Sunday, April 20, 2008

Art and Science and A Robin


All art presupposes some degree of scientific method. All science begins with the art of ideas. Looking out my kitchen window I see a robin. I am aware, as I watch it gently tamp the grass with both feet while at the same time making the most pleasant, airy chirps a bird can make- that I'm writing a poem of a painting.

I try to imagine this painting of a robin in its own poem, with its own premise. The robin's premise, in my poem, is sound. The breezy refrain in her song, the lack of sound in her gliding footfall across my lawn. I jot down a few lines. My words, together with their syntactic foundation, form a premise whenever I assemble them together to say something. They always aim at something, however grandiose or base, however monumental or trivial; and they always bear the subtle fruit of some kind of methodological approach, however unclear it may be to either me or the reader.

The robin must know, better than I, what she is about. But since she can't tell me in words, I have to rely on other senses to inform. And when I want to write of death, or global warming, or a disquieting conversation with a neighbor (in a poem, for example), I get to remember the sound the robin made through its tiny beak, or its silent, frustrating foray through my grass, finding no worms.

This word picture may reasonably find its way into my thinking at any moment, without ever using diagnostic words relating to the robin. Importantly, however, while pleasing to the psyche and sometimes to the heart, this approach can fall short in providing absolute information. I may speak much of a robin, but I may say less of Robin. I may describe her demeanor and talk about her successes and failures, and relate them to my own, and you may find something in the delineation of my robin that you hadn't seen in your robin. Still, we may widely disagree. This amounts to a kind of Wikipedia entry for a robin. If enough of us write robin poems and enough of us interact with each others work, we may come to understand more and more about the robin. This is beginning to sound like science.

In fact, this is about all that science purports to accomplish. It aims to observe, to write about those observations, and to make conclusions based on these observations. It aims to submit these findings to some sort of Wikipedia, some bulletin board of review, so that others can comment, agree, admire, disagree and, yes, denigrate (in a civil sort of academic way, of course!).

These methods, whether of art or science, have their own peculiar aspects of inquiry, observation, examination, discussion, conclusion and/or qualia of experience. Whether describing atmospheric pressure in a balloon, or the circular perambulations of a robin in a poem, it is necessary to make assumptions and reason your way through them toward a semblance of conclusion. Even in absurdist poetry, one is clearly making a statement based on random or nonsensical premises.

Science need not be rigorous and restricted to nomenclature to be scientific inquiry, just as art need not be diffuse and metaphorical to be artistic; we fool ourselves to think we live and operate in a world where we don't commonly think, project and/or imagine, using very distinct patterns of logic and mechanistic inquiry. These patterns of thought are subject to both our own scrutiny, as well as the scrutiny of others. To say that we can approach a definition in our art, is not to deny any kind of mystical or emotional basis to that art. Quite the converse, we give more credence to our art as it touches the senses and the supra-sense, when we acknowledge that it has a basis in reason, as opposed to being on the fringe of reason, or outside of experience altogether.

Scientific method does not (nor has it ever intended to) war against art, and vice versa. But rather, the two coexist, right beside each other, benefiting in a mutual and symbiotic process of declaration, understanding and enlightenment.



  1. An elegant synthetic argument about how artistic thinking and scientific thinking dovetail into our notion of what a 'robin' is, both the individual specimen as a perceived, experienced phenomenon and the species itself as an object of study, when the two kinds of knowledge interlock into 'robin-ness' in the sense of a '"family resemblance" as the great philosopher of mind and language Wittgenstein might have put it, Ed.

    This unique relationship between art and science, this " benefiting in a mutual and symbiotic process of declaration, understanding and enlightenment" means for me that they inform each other in a unique way, that is to say, in the way that an individual mind--my mind--can inform the world of a subjective event and be informed by the world of an objective context for it, and in the way that a scientific theory that may only be partially true as proven later in a shift in the scientific paradigm may depicted as an underpinning of 'reality' in an accumulation of art styles of a period, for example notions of light particles (later complemented by waves) in relationship to the Impressionists and post-Impressionists.

    Art matters to science: Science matters to art. Neither should presume to be master of the other, but instead, learn a common language. So neuroanatomists ought to learn to speak " mentalese' and literary critics ought to truly do some math before they reduce quantum theory down to a few badly distilled metaphors. This stands to also seems reasonable to the imagination.

    And let's not forget about style in technology, either (I think to myself) remembering how art deco came out of industrial design.

  2. exactly John, and thanks so much for filling in the blanks. So true about deco, and structure in poetry, perhaps more than any other writing genre, presupposes method (even free verse)

  3. I am sighing after reading you tonight. Just yesterday I visited your pages in hopes of finding something new I had missed the notification on.

    I remember rising most mornings and coming to read you first.
    While I give you that we are human beings, and as such we have a right to atttend to our own needs--mine have been sorely lacking without my morning dose of poetry with ENudleman's fine words.

    This was an excellent piece and I as always, enjoyed you. Thank you.

  4. How do I unsubscribe from this?

    I'm not at all interested in biographical, expressive or didactic poetry.

    Please advise.

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  6. I just got an email directing me here, I guess automatically generated from two years ago when I wanted to know the followup to my comments about this most excellent essay. Sad that blogspot can't prevent such wholesale spamming, so that some bot spammer for a stimulant drug can soil a thread of a notable poet.
    Anyhow, the good news is I reread Art and Science and A Robin and found your approach to the topic first covered by C.P.Snow in his famous essay as fresh as ever.
    Take care, buddy.


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