“As an account of the world,” asks the gallery brochure, “can art expand the potential of scientific exploration?” The answer is yes, of course. But not much in this show really advances the question. If the very existence of art, the immemorial human need for it, testifies (as I think it does) to the inadequacy of science as an explanatory model, it would be interesting to think about what specific needs art answers. Instead, a great deal of the work here simply falls into the category of science envy.
We see a film, by Germaine Kruip, called “Aesthetics as a Way of Survival,” that shows footage of a bowerbird arranging objects in front of its nest, or bower. It’s wonderful to watch. But by demonstrating that a sense of beauty plays a part in evolution, Kruip tells us nothing we didn’t already know.
The decision to include two children’s toys by Friedrich Froebel designed in the early 19th century for the purposes of learning mathematics was similarly delightful. But again, the notion that mathematics has an inherent beauty is fairly banal.
It’s also hard to square with the exhibition’s stated aim (again, from the brochure) of shifting “the understanding of aesthetics away from conventional ideas of pleasure, beauty, or taste.”
Pointing out the aesthetic dimension in mathematics only reinforces the conventional tendency to associate aesthetics with order, proportion, balance, and reason. What about the potential for beauty in disorder, dissonance, and chaos? (“In a work of art,” wrote Novalis, “chaos must shimmer through the veil of order.”)
Art, like religion, has always been deeply involved in questions that go beyond beauty. A big part of its purpose, surely, is to show up the limits of human perception and of the systems of knowledge that are built on those perceptions.
A portrait by Francis Bacon, for instance, can reveal to us the insufficiency of scientific accounts of human psychology (“chemical imbalances”? How feeble!). An installation by Olafur Eliasson can remind us of the veils of cultural bias that obscure and distort our view of nature, whether we approach it from a scientific, a romantic, or any other point of view. And a Greek sculpture of the minotaur can remind us that certain things will never be explained away or disinfected by the sunlight of reason.
This show has plenty of moments that veer excitingly into irrationality. A book by Alfred Jarry, who invented the pseudo-philosophy of “pataphysics,” is displayed, as are screen prints reproducing Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings. John Baldessari sings the 35 sentences that make up LeWitt’s 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” and Man Ray explores his interest in the irrational aspect of mathematics in his 1973 sculpture “Non-Euclidian Object.”
There’s a lot of juicy stuff to reflect on. But far from advancing scientific inquiry, many of the artists here seem to be merely toying with it. In doing so they expose themselves to ridicule from more honest brokers. Their speculative systems devolve into woolliness and wish fulfilment.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.