2007/05/07

Scientific visualization. Is it art?


URL: 2006 Visualization Challenge Winners
URL: Slide Show


Cockroach Portrait. David Yager. University of Maryland


A Da Vinci Blackboard Lesson in Multi-Conceptual Anatomy. Caryn Babaian.
Bucks County Community College, Newtown, Pennsylvania


Body Code. Drew Berry(1), Jeremy Pickett-Heaps(2) and François Tétaz.
(1) The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne, Australia. (2) University of Melbourne




Is this art?

No those are not artworks in the conventional sense they are only visualizations of scientific "knowings". (A knowing is a parcel of knowledge that is added to all other knowings. All the knowings interact together and replaced in a holistic vision they form the knowledge base that offers the worldview to be shared by all the citizens, the glue to keep societies from falling apart).

So what's the difference between such a visualization and an artwork?
That question begs that we make a detour through history.
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In short history teaches us that: from the earliest times humans practiced a division of labor between the production of knowledge (complete worldview systems) and the production of art (the illustration of those worldviews at the attention of all).

- under animistic hegemony the shaman is the man of knowledge and his knowledge is passed in simplified visual form to his fellow tribesmen who uniting behind this worldview are like glued together in their tribe. (in this specific case the shaman combines the roles of man of knowledge and image maker)

- under religious hegemony the monks and priests are the holders of the creed, the religious worldview, and image maker craftsmen are in charge of the illustration of the creed.
The only knowledgeable people who could read and write from the onset of Christianity (4th century AD) when this particular creed is being imposed as the exclusive religion of the Roman empire by emperor Constantine till as late as the Renaissance (16th century) are the priests and monks who communicate in Latin. The other members of society (including kings and emperors) were most generally illiterate and images were thus the only practical way to share the religious creed among all.

- under the hegemony of modernity the ideology of rationality triumphed that emerged out of the repeated application of the logic of capital. The new rich who plundered their fortunes in far lands were gradually forcing the shift from the religious creed to individualism and private property. (see "What is modernism after all?")
Economically a mature modernity transformed, from an exchange of luxurious goods as in early
modernity, into the exchange of mass productions.
Under the impact of the scientific revolution and philosophic rationalism Europe entered gradually in a phase of fast maturing modernity, I mean that culturally the ideas of rationality, of freedom, and democracy were spreading as a wildfire. With historical hindsight it is as if culture had been put in the service of the economy preparing the minds of the individuals for the coming choice-economy, the mass-market.

Politics and visual arts were slower at adapting to the changes of modernity then philosophy, science and culture. Society as a whole needed to reach a threshold in acceptance of the new ideas of rationality, science, freedom and democracy before politics and visual arts could enter the dance of a maturing modernity.

The passage from early modernity to mature modernity must be seen as the real turning point from a religious worldview to a modern worldview. After a period of social fights for the recognition of the rights of all citizens, in the evening of the nineteenth century, politics integrated finally the new ideals of freedom and democracy but in doing so it abandoned its traditional role that had been, since the beginning of civilization, to force in the mind of all citizens the worldview of the men of knowledge of the day. In this abandonment by the men of power artists were set free of their traditional societal mission at illustrating the worldview of the men of knowledge. But all this happened without one word being uttered. The artists had gained the freedom to paint what they please but, oh irony, they are still totally un-conscientious about the changes that occurred, in their societal function, at the turn of the twentieth century.

Those systemic changes put the visual arts out of a societal role.
But is this the real story?
Is this not more like the fog of a complete societal confusion that leaves us all completely blind and thus unable to understand the yearning for sense by most of the citizens in our present-day late-modern societies?

One century passed since those systemic changes apparently left the visual arts out of a societal role. That is a very short time span on the ladder of societal evolution and force is to observe that the spirit of modernity was easily absorbed by Western citizens during the last 100 years of mass market consumerism. Advertisement took over from visual arts pulling the individuals on a roller-coaster of material possessions leaving most of us drowning under mountains of "stuff". But three factors interacting among themselves are preparing our awakening.

Science and technology + economic and cultural globalization + environmental degradation and resource depletion are pulling us into a societal maelstrom on a global scale without any precedent in past history. The societal "malaise", that is already strongly felt nowadays by many of us yearning for sense in churches, mosques, temples, or wherever else, is bound to increase dramatically in the coming years and could very well ultimately put us all in the bounds of a societal collapse.

This yearning for sense is a yearning to share the worldview of the men of knowledge of late modernity, early post-modernity. There is only one problem. Where are the men of knowledge of our days? Are they the scientists? No they are holders of knowings but not really of knowledge. Are they the priest, the monks, the imams? No their worldviews derives from a state of knowledge arrived at in earlier times and so they are not suitable to answer the realities of our present times. So who are the men of knowledge of our times? I confess that I don't know. I sure know some wise individuals but they all are pedalling in one way streets or walking in the wilderness.
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This leads us back to our initial question "what's the difference between a scientific visualization and an artwork?

Scientific visualizations are not works of art in the sense that they do not illustrate the knowledge of our times but rudimentary fragments only of that knowledge. Those fragments surely help us better understanding that the "first degree image that projects on our retina" is at best only a very weak image that has not the slightest chance to help us coming to grips with our present reality. In that sense scientific visualizations are kind of precursors or awakeners to the visual arts to come.


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