PRINT January 1969

2. A Report on a Symposium

DOWNSTAIRS: ART, TECHNOLOGY AND FORM MAKING––under debate by two sculptors, a historian of metallurgy, an accelerator builder and an art historian. Upstairs: nuclear matter and field-current identities being examined by two Nobel Prize winners in physics. The two cultures, under the single roof that unites them triumphantly: Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A symposium on science and art. The joint dedication of the M.I.T. Center for Theoretical Physics and the M.I.T. Center for Advanced Visual Studies.

A visual studies center to provide for collaborative work between artists and scientists may seem extraordinary for an institution dedicated to science and engineering, admits Gyorgy Kepes, director of the new center, but emerging cultural needs force us to find ways of increasing the flow of ideas through the constricted lines of communication between art and science. The division between the two is as harmful to science as it is to art, he maintains. It has developed almost into open warfare in the last century, because artists, repelled by the blight that accompanied the industrial revolution, turn their backs on science and technology, and see majestic achievements of the human mind exclusively in their disruptive effects on man and society. Kepes holds that artists have the job of defining our inner world, “discovering and elucidating the human values available to us, the tastes and flavors, the satisfactions, and the promises.” These do not exist inside us, however, shut off from the rest of existence. They border on “properties of the outer world of nature, which scientists discover, define, and elucidate . . . Our need to harmonize our inner world and outer world has become both patent and urgent,” he states.

The aspiration for the visual studies center, to establish “a creative dialogue between the two most vital aspects of our cultural life,” also applied to the symposium, which ably demonstrated that—to quote Kepes once more—“If scientists are not unfeeling computers, as certain artists still tend to believe, neither, as some scientists tend to believe, are artists unthinking bundles of instinct.” There was a substantial amount of disagreement, not only between artists and scientists, but within the two camps as well.

The three day program was opened with Jerome Wiesner, Provost of M.I.T. and former presidential science advisor, expressing the hope that the two new centers would provide a culture, in the biological sense, in which ideas could grow. Then the symposium got under way.

While Hans Bethe, last year’s Nobel Laureate in Physics, was explaining how to calculate the energy necessary to break apart a nucleus, and Tsung-Dao Lee, Nobel Laureate several years ago, was revealing truths so abstruse as to defy nonmathematical description, Cyril Smith, historian of metallurgy, was telling his audience: “The first uses of metals were in the decorative arts.” In the first of four fifteen-minute panel talks in the session entitled “Art, Technology and Form Making,” Smith continued: “Since the conventional technologist uses what is known, while the artist wishes to use what is unknown, it is the artist who is likely to make discoveries and develop materials.” Smith documented his assertion by citing the example of oriental porcelain. Western attempts to duplicate porcelain had a tremendous effect on analytical chemistry. Smith traced the influence of materials and technology on the forms that art took. Etching, for instance, came out of the decorating of armor.

Smith was followed by physicist Robert Wilson, who sculpts on the side. It is not surprising, then, that the essence of Wilson’s talk was that science bore the responsibility of making things esthetically pleasing as well as having them work; there should be no strings hanging out of accelerators. Theories should also be esthetically pleasing. Ugly science usually does not work. He did not mean that the engineer must call in an artist to apply cosmetics to his machine, but rather that the concept of esthetic technology should be fed into the educational system, so that the engineer will create an esthetically pleasing machine to begin with.

Sculptor Harold Tovish, the third panelist, confessed to an attitude toward technology that is ambivalent, if not schizophrenic; it consists of an awe based on the vague fear that scientists “are out to get us.” He admitted that scientists have produced “all sorts of wonderful things like TV,” and said he is enchanted by holograms—“the idea of sending an entire exhibition of sculpture in an envelope!”—and he is even working on a piece of sculpture called Accelerator “which won’t function like Wilson’s.” Nevertheless, he complained that when he has a part of a sculpture made in a foundry, what comes back is decidedly below his expectations, when “they can turn out 90 mm. shells like cookies.” Tovish has “the impression that society is not so passionately directed” towards his field. He despaired over our current esthetics of obsolescence, but pointed out that his presence at the symposium indicated a kind of optimism. He welcomed the new visual studies center and the confluence of art and science.

