• On the relationship between art and science | Part I

On the relationship between art and science | Part I

Before I develop my thoughts on this topic, I would like to clarify the aim of my essay by briefly explaining what I am not concerned with.

I am not concerned with the relationship between art and nature, but with relating art to the science of nature

Regarding the relationship between nature and art, I’d like to refer to the Kantian aesthetic category of the "negativity of art", which I have written about previously. As a reminder, negativity does not mean something positive or negative, but negativity in the sense of negation. This means that every work of art negates reality. It does not capture the factual. It negates it and shows what is possible beyond it. If it were to remain bound to the factual, it would only be recreated nature (a copy) and not something newly created by the artist. We have to understand that reality is present in the work of art insofar as our reality of life is not actually represented. The reality of art has always gone through a negation, is artificial and fiction! Here I touch on a crucial point that will later become important for our topic: That a work of art does not communicate a proportional, that is, logical truth of statement. But this is precisely what science relies on. Scientific statements always refer to facts, which in logic are related to a logical and propositionally objectifiable statement. If the question arises as to whether what I say is true, then it can only be asked whether it is logically true or not. In relation to art statements, no one can know what I think as an artist. It can only ever be related back to the statement itself. Works of art therefore have no propositional character, they can have neither true nor false statements about something, because they always refer to themselves and therefore they form a negativity against claims outside themselves.

One could still say, especially in relation to modernity, that negativity in art means, for example, the absence of the unity of nature. The unity of nature is no longer immediately visible in abstraction; likewise the absence of transcendence or the absence of meaning, etc. All this is also meant by negativity. In a double sense, negativity could also be described as the category of modern art par excellence in its most broadly stretched and interpreted general understanding of what art brings to appearance in the first place.

Referring to this, I would like to ask a question that I will answer later on: whether there was perhaps a point in time in natural science, especially in physics, when it lost nature, its actual object, and if so, what took its place?

But first I would like to continue with my specification and ask the following: What is nature according to its appearance? How do we know anything concrete about it? It may surprise you if I say here what we call nature is a man-made phenomenon. Nature never appeared claiming: "Look, it's me!" Rather, how and what it is always arises from the insights of the curiously inquiring human mind. We will never be able to know whether he or she encounters real nature. In this respect, a mystery always remains in the exploration of nature, which is: "Is it really so?" For us, it is the "given", which we also call "creation" in the context of religiosity. However, man also determines its laws. He makes the laws of nature by finding them. This is how the sentence of the English philosopher and natural scientist Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626) is to be understood, "Knowledge (itself) is power", namely power over nature, not over people. To face a mighty nature through knowledge and "to bring man to a higher state of his existence."

The artist is in a similar situation. Art is made by the artist. Therefore, it is artificial and never natural, although nature, with its wonderful formations in shape, colour and movement, has been his/her great inspirer and educator for centuries and has enticed him/her to imitate, to which numerous illusory artists have also succumbed. But as explained before, an artist seeks that which in his/her inner being goes beyond nature in pictorial necessities and leads to art. When this point is reached by him/her and a work of art is created, he/she will know just as little whether it is really a work of art as the naturalist never knows whether he/she encounters true nature. What a work of art is, according to its nature, sua species, we will never be able to know. It is open! We can only approach it appropriately or, unfortunately, inappropriately. We approach it inadequately above all when the artist as a person does not live his or her spiritual personality and thus elementary experiences are missing. Where the spiritual sphere of the person is not lived, artistic creation is impossible.

On the question of elementary experiences, I quote Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835), Alexander's elder brother (1769 - 1859): "To reshape and appropriate the whole mass of material which the world and his inner being presents, with all the tools and with all the powers of his self-activity, and thereby to bring his ego into the most general, most lively and most concordant interaction with nature". He says that the active human being acts on the world through his spiritual powers and thus also expands the "sensual realm of nature" in this way. (Basic Aesthetic Concepts, vol. 1, p. 716, Stuttgart)

At this point, we encounter something related in the relationship between art and natural science, in that both the artist and the scientist the inquiring mind predominates as the driving force of their respective actions.

