Coincidentally: Who Says There are Two Cultures?

Different hemispheres of the brain govern intuitive artistry and inductive science. Atrophy of one of the lobes can cause either effete aestheticism or nerdish scientism. One dead lobe creates the National Endowment for the Arts, and another dead one creates Planned Parenthood.

The ancients did not distinguish between parts of the brain—or the separate realms of science and the arts. In cultural emoluments, artistic Athens and practical Sparta were more alike than San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are later examples of art and engineering combined in one person in Leonardo; Michelangelo; Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat; and Pierre Duhem, pioneer of thermodynamics. Duhem was born in 1861, the year of the death of the ornithological artist John James Audubon, and he died in 1916, the year of the death of the amateur astronomer Percival Lowell.

Moreover, Audubon was as much a scientist as he was an artist, and Lowell was as much an artist as he was a scientist, making the very heavens his canvass. The artist Peter Paul Rubens may have been more of a polymath than any of them. He probably developed the assembly line in the production of his paintings. His adroitness in combining aestheticism and pragmatism later got the goat of the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin. Neither did the poet Walter Savage Landor see anything admirable in such an artist-businessman. Landor cut Wordsworth, who harbored similar ambitions in his writing, with the quip, “He keeps one eye on a daffodil and the other on a canal share.” But Wordsworth (note the coincidence of his name and his art) was a poet who painted badly, so the comment was unfair.

The most obvious mix of art and science is the concrete world of architecture. Great painters would be builders, and vice versa. That was so true of Vitruvius. It was also true of Antonio Canaletto. His nephew, Bernardo Belotto, drew cityscapes of Warsaw and Dresden from architectural sketches whose detail surpassed that of Canaletto’s famous scenes of Venice and London. Coincidence made Belotto something of a storm petrel: In his drawings of Warsaw and Dresden, he happened to sketch two of the cities that would be most devastated in World War II. The good side to this sad happenstance is that Belotto’s pictures furnished primary data for the reconstruction of the two cities after the war, in which the original blueprints had all been destroyed.

Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, became first president of the National Academy of Design and was commissioned to do some paintings in Italy. In fact, he invented his communications machine in his painting studio in Washington Square when he was professor of art at New York University. He also became one of America’s most notorious anti-Catholics as the result of having had his hat knocked off by a papal Zouave in 1830 after he refused to take it off as Pope Pius VIII passed by in procession.

Morse got a patent for his telegraph in 1840. In 1856, he went abroad to prepare the laying of the Atlantic cable. At the time, the chief examiner of the U.S. Patent Office was Titian Ramsey Peale, scion of America’s most famous art dynasty before the Wyeths of the 20th century. Titian Peale’s father, Charles, had opened a combination art gallery and natural history museum on the second floor of what we now call Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Young Peale accompanied Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition up the Platte River in 1819, producing drawings second in scientific importance only to those of Audubon, whose first volume of The Birds in America was released to the public the very same year that Morse was scuffling with the pope’s guard.

One of America’s most famous artists, James McNeill Whistler, failed chemistry at West Point long before he turned to art and painted his mother. In 1867, as Whistler was repudiating the reigning painterly realism of Richard Corbet, fellow painter William Trost Richards and his wife conceived a son. The boy, Theodore William Richards, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1914—on the 80th anniversary of Whistler’s birth in 1834.

That coincidence inescapably conjures up thoughts of the long line of artists and scientists among those who bore the surname Harvey. While there was not much physical science in Eli Harvey, who sculpted a gorilla for the New York Geological Society, his death in 1937 marked the tercentenary of the death of William Harvey in 1637, whose studies of blood circulation have somewhat overshadowed his valuable investigations into ape reproduction.

Philosophy boils down to the relationship between the pulchrum and the utile, the beautiful and the useful. Is beauty that which is useful, or is the most useful that which is beautiful? Only human beings ask that question. Angels already know the answer, and animals don’t know Latin. Human beings ask it because they are by nature both artists and scientists. This is certain: It is almost the definition of art to call it the declaration of creatureliness, of being made. It is not blasphemous to put our signature on beauty or to boast of invention. But to make an ugly thing and call it beautiful, and to make a useless thing and call it useful is a very modern form of blasphemy known as ideology.

 

*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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