The difference between science and art — a potentially useful explanation

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Perspectival photo of the spiral staircase at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences, Toronto, Canada 

This explanation comes from a recent conversation between artist/musician Brian Eno and architect Bjarke Ingels (see partial transcription below). It’s an explanation that I’ve been contemplating while devising possible experiments in the field of information/data art and performance (i.e., my dissertation research). Eno’s explanation seems (to me) to be not only insightful, but also approachable and — perhaps more importantly — useful. Not only do I think this because my own research is forcing me to oscillate between the sciences and the arts at ever-increasing degrees of intensity, but because so many artists (myself included), tend to do a poor job of explaining why everyone else should care about what they (we) do. 


“Why don’t we all do science? Science obviously produces results — we all live with those results; they’re all around us. Science is practical; makes good sense, and it’s very inspiring too, it’s not unimaginative or anything like that; it’s not dull. So I started thinking about this question of what do artists do and why do we want artists? Why do we want art? […] I started to think that the difference between science and art was that science was really interested in trying to find out how this world works. If you ask any scientist what they’re doing they’ll say, “Well I’m just fascinated by spectacles, so I just really want to see how they worked,” or “I’m just fascinated by water; I really want to understand water.” If you ask artists what they’re doing they generally tell you to ‘bugger off’ or they don’t really have an answer to the question. They say, “I just like doing it.” So you say, “But why do you like doing it?” And what you realize is that what artists like is to build new worlds of some kind; unfamiliar worlds. They want to build other possible realities and in doing that understand something about this reality; reflect back on this reality […] That was really where things like Music For Airports came from. They came from projecting a future that I hoped to create by building some of the objects that belonged in that future. I thought, if you put the objects there, even though the rest of the future didn’t exist, it would start to grow around those objects…. And it seemed to work.” 

Nevertheless, I remain curious as to other possible distinctions between what science and art do for us. I’m especially interested in explanations which emphasize the complimentary nature of science and art rather than those that continue to promote opposition or divisiveness.    

You can view the entire conversation below. Eno’s explanation begins at 2min:58sec in.

Brian Eno & Bjarke Ingels — ‘On Instruments Of Change’ (Heartland Festival, 2016)

Selected links:

Author: Richard Windeyer

digital music / design / performance

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