Incidentally, I prefer the term "researcher" to the more modern-sounding variant "scientist", because in the researcher one still senses his thirst for action and in comparison to the scientist the feeling of existing knowledge as something assured is more likely to be present.

For example, we could hardly come to terms with calling Alexander von Humboldt a scientist rather than a naturalist. To this day, he is the greatest natural scientist there ever was. Or Goethe (1749 - 1832), for example, who always talks about his scientific research intentions. I mention them both because I will refer to them again later.

Just as we have already found similarities between artists and natural scientists, their approach to nature is different.

Let's start with the researching natural scientists. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) already pointed out time and time again that statements about nature only acquire true meaning when they are recorded in an "experiment". Simplified, this means a certain form of the question of interest in nature is recreated in an experiment. The nature thus recreated is now subject to the observation of the researcher, who collects his observation results, assesses them and arrives at the result "right" or "wrong". This is deductive thinking, which arises from the mind. It is discursive, i.e. logical, and links individual elements into contexts. This gives rise to concepts for the researcher, his judgement and his conclusion (= proof).

All this never takes place in the art process; here it is just the opposite: the artist, who is also a researcher, does not observe, but treads the path of perception and is thus connected to reason. This is always situation-dependent, above all sensual perception, which Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) assigns to theoretical reason. Theoretical, theory understood here in the original sense of ancient Greek as a form of contemplation, a contemplative power of judgement, of which Goethe always spoke.

The researching artist experiences the outside world, nature, through experience. There, the sensually perceptible world meets the spiritual reality of the person. In this process, the qualities of reality become tangible for the artist: the non-measurable! The artist as a person could counter the research of the scientist with the following example: If one reduces the whole of natural phenomena to mere pointer-noises (measure!), as practised in science, one overall result remains, namely that of emptiness. The emptiness reveals that the human subject does not appear in the result found: it is missing!

"The scientist wants the knowledge of the absolutely real. The artist (as a person) wants the re-creation of a concrete reality in which the connections of ideas are given better, more perfectly, more purely (without intention) than in the world of natural perception." Max Scheler (1874 - 1928) Schriften aus dem Nachlass, Leipzig 1933, vol. 1, p. 430.

The scientist wants to penetrate into the interior of matter by means of experiment, skeletonisation, dissection, etc. He/she wants mastery over the given. He/she wants dominion over reality. The artist, on the other hand, wants to interpret reality in order to penetrate that which nature does not show us in its formations, for it never reveals the whole idea that wanted to become form. However, the artist can only get there through internalisation.

The painter Paul Cezanne (1839 - 1906) expressed this artistic endeavour as follows: "Nature is not on the surface, it is in the depth. The colours are an expression of this depth on the surface. They rise from the roots of the world. They are its life, the life of ideas." (Conversations on Art; The Gasquet Letters)

In emotion before the natural beauty, the philosopher Nicolai Hartmann (1882 - 1950) formulated in his Aesthetics that the perceiving human being "cannot help feeling that he stands face to face with the wonder of creation."

The natural scientist, on the other hand, falls prey to the fallacy of reaching into the interior of matter by "dissecting", "atomising". But to do this, he must always turn the inside into the outside. Thus, with the claim to explore the innermost, only something external and dead, something of matter that does not change, is looked at again.

One of the most well-founded critics of this scientific approach was Goethe. He conceded to art its holistic claim to be a "singular totality" (Immanuel Kant), the presence of perfection par excellence. He denied this claim to natural science, since it could never fulfil it methodically in its approach. It was only concerned with the partial and the resulting detailed knowledge from a purely causal-mechanistic procedure.

"If we expect any kind of wholeness from science, we must necessarily think of it as art." (Goethe, 1749 - 1832, Maxime) He states:

"The divinity, however, is effective in the living, not in the dead;

It is in the becoming and the transforming,

but not in what has become and solidified.

That is why reason, in its tendency towards the divine, has to do only with what is becoming and living;

Reason with that which has become, which has solidified, that it may be of use."