Fellow sculptor Otto Piene was not so welcoming. He expressed pleasure at having been invited to the wedding, but wondered which was the bride and which was the groom. And just how loyal and faithful he intended to be, he was not at all sure. He was also not sure that there was a need for the two to get together, and, if there was, how close it should be. The tools of the artist’s technology are crude by scientists’ standards, he claimed. And the intentions of the artist are absolutely different from those of the scientist. Piene is of the opinion that, up to two hundred years ago, art was considered essential to relatively more people than is the case today. Then, art became a luxury. At the same time that interest in art and artists declined, technology increased. Some people tried to make cast iron sewing machines that looked like rose bushes, and he wondered if that was what Wilson had meant when he said technology should be esthetically pleasing. But he, Piene, thought the greatest service technology could do for art would be to enable the artist to reach a proliferating audience, perhaps through TV, or to create tools for some new monumental art that would bring art to as many men today as in the Middle Ages. He did not mean by new tools merely another kind of paint; he deplored using different tools to do the same thing: painting by computer, for example. Technology should not assist in the creation of new styles—artists are able to do that themselves. Technology should be applied to physically changing the arts, making art bigger, to enable it to reach more people. Technology should be applied to the problem of communication.

Acting as moderator, art historian Wayne Andersen maintained that the many efforts to show that science influenced art are without substance. Delacroix, said to be a color theorist, derived his ideas on color from a study of the rear ends of three nymphs painted by Rubens. The Impressionists “never read a thing” on color theory; their approach was purely intuitive. The attempts to relate Cubism to the theory of relativity were disavowed—by Einstein, at any rate. And, regarding the claim that there was a mathematician in the Cubists’ circle—he was an accountant. What is true, Andersen went on to say, is that the spacing in time between technology and art is decreasing. Today, there is almost simultaneous cross-fertilization. But he is suspicious of the engineer who is too artistic.

A question from the audience touched upon the evils that scientists do. Gallantly, sculptor Tovish took up the cudgel. “What happens to scientific ideas, such as Einstein’s great formula, is similar to what happens in art,” he said. “Things usually end up where there is money. Not that scientists make bombs for money—I mean things like TV. I don’t want to play the role of the righteous artist against the tainted scientist. We’re all corrupt.”

Physicist Wilson was in complete accord. “Scientists didn’t make the bomb. We did. The two billion dollars for it was provided by the nation. Artists aren’t making those damn cubes, we make the conditions for them. We’re all responsible.”

Tovish continued: “Art used to be for the glory of God. I’d like art to aspire to something today. But what? Maybe survival. I’m tired of self-expression. There must be something beyond that. I want some grand project that will end up being anonymous. I’m thirsting after it!”

(It is interesting that Wilson is directing the very project Tovish is thirsting after: the building of the world’s largest accelerator, at Weston, Illinois, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, will employ thousands of people, and which, although directed by Wilson, in the end will be anonymous.)

Returning to the theme of the session, Tovish stated that the artist envies the engineer making an “improved” product. Art changes, but it does not improve. The concept of progress does not exist in art. This positive quality permits different scientists to work together, while artists, lacking it, go off in all directions; it may well keep artists and scientists from working together.

The session ended with Tovish deeming the huge radar dish in Puerto Rico “superb,” and Piene expressing admiration for the artistry of television towers. One came away with the definite impression that the scientists in the group looked upon art as being more important than science to man, while the artists thought the reverse.

