Notes from Windward: #67


An Observation

on a similarity between art and science

     Winter is a great time for sticking close to the fire and working through the stack of interesting books that accumlates during the summer. I'm currently reading Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music and finding lots of interesting things to ponder such as the observation that " perception is a process of inference."

     Levitin goes into fascinating detail describing ways that our minds create the experience of music--often by inferring things that aren't actually there. He writes, "Our perceptions are the end product of a long chain of neural events that give us the illusion of an instantaneous image. There are many domains in which our strongest intuitions mislead us. The flat earth is one example. The intuition that our senses give us an undistorted view of the world is another."

     One perception that new people often bring to Windward is that this place should be more organized, more planned out, more finished, etc. And while there's certainly room for improvement along those lines, there's also a point where the desire for the appearance of order and finality can inhibit the learning and artistic process.

      For example, a key difference between an engineer and a scientist is that the former works within the domain of the known, while the latter works at the frontier of understanding in an effort to marry the known with the unknown. While both art and science build on a body of knowledge and skill, there is an element of serendipity that is essential to art and anathema to engineering. Many a scientific advance or artistic innovation has come about because someone recognized the value of an unintended outcome, something you can afford in the laboratory or rehearsal hall, but which is decidedly unwelcome when building a bridge--the sort of endeavor where surprises are generally not the nice kind.

     And so, a key part of our approach to intentional community has been to focus tightly on the essentials while encouraging diversity and fluidity in the other aspects of what we do-a style that can be confusing at first glance. Mindful of that, I was impressed by Levitin's comment on a similarity between artists and scientists, a similarity that I see in our approach to sustainability.

     "The Oxford historian Martin Kemp points out a similarity between artists and scientists. Most artists describe their work as experiments-part of a series of efforts designed to explore a common concern or to establish a viewpoint. My good friend and colleague William Forde Thompson (a music cognition scientist and composer at the University of Toronto) adds that the work of both scientists and artists involves similar stages of development: a creative and exploratory "brainstorming" stage, followed by testing and refining stages that typically involve the application of set procedures, but are often informed by additional creative problem-solving.

     Artist's studios and scientists' laboratories share similarities as well, with a large number of projects going at once, in various stages of incompletion. Both require specialized tools, and the results are-unlike the final plans for a suspension bridge, or the tallying of money in a bank account at the end of the business day-open to interpretation. What artists and scientists have in common is the ability to live in an open-ended state of interpretation and reinterpretation of the products of their work. The work of artists and scientists is ultimately the pursuit of truth, but members of both camps understand that truth is in its very nature is contextual and changeable, dependent on point of view, and that today's truths become tomorrow's disproven hypotheses or forgotten objects d' art."

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67