The dispute between the English physicist, astronomer and mathematician Isaac Newton (1643 - 1727) and Goethe about the methodological procedure of scientific research, which has gone down in the history of the development of natural science, was won by Newton in favour of the so-called causal-mechanistic method of reasoning. This was the beginning of the triumph of natural science, but with a significant loss: it lost the human being, the subjective element within events. Hence the desperate efforts of natural science, with its additional tendency towards economics, to develop an ethic. The artist, however, succeeded:

"The ethics which link the realisation of the good with the production of the appearing form is called aesthetic morality." (Martin Rabe born 1942)

Unfortunately, the split into the two cultures of natural sciences and humanities, or between scientistic and self-creative intelligence, which was impressively pointed out by the British novelist and physicist Charles Percy Snow (1905 - 1980, The Two Cultures, 1959), arose from the methodologically different approach of observing and perceiving. To go into this further would go far beyond the scope of this article. But I wanted to mention it and recommend his book.

The success of the natural sciences has indeed been bought with great loss. Nature no longer appears as the vital, divine creation of innumerable individuals, but as the avalanche-like multiplied production of the action of a few natural laws. The spiritual content of such a creation cannot actually be more extensive and qualitatively more valuable than the spiritual content of these laws. Within a world understood in this way, man himself can be nothing more than a complicated mechanism. In this world view, there is no real or conscious space for freedom and spiritual creativity. Making natural science tangible again, as art always was and is, transforming it so that people can recognise and find themselves in it, this must be the aim of the future of science. Progress here is only possible with the help of mathematical operations. At the limit of a purely material view of the world, we encounter something that we can only reach with our thoughts, or with no experiment. It then becomes important to endure this limit of experience and cognition. We can become aware of the spiritual that we encounter in our own thinking if we acknowledge its reality and do not fall back into apparent representational ideas. The courageous first step in this direction was taken by the Physics Nobel Prize winner Max Planck (1858 - 1947) at the turn of the century with his discovery of quantum natural phenomena, which was further developed by Albert Einstein around 1905 and other leading physicists including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli up to 1925. Causal-mechanistic physics failed completely. Werner Heisenberg (1901 - 1976) described the new situation in his treatise "On the descriptive content of quantum-theoretical kinematics and mechanics", in which he developed the concept of the "uncertainty principle". The new revolutionary insights required a revolutionary work of consciousness in order to correct traditional thought patterns. This can only succeed if science also turns to the other side of reality, let's say the view of artists. This is how I quote Werner Heisenberg after he characterised the reality of today's natural science:

"This objective reality, which runs according to fixed laws and which binds us where it seems to be meaningless chance, is now confronted with the other reality, which is important, which means something for us. In this other reality, what happens is not counted but weighed, and what happens is not explained but interpreted. When meaningful connections are spoken of here, we are talking about a togetherness within the human soul." Here Heisenberg explicitly refers to Goethe and his way of looking at nature. He says: "We physicists of today are students of Newton in our subject and not of Goethe. But we know that this science is not absolute truth, but a certain methodical procedure. We are compelled to reflect on the danger and limits of this procedure. Thus we have reason to ask precisely about that in Goethe's science which is different from that in the prevailing natural science." (Speech to the Goethe Society, 1967)

In the words of the eminent Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885 - 1962), referring to the physics of atoms called "quantum theory":

"Quantum theory is a wonderful example of how one can have understood a fact in complete clarity and yet at the same time know that one can only speak of it in similes and images." Not logical!

From then on, natural scientists also had to present their results in a form that had long been known from art: in an open form!

In his fundamental work: "The Part and the Whole", Munich, 1972, p. 325 f.f. Werner Heisenberg writes further:

"In the beginning was symmetry, this is certainly more correct than the Democritic thesis (Pre-Socrat Democritus, ca. 460 BC): "In the beginning was the particle!" The elementary particles embody the symmetries, they are their simplest representation, but they are only a consequence of the symmetries.

The elementary particles can be compared with the regular bodies in Plato's "Timaeus". They are the archetypes, the ideas of matter... these archetypes determine further events. They are the representatives of the central order..."

