man. This text makes us dream.  This is why there is a need to come back to it again and again...  Art is a paradox, in the sense that you are not able to say if it is right or wrong.  A text such as the one I write now should be read only once.

As I wrote above, Art functions through associations.  Therefore there is no meaning to the question I am often asked about a painting: “What does it mean?”

When I am asked that question,” I always answer “everything.” A real, a deep, a great piece of art contains, through an infinite number of associations, the whole world.

When I am standing before an object that I desire to paint, I do not ask myself how to represent it, but rather, what it means, which evocations it conjures up.   A common mistake when responding to a painting of a tree, is to see the tree as the subject and not as a painting; that is, to look at a pictogram and not at a painting.

One of the most common misunderstandings about art is to think that it is composed of “sense” decorated with “beauty.” In this way of seeing, the painting of Cézanne would be the painting of a mountain, but represented in a “beautiful” way, like a beautifully “designed” mountain. There are computers programs that allow us to transform a banal photograph into something that looks like a painting.  Too often, the painter is considered almost as if he or she is a very sophisticated program of this kind.  According to this perspective, there would not much difference between design and art.  Both give us “pleasure” of the eye. (Actually, in our post-modern period, many museums show   design and art side by side).

To me, a piece of art is not “sense” + “beauty,” or just “beauty.”  It is another kind of sense.  

Art makes us dream, a pictogram does not.  A painting of a tree is not a pictogram of a tree with the addition of “beauty”.  Art, as well as dreams, functions by associations and ignores negation. Like in a dream, the objects or the forms, because of the very special structure of the work of art, undergo transformations, metamorphoses that do not hurt our logic.  In this context, it is interesting to read the article by Freud about negation. To Freud, negation is a mechanism of defense used by the patient to block an association which embarrasses him.

This is also the reason why there is progress in science and not in art. The physics of Newtonbecomes a particular detail in the theory of Einstein.   On the contrary, Cezanne, by creating new associations with the work of Poussin, makes it richer. (Moreover, the work of Poussin enriches the work of Cezanne. Time functions in both directions).  A new piece of art does not render an earlier piece of art irrelevant or old- fashioned; rather, it enriches it as it does with all other existing pieces. While listening to a quartet of Bartok, you can hear how it dialogues with Beethoven, with Bach, or with Hungarian folk music. In a way, we could say that linear history has, in this context, no meaning. For us, Bach, Beethoven and Bartok are contemporary.  Therefore, whereas the ideal of science is to develop a language which should be more and more concise, the language of art is becoming wider and wider.  The language of sciences is convergent; the one of art is divergent. This makes any description of art very limited.  If you were one day in the presence of two painters speaking of art, you would probably be surprised at how clumsy the dialogue can be. Using pantomime, or very vague  expressions like “it works” or ”it does not work,” using concepts  from other disciplines like “it is too sweet!” or “too heavy,” or taken from music like “rhythm,” “tonality,” “accord,”  “major or minor.” (It works also the other way: I have assisted at a violin master-class   with Shlomo Mintz where he used concepts taken from painting, like “line,” “colorful,” “black and white,” “blurry”…!).   

It is understandable, why art, which requires a highly sophisticated activity of the brain, interests scientists.  Not as an effort to understand art better, but for the needs of scientific research. It is less understandable why artists need sciences.  

It could be that artists are just interested in all fields of human behavior. They “use” scientific theory as a source of inspiration and then throw it away.  At some time they are interested by the theory of the decomposition of light, and they create Impressionism, at other times by the theory of relativity, and they create Futurist paintings etc.  This, without any linear coherence to the theories they refer to.  It is just a toy they can play with, and then leave.

It could also be that science and art are both linked to some “deep philosophy” of the time. It is fascinating to see, for instance, that the publication of the poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”  by Stéphane Mallarmé, was published at the same time as Poincarré studies on the hazard, while there were no known connections between the two men.  For some obscure reason, some idea circulates at a certain time and challenges both scientists and artists.

Scientific  theories are not without relation to the philosophy, ideology, and faith of the time.  When, during the early Renaissance, scientists abandoned the Aristotelian theory of optic, based upon the active activity of the eye, toward a conception of a punctual and passive eye#, it was much more than a revolution in painting (with the introduction of the Euclidian perspective), it was a philosophy having the individual , each individual, at the center of the universe.  It was not just an optic theory, but a philosophical, religious, political statement.   When this conception of a punctual and passive subject, center of the world, was abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, then, Euclidian perspective was abandoned in painting, the concept of the “point” in mathematics was replaced by the concept of the “very small spot,” and the subject, in literature and in philosophy exploded in a kaleidoscopic way. (For example, Mallarme creates a play on words with the words “je” (“I”) and “jeu” (“game”), as a metaphor for the subject as a combination.)   All those intellectual and artistic movements also have a deep global signification.

As I wrote above, the seminar on Art and Brain was – and still is – a part of my “training” as an artist. It allowed me to understand better the way in which vision functions, but the main lesson of this encounter was the idea of mapping.  The idea  of dividing the brain activity into zones which have different functions and work as a net of inter-references, has some similarity with the activities of the young generation of artists, mixing in the same exhibition video art,  heterogeneous drawings (figurative, abstracts, pictograms), installations, performances etc.  It seems to me that this way of activity, also parallels the way we use the internet, and in some strange and remote way, the new conception of the world as a net of multi-cultural, multi- national, multi-religious identities.  This idea of a dynamic “map” is, today, in the spirit of the time, and it seems that the Hegelian conception of history of art is transformed into a more dynamic conception of the “geography” of art.  Instead of historical exhibitions, there are more and more museums showing side by side African sculptures, Egyptian art, oil paintings of the seventeen century, with contemporary art. This creates very interesting possibilities of exploring new fields of knowledge both in art and sciences.