Science into Art

By Bevir, Mark | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Science into Art


Bevir, Mark, The Spectator


THE FIRST MODERNS by William R. Everdell University of Chicago, L23.95, pp. 473

Paris, 29 May 1913, the opening night of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, three minutes into the performance, and the music is almost drowned out by catcalls, although a few voices are heard yelling 'bravo'. The Rite of Spring, with its irregular rhythms, staccato style, and use of brief repetitions, soon came to symbolise the artistic innovations of the turn of the century. Modernism had arrived, and it had been received with the hostile lack of understanding it still often inspires.

William Everdell explores the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the paintings of Picasso and Kandinsky, and the writings of Rimbaud and Joyce. The most innovative and impressive feature of his work, however, lies in the strong ties he finds between Modernist art and developments in science and mathematics. Modernist culture derives in part from chemical atomism. The lack of intermediates between hydrogen and helium points to a discontinuous universe at odds with the assumptions of continuity and harmony that had been all-pervasive in 19th-century thought. Discontinuity suggests uncertainty, contradiction and causelessness, concepts that now dominate physics.

Although the term Modernism seems to ask us to define it as what is up-to-theminute, it actually represents a particular episode in cultural history. Modernists reject the l9th century, with its heroic materialism, its positivism and determinism, its faith in progress, its belief that the human observer can encompass everything in a mighty, harmonious, developing system - the Brahms symphony. Although Modernism grew out of inventions of the 19th century, it rejects the theoretical framework in which those inventions were made. Although Einstein's general theory of relativity arose from a thought-experiment inspired by the powered safety elevator, his theory rewrites the Newtonian laws on which that elevator had been predicated.

Modernism elevates self-reference and recursion over systemisation and comprehensiveness. Frege set out, in 1879, to axiomatise arithmetic, but had to give up as he encountered paradoxes suggesting that mathematical logic was a recursive and self-referential system. Before long, artists began to make art out of art, and writers to write about writing. The idea of an impartial observer reviewing a complete system collapsed with Modernists turning to subjectivity and multiple perspectives in place of the single objective vision. …

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