The session entitled “Art, Technology and Communication” began in the afternoon with Jerome Lettvin, M.I.T.’s monumental (six feet, 270 pounds) Professor of Communications Physiology, removing his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, brushing his hair back behind his ears, and stating that we’ve been handed a “snow job” on the division between art and science. There was no distinction between the two, he claimed, insofar as both showed relationships in the world. A theory in physics or chemistry was equal to a poem. Leonardo was both an artist and a scientist. There has always been a passing back and forth between art and science.

Stan VanDerBeek, film maker, was next. He began by saying that ever since he was awarded a Rockefeller grant in non-verbal communication, he has continually been called upon to speak. He made the awesome statements that incoming freshmen have perhaps 15,000 hours of movie and TV viewing time to their credit, retarded children make the best movies, and 70 million people simultaneously watched The Birds on TV. He then proceeded to show a four minute film on computer graphics (someone asked why avant-garde films of this type are always accompanied by music by Vivaldi) and a “painting” made by superimposing two films of continuous loops from two 8 mm. projectors.

VanDerBeek was followed by Ivan Sutherland, a Harvard electrical engineer, who acknowledged that computers could aid in making movies by producing elaborate fades like the ones we had just witnessed, for example, but the same could be done with conventional techniques, admittedly with greater difficulty. What a computer might do that was new would be to display patterns that can be described by rules. Simple rules would be programmed into a computer, which would then be asked to generate art. Or, one might involve the observer in the thing observed, making him more than a mere spectator. For instance, the viewer’s eye might be coupled to a motion picture of an attractive female. When the viewer looks at her out of the corner of his eye, she has nothing on. When he looks directly at her, she is fully clothed. The viewer thus determines the habiliment of the viewed (apparently the electronic version of beauty in the eye of the beholder).

After Billy Kluver, Bell Laboratories scientist and president of EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), spoke of “happenings” that involved a phone call to Shanghai to inquire about the weather, and taking infrared photographs of 500 people on a stage, Lettvin could contain himself no longer. “I find myself taken aback by this machine rococo,” he said, “this accidental art, driving our adrenals to greater and greater heights. This does not seem to me to be part of the esthetic . . . I have not found any computer-generated art that transcends the taste of the person putting it in. And one wouldn’t want it—to say the least—in one’s living room.”

“Who says art has to be in the living room?” shot back VanDerBeek.

Lettvin replied allegorically, crediting Don Quixote, Part II. A madman acquired a hollow cane, and, seizing a dog in the street, fitted the cane to the dog’s backside and blew him up like a ball. To the astonished passersby the madman said, “Do you think it is such an easy matter to blow up a dog?”

Sutherland felt compelled to defend himself, and stated that he had merely been pointing out what computers could and could not do, and it was up to the critics to say what was good and what was not.

The session drew to a close with Tovish, in the audience this time, asking whether, with today’s assaultive techniques and rapid images, one could ever achieve the sensitivities exhibited in the film Forbidden Games. “To what end is it all?” he lamented.

We went away from this session on communication with the feeling that a large segment of the audience had not been able to quite figure out what the panelists were trying to communicate. We hoped the people upstairs had fared better with the nucleon-nucleon interaction and effective forces in nuclei, and the problems of weak interaction theory, as presented by Gerald E. Brown and Murray Gell-Mann. We understand they had difficulty with the slide projector, however. There were complaints about the day’s sessions being parallel––from the physicists.

Next morning, artists and scientists met in a joint session ambitiously titled “Art and Science” and presided over by a neutral, Elting Morison, Yale history professor. The first speaker was his homonym, M.I.T. physicist Philip Morrison, who attempted to define culture. Deciding that culture is the degree to which artifacts enter into man’s picture, he put forth a paradigm consisting of a set of concentric spheres. In the center he placed man, a primate, sans culture, in zero condition, with all his sensory and cortical equipment. The next sphere, growing out of these minimum conditions, he labeled “Play, Love Ritual, Sport, and Gesture.” The third was “Language,” with different aspects as one takes different directions on the sphere: poetry, history, the epic, and eventually writing, and mathematics (which is different from science). The fourth sphere would come as a surprise, Morrison said, but he had been forced to conclude that it played a very important role. It was “Cookery.” “If you can’t cook, you starve. Denature proteins into amino acids, and you’re in.” The fifth sphere embraced “Art,” all that is perceivable to the senses, while the outermost sphere was “Science,” which goes beyond the senses, its connection with the sensory being second hand.

