The art-science interplay: A story of functional interdependence


Satyarthi Mishra

Credits: Nirmitee Nitin Mulay

  This article traces the ‘zeitgeist’ of the evolution of art and science through history, and the expressions of artists and scientists and draws parallels themed around the interdependence of the thought processes involved.

  The story of art and science is as old as time itself and can be traced back to the dawn of civilization. With the discovery of fire emerged the scope for humanity to utilise it, thereby improving prehistoric life viz. art and science in many ways. Apart from heat, fire provided illumination and thereby enabled the possibility of making drawings inside caves, which subsequently went on to influence early art - what is now considered as ancient cave paintings.

  Today, the artist is considered a right brain-dominant thinker, navigating the world with intuition, creativity, and emotion. In contrast, the scientist is regarded as a logical and analytical thinker, navigating the world in a left brain-dominant manner. With the vibrant dialogue between art and science gaining relevance, artists are now engaging in a genre where art is influenced by science and the effect science has on society, identity and perception of the world around us.1 The advances in science continue to be a constant and rapid driving force, changing the world. Occasionally, an artist dons the role of an observer and critic of the evolving culture. Where scientists endeavour to answer questions, artists frequently ask more questions than they answer. Other times, the artist's role is to explain, illustrate and educate—often making the invisible visible.2

  Currently, two rival views dominate the discourse between art and science: one considers art and science as opposites and any similarities between the two as largely coincidental, whereas the other claims art and science to be merely different expressions of an underlying unity and their similarities to point towards this unity. However, both perspectives are erroneous as they falsely assume that rationality (or reasoning) and creativity (or imagination) are exclusive. Such assumptions deny the correspondence that has occurred through the ages between art and science. Alternatively, a position of functional interdependence between rationality and creativity accounts for this reality of interactions.3

  Let us now briefly graze through some such correspondences between art and science.

  1st: The Renaissance was not merely a rekindling of interest in Greek culture but a movement in the arts and sciences. What began under Copernicus and Galileo as a scientific revolution culminated in the oeuvres of da Vinci and Michelangelo.

  2nd The scientific and artistic revolutions appeared to have occurred in tandem. The discovery of linear perspective and the development of optics enabled the interpretation of surface three-dimensionality in the sketches by Brunelleschi and Durer and enhanced the clarity and understanding of images obtained through Galileo's telescope.

  3rd: The fundamental problem driving the scientific revolution was the revival of an age-old question concerning humanity's position in the cosmos. The heliocentric model (earth revolves around the sun) suggested by Copernicus and developed by Galileo necessitated the refutation of Aristotelian cosmology (earth is the center of the universe and all celestial bodies move around the earth). Even before Copernicus's contribution, Brunelleschi abandoned the Greek and Medieval methods for composing space on canvas that required positioning objects according to their importance and filling the surface according to a hierarchical scheme of values. Instead, in his method, objects occupied the canvas area according to their relationship to the beholder's eye, defined by the universal perspective.

  4th: The Einsteinian revolution required the rejection of Galilean-Newtonian notions of space and time. That the universe is finite, spherically symmetrical and expanding and that motion is an interaction with the very structure of space and time is reminiscent of the Impressionist and Cubist movements (using the interaction of light with objects and surfaces to create paintings) to demand the recognition of pluralities of visual fields – of various types of spatial representations. The visual interpretation of movies required the ability to understand nonlinear, temporal dimensions.

  5th: The Einsteinian revolution was a consequence of the reinvigorated discussion on the “Where are we?” cosmological question. The answer needed an equivalent stretch of imagination comparable to that required to identify objects in an Impressionist-Cubist canvas or watch film stories. What evolved was the ability to translate stable relationships between objects into variable spatio-temporal relationships.

  Such correspondences in the histories of art and science beg the question, how is it that scientists and artists, working inside their distinct traditions and institutions, have tackled comparable issues and developed analogous ideas? From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the parallels between science and art can be explained in terms of the interaction between the two domains.

