In This Article Science and Contemporary Art

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Periodicals
  • Databases

Art History Science and Contemporary Art
by
Cristina Albu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0081

Introduction

While the dialogue between art and science has developed quite steadily since the post-Second World War period, scholarship on this theme and museum support for interdisciplinary inquiries has followed a highly discontinuous trajectory. At the beginning of the Cold War, fears over the potentially devastating impact of technology gave rise to a significant body of literature that criticized the growing rift between humanities and sciences. The popularization of theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and cybernetics in the 1960s, along with the growing access to new technological devices, spurred artists’ interest in the design of objects, performances, and environments that enhanced viewers’ awareness of their perceptual and behavioral responses or exposed them to complex information systems. Such works were often characterized by variability and unpredictability, requiring viewers to complete the work through their engagement or to observe its dependence on biological, socio-political, and technological conditions that were not under the artists’ complete control. Preoccupied primarily by the aesthetic qualities of these art practices and doubtful about their ability to provide a social critique of technology, many art critics faced significant challenges as they tried to develop new criteria for assessing their value. Scholarship on art and science flourished primarily between mid-1960s and mid-1970s when new platforms of collaboration between artists, scientists, and engineers were established and museums organized exhibitions that promoted the production of technology-based projects. Critical interest in art and science declined sharply in the second half of the 1970s under the impact of growing skepticism over the aesthetic qualities of such works and their capacity to raise critical questions about the relation between science, technology, and society. Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, scholarship on artistic inquiries into science and technology was featured primarily in new media symposia, festivals, and journals. Advances in genetic sequencing, bioengineering, and neurosciences have catalyzed a renewed artistic and scholarly interest in interdisciplinary methods of inquiry since the turn of the century. Recent scholarship focuses on (i) analogies between the studio/the museum and the laboratory; (ii) the ethical implications of scientific and artistic research; (iii) the technological mediation of sensorial experience and cognitive processes; (iv) the public display of knowledge production; and (v) the visual mapping and emergent behavior of complex networks. It is generally believed that artists can offer a critical angle on scientific methodologies and theories by examining the less evident repercussions of their applications and by bringing their socio-political implications into public debate. There is also an increased sense that artists developing projects at the intersection of art, science, and technology are not only creating representations of existing scientific knowledge but are also leading new inquiries into the interdependence of biological, economic, social, and technological systems. More and more artists and art theorists emphasize the need for reciprocal exchanges between art and science. The caveat of this bibliography is that it covers only scholarly literature available in English. It aims to provide a historical perspective upon debates regarding convergent trajectories between art and science since the 1960s. While some overlaps with the history of new media art are inevitable given the relevance of cybernetic theories and experimentation for both areas of study, the focus of this bibliography is on artists’ use of scientific concepts, methods, and interdisciplinary approaches to art and knowledge production rather than on their reliance on new technology for acts of creative expression in general. Each bibliographic section reveals fluctuations in perspective on contemporary art and science by combining texts from different decades. Whenever possible, the sections include sources written by a broad range of agents that mediate the dialogue between art and science, including artists, art historians, curators, philosophers, scientists, and theorists.

General Overviews

The following overviews show the shifting focus of scholarly writings from the 1960s to the present. While early overviews focus on the interplay between art, technology and science, often connecting the trajectories of new media with those of modern painting and sculpture, overviews that have appeared since the 1990s focus on artists’ direct involvement in scientific research or their collaborations with scientists. They are less concerned with issues pertaining to the medium of artistic expression, such as the aesthetic potential of new technology. Instead, they address interdisciplinary collaborative modes, ethical considerations of scientific endeavors and technological applications, the limitations of the visual representation of scientific data, and the challenges that still need to be overcome to bridge the divide between art and science.

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