Charles Eames, designer, famous for the Eames chair, took a more terrestrial view. He sees himself as a tradesman, and regards the title of artist as one that must be earned, in any field. Anyone who introduces himself as an artist Eames eyes with suspicion. He would refer to painters and sculptors as tradesmen, entertainers, clowns. “I have a great respect for clowns,” he hastened to add, “Some artists come out of clowns.” Eames went on to say, “Efforts to bring art and technology together scare the wits out of me. The area of communications, technology, is an area of hope. It consists of a group of innocents, terribly gullible regarding art . . . especially scientists. They abandon the discipline of their own field and take superficial aspects seriously . . . Sculptors are ignorant of a total view of the world, and view science as a device for giving them new ideas, which gives them the wrong emphasis. They have a preoccupation with self-expression that might be the virus that could infect the world.”

As if cued in by the word virus, George Wald, Harvard Nobel Laureate in biology, pointed out that two uniquely human attributes, knowing and creating, one corresponding to science and the other to art, are often confused, science being confused with applications and technology, creativity being confused with production.We regard creation as altogether good, unlimitedly desirable. Then we carry that idea over to other areas, such as technology, with the consequence that unlimited productivity is also thought to be good. While Wald approved of complete freedom for science and creativity, he felt that judgments should constantly be made regarding technology and production. To those who argue that there are no absolutes, and, therefore, let everything come that may, one can learn to appreciate anything, Wald answers that one can make universal statements, such as: no water, no life; only in science fiction can life be made from aluminum.

Physicist Morrison disagreed. He thought the future might hold not just our kind of biology, but five or six more kinds. “People won’t always be made of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. Some will be made of tantalum.” Wald countered with, “Phil is enough of a biologist that I can’t dismiss him, as I otherwise cheerfully would, as simply a theoretical physicist. People made of tantalum and five or six kinds of biology is just a lot of tripe. The ‘anything can happen’ attitude is nonsense. We’ve got to make choices.” Wald held that the universality that exists in science exists in art too, and that one turns to art for meaning, just as one does to science. But the trouble with modern art is the same as that which afflicts modern religion: loss of efficacy. Neither any longer believes it will change the course of events.

James J. Ackerman, fine arts professor, spoke as a historian and told his fellow panelists that, while at the previous day’s session the technologists seemed to be the givers and the artists the receivers, at one time the scientists needed the artists for their technology; he cited Vesalius’ descriptions of the tools of anatomy. The popular notion of the Renaissance man as a perfect fusion of artist and scientist Ackerman dismissed as a fiction. Great as were the strides Leonardo made in art, he was incapable of abstracting from his observations; we owe not a single scientific concept to him. Copernicus, who altered scientific concepts, and, with them, our view of the world, had no real need of art. Anatomy, which used a collaboration between science and art, altered neither. (The art historians, at least, were united.)

All during the session, the chair behind a card labeled “Robert Rauschenberg ” had remained empty. It had been announced earlier that the painter had been fogbound in LaGuardia Airport since the previous night, and would take the first morning plane to Boston that flew. Now, a moustached young man strode down the aisle, mounted the steps to the stage, said a few words to the moderator, and settled himself in the empty chair. “I am not Mr. Rauschenberg,” he proclaimed, “I am anonymous. I am here to defend the position of the artist.” Mr. Anonymous said that, as an artist, he felt like a vessel that everyone was pouring something into. Being a clown was a burden. “We’re left to ourselves. There were no rules this morning when I got up. The church doesn’t call upon us anymore. The government doesn’t call upon us anymore . . .”