  At this stage, it is crucial to introduce the different elements of human thought. Over the last couple of decades, experimental evidence has suggested the existence of two closely related yet distinct modes of thinking, performing complementary roles in cognition.4 System-I, referred to as “intuition”, essentially functions unconsciously and relies on instantaneous underlying associations. System-II, referred to as “reasoning”, depends on the much slower process of conscious reasoning.5

  As proposed earlier, the interaction between art and science occurs through their functional interdependence: Art triggers the “intuitive” System-I (or “associative machine”) mode of thinking and helps engender imagination in science, whereas science engages the “reasoning” System-II mode of thinking and enables reality testing for art.3

  As per Karl Popper's (one of 20th century's most influential philosophers of science who rejected classical inductivism in favour of empirical falsification) perspective on scientific discovery, only through creative acts of imagination are novel theories discovered. While System-I provides imaginative insights, System-II allows verification of the imaginative insights with respect to their relevance to reality. Thus, rationality and creativity are functionally interrelated in science: Imagination (or creativity) performs a constructive role by providing novel ideas about reality as a possible solution to scientific problems. Rationality performs a destructive (or critical) role by examining the products of imagination and destroying them if found short of reality.

  However, an important (and obvious) question persists, Where and how do art and science interact? While it is possible to identify the nature of this interaction, any attempt to elucidate its exact mechanics is a Herculean task. Trying to understand the motivations of artists and scientists retrospectively reveals an objective content in the problems influencing the contributions of artists and scientists alike, only partially known to the very individuals pursuing the problems. Consequently, to identify the problems preconsciously or consciously pursued by artists and scientists with the objective problems of their historical circumstances would be erroneous.

   Three levels of problems motivate every artist and scientist: the preconscious, the conscious, and the objective. The conscious level is the most obvious, as revealed by the notes and essays left by artists and scientists. Of the remaining two levels, (i) the preconscious, lying beneath the conscious, is revealed by psychoanalytic studies, whereas (ii) the objective, existing beyond consciousness, is revealed by historical and epistemological studies. Since the three levels interlock as well as conflict with each other, any attempt to construct a uniform explanatory principle viz., a zeitgeist for an era would be inappropriate. The illusion of historicism, i.e., to describe history as a logical outcome arising from the dynamics of objective problems, is largely refuted by the unforeseeable intervention of consciously articulated problems and the irrational interjection of preconscious problems.

   Hence, it is hypothesised that scientific questions predominantly occur on the objective level and are introjected into preconscious problems by the conscious effort of scientists. In contrast, artistic questions occur predominantly at the preconscious level and are projected consciously by artists onto the objective level as philosophical problems. It is at the preconscious level that introjected scientific questions interact with the preconscious artistic questions. Consequently, the interaction results in novel preconscious problems for the artist and novel objective problems for the scientist.

   To summarize briefly on the nature and role of preconscious problems: (i) They are amorphous, inarticulate and structureless. Thus, any attempt to confront them meaningfully results in further entrenchment and misunderstanding rather than resolution. (ii) However, they constitute the basis from which conscious and objective questions originate. (iii) When objective questions, introjected into the preconsciousness of individuals, encounter the pre-existing preconscious problems, it leads to the generation of novel and richer, conscious and objective questions.

   In conclusion, only scientific problems and theories and only art styles and iconologies occur at the objective level. Hence, art and science cannot interact at this level. Since individual artists and scientists are often ignorant of the expressive nature of their own domains and more so of others, art and science can’t contact at this level either. Therefore, it is predominantly at the preconscious level that the interaction between art and science occurs that has enabled parallel developments in both fields.


  1. TEDx Talks. (2019, Nov 21). The art of science - Science and Art are not as different as we think | Kristin Levier | TEDxUIdaho [Video]. YouTube.
  2. Zhu, L., & Goyal, Y. (2019). Art and science: Intersections of art and science through time and paths forward. EMBO reports, 20(2), e47061.
  3. Richmond, S. (1984). The Interaction of Art and Science. Leonardo, 17(2), 81-86.
  4. Scheffer M. (2014). The forgotten half of scientific thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(17), 6119.
  5. Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T. K. Bjordam, S. R. Carpenter, L. B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F. R. Westley. (2015). Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20(2): 3.

A researcher by passion, Satyarthi obtained a BTech-MTech in Biotechnology from KIIT Bhubaneswar in 2020 and is currently pursuing a PhD in Interdisciplinary Nanoscience and Engineering from IISc Bangalore. He is interested in science, policy and the interplay between the two. An ardent advocate of realpolitik, he critically analyses current affairs in influencing economics, politics and society.

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