This piece is a response to a column in The Daily Princetonian by Gabe Lipkowitz ’19 entitled “There is no art of science.” I consider Lipkowitz a close friend and recognize that he wishes to promote discussion by deliberately taking a bold stance. But his latest article, in my opinion, takes a stance much closer to ridiculous.
Lipkowitz structures his piece by using generic dictionary definitions to establish what “art” and “beauty” mean and then determining if the Friend Center’s “Art of Science” exhibit matches the definitions closely enough. I think that this reasoning is a bit backwards. It is incredibly difficult to provide any comprehensive, top-down definition for art, and it should be obvious that what counts as a legitimate art form can change dramatically across history and cultures. To me, a more productive approach is to think about whether Lipkowitz’s logic for excluding the exhibit from the world of art also excludes mediums that we can readily agree constitute art, e.g. fine-art photography. So I am more interested in common sense than definition-mongering — cleverer people than I have struggled to clearly define the boundaries of art, but it seems that Lipkowitz’s broad critique of the exhibit inadvertently dismisses a lot more artwork than he would probably want it to.
For example, Lipkowitz writes that a scientific image is “a picture of nature, utterly devoid of the human element.” His argument is that such images are not an expression of creative skill but rather are meant to capture some objective truth about the natural world. This claim is shockingly simplistic — art is about not only the material properties or production process of the work itself but also the way viewers ponder and interact with it. The same photographs, like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” or a scenic shot for National Geographic, can serve as either photojournalism or pieces of artwork depending on the context. And I fail to understand how a microscopic image of a cell or a computer-rendered 3D model of a complex molecule cannot likewise serve dual roles.
People might be used to seeing scientific data presented in a specific fashion and for a specific purpose — like in a journal article figure. But Lipkowitz does not deny that “aesthetically pleasing images can be found in Nature.” And doesn’t the exhibit invite viewers to consider these images from a different perspective, to consider their aesthetic merits and not merely their scientific ones? Indeed, this goal is best achieved precisely by situating the images in a space labeled an “art” exhibit — unconventional types of art, like the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, can demand contemplation by forcing viewers to consider why such pieces might be occupying an exhibit.
Lipkowitz argues that “there is a key difference between recognizing … patterns with complex and sensitive instruments and creating those patterns ourselves with a particular intention of crafting something with aesthetic beauty.” What is Lipkowitz even saying here? Artistic photography largely seems to be about recognizing patterns in nature with a complex instrument and does not necessarily involve “creating” anything. Capturing the perfect picture might actually be a lucky fluke rather than a calculated choice. It is also unclear how the generation of modern scientific images, reliant on technology from focused electron beams to nuclear magnetic resonance, reveals “natural truths” in a profoundly separate sense than do artworks intended to be realistic depictions — whether drawings or paintings —even if the tools happen to be more advanced.
Nor is it obvious that scientists do not aim to produce visually appealing images — can they not be engaged in both a scientific and aesthetic enterprise? All of us want the prettiest pictures to wind up in the published paper. Anyone who has labored in a lab knows that scientists care greatly about how graphs and other images appear when developing or editing them. Lipkowitz is correct that data must serve to communicate a “scientific point,” but that does not deny that it can be stylized for artistic value — this is like claiming that calligraphy’s existence as art is undermined by the fact that the form requires real, meaningful lettering.
The last case Lipkowitz deals with is when scientists use “human intervention” to engineer something novel, like “a fruit fly expressing an orange fluorescent protein, such that the Princeton University logo appears on the embryo.” He argues that this constitutes a “crude” and “superficial” copy of nature, and might even be analogous to “plagiarism.” I leave it up to the reader to decide whether artificially inducing the expression of a protein to produce an intricate design — like the University logo — could sensibly be classified as any of these things. Lipkowitz, however, believes that such work does not “provoke further thought or commentary.” I would prefer to leave the final judgment to the individual viewer. I suspect Lipkowitz would agree that lab protocols often require good hands and a certain level of technical craftsmanship. They might not be exactly like sculpting marble or woodworking, but it can be too easy to lose sight of the breathtaking beauty in the images of now-ordinary science — whether they are EKG rhythms, phylogenetic trees, or the blurry outlines of a distant planet.
Lipkowitz has a narrow vision of the rigorous scientist who seeks to uncover the truth and nothing more, who only produces beauty by accident. Science, for Lipkowitz, is “not pursued for this purpose.” The statement feels irrelevant. Art is about location, presentation, and framing, not just the original intention — if such a concept can even be pinned down. In fact, with their extensive training and background knowledge, scientists in the relevant field might be the most capable of appreciating the poetry in the images that constitute data. Nonetheless, I am open to the possibility that the viewing public can recognize the artistic merits of the images in the “Art of Science” exhibit. I only hope that Lipkowitz can, too.
Varun Bhave is a senior majoring in neuroscience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.