Biologist Wald commented, “You talk about artists as if they had to be invited to be artists.” He then described the unhappy plight of the artist hurled into the marketplace (a trauma the scientist does not experience), having to get an agent, connections, publicity, etc.

Tradesman Eames broke in with: “That view is typical of the romantic view the scientist has of the artist. All the artist has to do is be good.” Whereupon physicist Morrison stated: “I think there is some romanticism in the views of both of the last speakers. When Leonardo applied for a job, he had to make fireworks for the Duke, build fortifications, waterworks . . .”

The session was forced to end by the hour. It was time for food for more than thought.

The closing session featured speeches by Victor Weisskopf, head of M.l. T.’s physics department, Gyorgy Kepes, and R. Buckminster Fuller, architect and designer. Weisskopf began by relating what art and science have in common, the search for the essential, the relevant, in the environment. He went on to their differences. Art depends on personal and cultural factors, while science is independent of the man who formulates it and is supranational rather than culture dependent. A work of art has a wholeness—if it is good, nothing can be changed or improved upon—it completes what it set out to say. Science, on the other hand, is differential, a bit by bit process, which is never finished and is continuously changing. There is no “work of science” by a single person; science is collective. Weisskopf finds scientists lucky, a happy breed. Not only do they have a feeling of international unity, but they are trying to find, and do find, some absolute values in these difficult times. He described the thrill “when a corner of the universe is laid bare.” “There is a beauty in it,” he said, using the word beauty for science where he would not for art, “maybe because I’m not able to talk about it in art.” He was pleased that the new theoretical physics center would enable others to partake of and transmit the joy of insight.

Kepes announced that he would speak in the first person “because I am not in a discipline that allows one to stand back objectively.” He told how he had become a painter, and how, in 1946, when he was invited to M.I.T., he suffered a “culture shock.” “These people (the scientists) were looking through a window into the cosmos, and I was completely blind! But they had a blindness too . . .” and he recounted the dream that was fulfilled in the creation of the new visual studies center.

Buckminster Fuller, associated with large geodesic domes, arrived late, in what he described as “a triumph of technology over all-weather flying.” He pronounced himself unprepared, mentally naked, and added that though he had heard the long introduction, he knew himself well enough not to be impressed. His concept of environment is “everything that isn’t me,” and he noted that nature does not have a Dept. of Physics, a Dept. of Chemistry, a Dept. of Biology . . . “Perhaps nature has only one department,” he said.

The program ended with an open house at each of the two centers. We headed for Visual Studies first. Bare composition floors, stark white walls and partitions setting off photographs and designs. Flashing lights, filters, projectors, brass and steel constructions, wires, magnets, motors, an exhibition on light and motion. A polyethylene tube coiling like some immense transparent python, ingesting its meal of air from a floor pump. A stairway leading down to a lower level to accommodate huge balloons suspended from the ceiling, reminiscent of accelerator rooms in physics laboratories. Then, a machine shop, replete with drill press and milling machine. We came upon Harold Tovish furiously jabbing at a large black box with a screwdriver. Photographs of one of his works were whizzing by inside much too rapidly. “This place doesn’t have adequate electric current,” he moaned. “Perhaps you should consult one of the scientists,” we suggested.

After partaking of the cheese, wine and French bread the visuals were offering, we headed for Theoretical Physics (hors d’oeuvres, coffee and cakes). A section of the enormous main building of M.I.T. had been done over to make the center. The entrance was like that of a plush art gallery. A wire sculpture hung from the ceiling. Carpeting flowed out of the offices into the corridor from wall to distant wall. Paintings. An enlarged photograph of Eve sculpted by Giselbertus on Autun Cathedral in the 12th century. “This place looks like a visual arts center,” someone was heard to say.

Grace Marmor Spruch is a research scientist in physics at New York University.