These words are surprisingly reminiscent of the words of the astronomer Johannes Keppler (1571 - 1630):

"Geometry is before the creation of things, as eternal as the Spirit of God. It is God himself and provided him with the archetypes for the creation of the world. Geometry, however, has passed into man, God's image, and it is not only through the eyes that it is received ... The mathematical facts and the conclusions of reason originate in the soul itself. They are examples or archetypes ... They are with God from eternity to eternity. The world of the body was to be created according to them ... To recognise means to compare that which is perceptible to the senses with the inner archetypes and to find it in agreement with them." (from Ernst Mössel, Urformen des Seins, Stuttgart, 1938)

But I would also like to refer to a sentence by Wassily Kandinsky from his book "Essays on Art and Artists", Bern, 1955:

"In the field of tension of composition, the interplay of invisible entities is made visible with the means of the visible world. The spiritual archetypes call out to us in the art image their passionate "I am there" and have become tangible again."

If the natural scientists are now talking about archetypes, so-called collective patterns of interpretation of images, figures, but also situations, which are anchored in the subconscious of people and can shape our perception, then we should turn to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875 - 1961), who connected these archetypes with emotions, characteristics and also goals of human beings. He was joined by the Nobel Prize winner for physics Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), who claimed to have dreamt his scientific findings beforehand in order to verify them afterwards. He wanted to understand these experiences with Jung's help.

What we can observe is the fact that the modern natural scientist has indeed found a direct proximity to art and the artist. Now they both sit at the same desk, whereby the artist may remain an artist and the natural scientist a scientist. Since then we can say that science became human through art and art without science seems ridiculous.

One who sat at this desk for a long time and is still the greatest natural scientist of all times, was Alexander von Humboldt. He was driven by the intention of seeking out the hidden laws behind the diversity of phenomena, their agreement and harmony: "To recognise unity in diversity... to grasp the spirit of nature which lies veiled under the cover of phenomena." In this way, our endeavour reaches beyond the limits of the sensory world and we can succeed in grasping nature, in mastering the raw material of empirical observation, as it were, through ideas. Werner Heisenberg also came to this conclusion.

Humboldt was also a painter and which is probably why he gave the leading article in the first volume of his most important work "Der Kosmos" (The Cosmos) the title "Ein Naturgemälde" (A painting of nature).

Alexander von Humbodlt, 1806. Painting by Goerg Weitsch (1758 - 1828). State Museums, Berlin, National Gallery. Source: Kulturzeit der Wissenschaften, Ästhetische Ansichten, Hörsaal Holzen.

Alexander von Humbodlt, 1806. Painting by Goerg Weitsch (1758 - 1828). State Museums, Berlin, National Gallery. Source: Kulturzeit der Wissenschaften, Ästhetische Ansichten, Hörsaal Holzen.

To conclude, I would like to repeat what Werner Heisenberg formulated in 1939: It is a deep insight into the nature of things. It led him to the fact that the path of an electron in an atom is only created by the researcher himself. In other words, nature does not acquire its form from within itself, but through the human being who seeks to discover it. Without the researching, measuring human being, and the gaze of the experimenter (Leonardo!), objects of atomic magnitude remain indeterminate. The reality of these objects presents itself as an accumulation of possibilities (interpretations!), which they have by their nature, but which one is shown depends solely on the questioning of the observer. It is not nature itself, but the observer alone, who determines how nature is. Without him/her, this nature would not exist.

The bridge to art is obvious, because as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, a work of art has an infinite number of meanings that can be found by an infinite number of recipients. In this respect, a work of art is always the transcription of an artistic idea, which the viewer or the interpreter (music) finds and develops for him/herself. That is why we can never definitively say what a work of art is, but can only experience and understand it anew time and again from the encounter. It is not something fixed, but something that is always in motion, like man himself. 

 Martin Rabe (born 1942), "Im Gleichgewicht - Naturwissenschaft und Kunst" („In Equilibrium – Natural Science and Art)

Martin Rabe (born 1942), "Im Gleichgewicht - Naturwissenschaft und Kunst" („In Equilibrium – Natural Science and Art),

1965, oil on canvas, 83 x 92 cm, private collection.

© Sibylle Laubscher & Martin Rabe