The Science of Art: Reconsidering the Interpretive Methods of Creativity in American Art

By Scollans, Carol G. J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Science of Art: Reconsidering the Interpretive Methods of Creativity in American Art


Scollans, Carol G. J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Philosophically in American society there has been much debate about the validity of art as a reflection of cultural importance. Historically in this country, art was thought to be antithetical to the Puritanical sensibility that defined the character of American life. Perceived as luxury, it was believed that high art caused the moral decay of great civilizations unlike the sciences which advanced the course and direction of civilization. By emphasizing methods of analysis and interpretation art historians have begun to illuminate the complex role of the visual arts as a primary vehicle through which we can illustrate how civilizations thrive.

Fundamentally, there exists in human kind an innate desire to create some visual form of personal and public record of the 'self and the environment within which we exist. The most well known examples from ancient history are the cave drawings and small iconic objects of the Neolithic and Paleolithic cultures. These images and objects, in the absence of a written language, provide untold value to the understanding of human existence and the character of the human species. Without these kinds of creative models we would be unable to trace the social and scientific anthropology of human history. The process of translating a concept into visual language is indicative of the multifaceted expressive powers of man. The fact that these images and objects exist asserts the primacy of the instinctive creative impetus and the complexity of the mind in humanistic and scientific terms. In order to appreciate and interpret the importance of creativity we must look beyond the social and cultural constructs of a specific time and place and recognize the invaluable dimensions of the physical object. To decode and extrapolate information from these materials requires an insight based on a confluence of science and art. Harvard University scientist, Edward O. Wilson said it most eloquently; "Artistic inspiration common to everyone ... rises from the wells of human nature ... It follows that even the greatest works of art might be understood fundamentally with the knowledge of the biologically evolved epigenetic rules that guided them ... interpretation will be the more powerful when braided together from history, biography, personal confession and science." (1) It is this philosophy that has transformed the discipline of art history and proffered a growing demand for revisionist methodology specific to the purpose of identifying the complex value of the creative process as a dimension of human anatomy.

The ancient cultures of North America, for example, had no word for art rather it was a part of the human condition that had intrinsic educative and spiritual powers. In the absence of a written language the manner through which to instruct a people came through a visual code of clues depicted on functional objects. During the maturation of western culture, the distinction of naming 'Art' as a phenomenon separate from the actions of everyday life, prohibits the ability of the common man and woman to be engaged in creative activities. Art gradually evolved into a pursuit available to only those who were wealthy or educated enough to understand the salient qualities of artistic expression and in this day and age, can afford to visit the museums that house and exhibit these objects. The disadvantage of this distinction is that creativity gradually becomes dormant from its biological origins. Indeed, the very definition of the word 'art' means human creativity, without reference to cultural heritage, economic prowess or intellectual ability.

In this essay, the dialogue of this creative impulse and the scientific realm is displayed through a didactic selection of American art images because of the relative directness of expression, their iconic value to American culture and emphasis on the depiction of reality. (This method can be applied to any form of creative expression). These works provide an opportunity to evaluate the, factual, iconological and semiological aspects of interpretations of the time. …

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