Posted in education, museum

When do you draw the line?

I was forwarded this great analysis on the blog Cocktail Party Physics about when to call a scientific image or scientific phenomenon art; and what makes a science-inspired image truly “art”? . When is the line crossed from being a scientific visualization with aesthetic merit to becoming a piece of “art?” While the blog (and featured artist/not artist Felice Frankel from MIT) come to the conclusion that what defines something as art rather than a scientific visualization is the intention: that “visualization accurately renders the science, preferably in an arresting, artful manner; an artistic work transforms it to reflect the creative impulse of the artist.”

I disagree, although my definition of art is much, much more broad. My definition of art is: something created that is aesthetically pleasing, and that the intention of the creator was to make it aesthetically pleasing. So all of us (“Cocktail,” Frankel, and I) are in agreement about intention of the creator. Where I differ is that the piece doesn’t have to actively reflect the creative impulse of the artist; by simply making the choice to image/visualize/photograph this object at this angle at this time in this light, the creator/artist is making aesthetic, creative choices. The choices may not seem aesthetic or an impulse if a scientist has spent years perfecting a high-speed camera to capture a drop of water, and certainly most high-speed science photography is originally for pure science. But it can also be argued that if that same creator isolates a still image from a series of water drops and finds aesthetic value in it, then it could be categorized as art.

Coming from the other direction, I would also argue that in many ways photographers are scientists and researchers in how they approach their art – they will sit for hours waiting for the right conditions and try different techniques and effects, not sure what the outcome will be, but just to try it – so I would disagree with the idea that the original intention had to be an artistic endeavour. Accidental art is all around us.

Finally, one of my biggest pet peeves with art is that art is most important, defined, and its power held by the artist. I couldn’t disagree more. If the art doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have a purpose, or isn’t aesthetically pleasing or draw some kind of emotion other than confusion to the viewer, then to me the piece of art has lost its purpose. If you have to explain art, then it’s not art. Science is all about explaining. I guess that’s where I draw the line.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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