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Biomedicine in museums

Art and Science — promote innovation or sustain Bildung?

By December 3, 0001No Comments

One of the things I have been working on here at Medical Museion quite a lot has been to engage external artists and designers to come and work with our team of researchers/curators. Primarily with exhibitions and installations, but also in events of different kinds (see a summary of some of these works here).

In hindsight – why did we get involved in these commissions, some of them being quite time-consuming and expensive? And more generally, why is art and science such a big thing these days?

I have already suggested some reasons why science museums might be interested in promoting the art-science interface. Here I will present another In a series of blogposts

I would like to spend my remaining few minutes on (9) an analysis of the stakeholder interests behind the art-science field.

The obvious stakeholders, of course, are, on the one hand, artists and art institutions, and on the other hand, scientists and science institutions.

So, (10) there’s growing number of artists and art institutions, galleries, art schools, etc., who are inspired by science, or use scientific stuff in their work. They mainly use science as a theme or a motif, or they use science materials, like human tissue, in the same way as traditional artists use oils and pigments. (11) Here is Oron Catt’s “Victimless Leather”. Most importantly, they view science as yet another means for transforming and renewing art practice. For them science is just another way of making art.

And vice versa, (12) there are scientists and institutions who view art as just another way of making the rest of us interested in their professional work. Scientists put ‘beautiful images’ of cells and crystals and geological structures etc. on the covers of scientific journals, and call it ‘art’. Research institutes display art-science-works on the premises as a kind of branding, (13) like here: Julian Voss-Andreae’s “Angel of the West”. And science communicators believe that art enhances the public engagement with science; often using art as a sweetener to swallow the pill of hard science. There are many different particular interests involved here, but what they have in common is that they see art as a way of promoting science.

I think, these are the two most obvious clusters of stakeholders. But there are also interests in the interface per se, and I will shortly mention two of them.

One is based on the idea that ‘creativity’ is a common denominator for art and science. (14) There is a widespread belief today in ‘innovation’ as a generative locomotive for competitive economies – a kind of deus ex machina for late capitalism if you want – which in turn is based on ‘creativity’. And the idea, in this context, is that both scientists and artists (and maybe novelists and film makers as well) are creative, and that their new ideas can be implemented in technical and social innovations – and thus help drive the economy forward.

This is the reasoning behind, for example, David Edwards’s art-science venue in Paris, La Laboratoire. So here’s (15) what David writes on his website:

“… idea development in culture, industry, education and society can be conceived as a kind of experimentation, where the catalyst for change, for movement – for innovation – is a fusion of those creative processes we conventionally think of as art and as science. This fused process, what I call ‘artscience,’ is the basis of a new kind of culture center we have opened in central Paris.

I think this a bold idea and there may even be some future money in it. But I must confess that this is not why I, personally, have engaged in the art-science interface. (And I should add that I haven’t been particularly motivated by furthering art, or furthering science, or furthering science communication either).

My basic motivation for engaging with the art-science interface is that I think it’s a most important ingredient in education. Not education in terms of career training or the acquisition of competences for the job market. But (16) education in terms of ‘Bildung’, as the Germans call it.

Bildung — to quote the most widespread source of Bildung these day (Wikipedia 🙂 — (17) is:

“a process wherein an individual’s spiritual and cultural sensibilities as well as life, personal and social skills are in process of continual expansion and growth”.


“Bildung is seen as a way to become more free due to higher self-reflection”

The idea here is that the more you develop your cultural sensibilities, and the more you reflect on the connections between them, the more you develop your ability to become a free and independent citizen. Which is a precondition for democracy.

The notion of Bildung as providing the basis for life-long self-education was the essence of the classical university. It was conceptualized by people like Wilhelm von Humboldt for the Berlin University in the mid-19th century, and it later became the foundation for most of the world’s leading universities for more than a century.

But Bildung isn’t anything that’s acknowledged by the governance regimes of today’s universities. As many observers have pointed out universities are rapidly being restructured into one-dimensional training institutions for a productive and efficient work-force. University politicians and administrators have largely abandoned the notion of Bildung.

I’m not advocating a nostalgic return to the classical humboldtian university. But for democratic reasons, I strongly believe that the notion of Bildung has to be upheld – and its content created anew.

And what is more appropriate for Bildung in today’s world than a combination of art and science? Who would contest the claim that art and science are among the major features of culture today? And isn’t the case then, that the cultivation of artistic and scientific sensibilities – on their own and together — are indispensable for becoming a self-reflective world citizen?

Finally, where can such a kind of Bildung – both in general terms, and more specifically in terms of self-reflection on art and science – can take place these days?

We shouldn’t give up on trying to press the Bildung-component back into universities. But there are other ways as well. Maybe museums are better placed for life-long education? Maybe the internet, maybe the rapidly changing ecosystem of blogs, tweets, Instagram images and Facebook status updates will provide the 21st century platform for Bildung? Or maybe we should look for bottom-up social movements, like the biohacking movement?

I realize that the answer seems to be blowing in the wind. But one thing I’m pretty sure about – and that is that people will always strive to understand the world around them and their place in the world, and that reflection on science and art together will become a major constituent in that kind of understanding – independent on the current demise of the university as a Bildungs-institution. (18).

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Thomas Söderqvist

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