Thursday, October 25, 2007

Art, Realism, and Science

Earlier, I had taken a class on the history of modern art. Now, I'm not a big fan of history. Frankly, I find it boring, especially ancient history. But one thing I've found interesting (and I've only seen this in college) is the history of ideas and culture. I liked the class on modern art not so much because of the art (I guess surrealism is good), but because art, especially in the modern art period, provides a cross-section into the ideas of each time.

Realism was an art movement that lasted from around 1850-1870. For those who don't know, the realist style consists mostly of paintings of peasants and workers from real life. For the class, I read an article (sorry, no reference available) which was talking about the Realist attitude towards all sorts of things including the subject of art, the technique of art, social classes, and science. It was that last one that caught my eye, of course. The author described Realist art as trying to become more like science (which would in turn become more like art). Since the goal of art was truth, artists would try to look at their subjects "objectively" and without emotion.

I disagree with the whole attitude about art's goal, but aside from that, I think the Realists have severely misunderstood science. Yes, science is objective, but it's not about objective observation. If a scientist claims that he has measured things "objectively" and without any passion, does that really carry any weight? How could we even measure how objective we are? Scientists are humans too, and they are not necessarily any more objective than anyone else. I might even argue that scientists must look at everything subjectively, through the lens of scientific theory, in order to make any sense of the world.

The way we get objective truths out of all this is we apply the scientific method. We correct for selection biases, use a control group, apply error analysis, have a peer-review process, etc. And then we test the results over and over again in case any mistakes were made the first time. Science distills objective truths from scientists' subjective experiences.

I think the attitude that scientists must observe "objectively" is what got us the useless notion of avoiding the first person in scientific reports. Just another reason to hate the idea.

To go back to the art, the objectivity really shows! See, it's no coincidence that peasants became a subject right at a time when people were worried about proletariat revolution, and around when the Communist Manifesto was published. Realism was first created by revolutionaries, but it was of course later adopted by people who took the opposing point of view. Look at The Gleaners by Jules Breton.

Yep, look at the happy peasants. They're not at all upset about being on the bottom of society and having to bend over all day to collect the last bits of grain. And what a benevolent supervisor (on the right) they have! Did I mention that since it's Realist, it must be the objective truth?

I wonder if this same attitude was reflected in scientists at the time or if it was just artists who thought this way. I hope it was just the artists.