I’ve been thinking a lot about scientific images this week, and I have been writing up a piece for the Art & Science Journal on the subject. It dawned on me this morning that I had neglected a crucial point about what makes art, art, and why scientific images themselves are not art. I’ve frequently written about how similar the practices of art and science are, but this is a post about what makes their output different.
In a previous post, I argued for the importance of creativity and the drive of the individual in science. This is indeed important in the early stages of a research project, when the researcher is considering novel ways to tackle often well-trodden problems. In the latter stages of the project, we talk about the importance of ‘the story’, and certainly creativity is important here to ‘sell’ the idea and convince others of the findings. However, the reporting of the data itself, the graphs, western blots (see one of my finest examples below) and microscope images, must conform to strict guidelines, albeit often unwritten ones. In the presentation of data, the method chosen must allow the data to delivered in the clearest way and any evidence of the scientist who ran the experiments or plugged the numbers in the software to draw the graph, must be completely absent. The use of complicated scientific graphing software, such as GraphPad Prism, SigmaPlot and MatLab, allow for as few mistakes as possible, removing any trace of personality from the data.
This, clearly, is where art and science differ most significantly. At this level, science must be objective and impersonal, yet art is its maker. Last week, Elizabeth Price won the Turner Prize. She spoke of how her art didn’t get going until relatively recently, when she was in her 40s, admitting that, prior to this, her work felt “too polite, too nervous”. She said, “It’s not like I am. It’s not pissed off about things. The jokes aren’t the jokes I find funny. It’s too self-conscious and not direct enough and not candid enough.” One might go as far as to say that good art is a true reflection of the artist who made it. As artists, we do not worry about something having been done before, provided one is true to oneself. Each of us are unique, with unique life experience, and so if you are true to yourself, how can anyone else’s work be the same?
In science, as every piece of information is reported in line with a defined set of guidelines, in many cases it is inevitable that two groups will present the same findings. During my PhD alone, I heard of several cases of researchers’ findings being published by other labs before they had even finished their experiments.
I think it is clear, therefore, why I find it difficult to consider fluorescent microscope images (and other types of scientific images) as art in their own right. For me, they should show some evidence of a decision being made (not just to choose this image over the next), and say something about the person who captured the image.
Garner K, Li M, Ugwuanya N and Cockcroft S (2011). ‘The phosphatidylinositol transfer protein, RdgBβ binds 14-3-3 via its unstructured C-terminus, whereas its lipid binding domain interacts with the integral membrane protein, ATRAP (Angiotensin II Type I Receptor-associated Protein).’ Biochemical Journal. Oct;439(1)97-111. PMID: 21728994.