Innovating Through Artistry

Was Science or Art First?

In BOOKS: Learn and Grow, Entrepreneurial Tool Box, The Idea on July 30, 2008 at 5:13 am

Written By Jonah Lehrer

If you are a scientist you could choose to get nitpicky about whether or not Proust was a neuroscientist, or you could sit back, relax and enjoy the ride as Lehrer weaves together stories about art, science and creative breakthroughs. Lehrer argues that when it comes to discoveries of the mind and brain, art got there first.

To prove his point he describes the ground-breaking work of writers, painters and composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries (including writers and poets) and shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that neuroscience is only now rediscovering. He says Proust was the first to reveal the fallibility of memory, Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and Gertrude Stein mined the deep structure of language 50 years before Chomsky.

Critics question whether the artists and writers were really prescient when it comes to neuroscience but from my perspective it doesn’t really matter, Lehrer provides a fascinating account of how the creative expression of each artist was influenced by the scientific theories of their times.

Lehrer’s intention in writing the book is to re-imagine a new relationship between two polarities so that “science is seen through the optic of art, and art is interpreted in the light of science.” He asserts that science is not the only path to knowledge and measurement is not the same as understanding.

Lehrer would like to see art and science re-integrated into an expansive critical sphere. “Both art and science can be useful, and both can be true. In our own time art is a necessary counterbalance to the glories and excesses of scientific reductionism, especially if they are applied to human experience.”

Indeed. When I look at contemporary art, it is almost always influenced by science and technology, and when I listen to scientists explain their work to the public, they often use literary metaphors and artistic images to convey meaning.

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