The pursuit of science for art’s sake

Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz rejected the notion of “art for art’s sake.” The leftist revolutionary used poetry for political influence toward Pakistani nationalism, humanism, and love poems.

What’s the point of science? Aesthetic, utility, personal fulfillment plague our rhetoric as we search for knowledge. But a purpose is just a purpose till its probed further. Then it becomes something deeper. It becomes something meaningful for people to make sense of their lives. With existential fears of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and climate change on the rise, science becomes more and more an idea to be scrutinized, rather than left to the whim of desire. What does it become? An art.

Before coming to understand the use and purpose of science, there must be a way people derive meaning from their lives in any sort of context. And this wide context might be applied to a search for meaning in science. After all, meaning is everywhere. Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz faced the reality of this search for meaning. How could poetry, in words on a page, strike the souls of change in the world? Surely by reading the history and cultural context surrounding Faiz’s life, we choose various links in meaning here and there. In constructing a story, the links follow in time. We say X causes Y and Y causes Z. I am hungry because I have not eaten breakfast. I am 22 years old because I was 21 years old last year. And Faiz took on sociopolitical issues of his time as those were the ones that drove him. But, as Ken Chen of the New Republic argues, there are issues and limits in finding the use of poetry in politics. As Aristotle would have said, history is philosophy but with examples, so there must be a deeper purpose.

Art might have more to offer than pretty pictures and pleasant poems. In any poem, movie, or video game, the observer should ask what it is about that work of art that moves them. People should ask themselves what features cause them to have a certain experience, and what might be common between those features. When those works of art seem to exist in an alternate dimension, there must be some human connection with it.

With science, though, the world revolves so much around its utility and progressiveness that changing its direction would prove difficult. Even in art, work can often be commodified. Usurping its rational, rigid emphasis on having the right answers at the right time while art flourishes in the anti-reality. But even in the most far-fetched state of nature, there is a movement of the human soul from the aesthetic. “We are far too inclined to regard art as an ornament and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company,” said A. O. Scott in his book “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.”

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” John Keats, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”

What does this mean for art today? The world of art should encompasses all aesthetic value, extending beyond the paintings of Andy Warhol or the tracks of Beyoncé’s new album, and into the the most remote and peculiar of places we would find artistic value. This would mean down to the filters of our Instagram photos. And the surreal state of art, in its malleable, superficial form with the advent of technology and globalization, has lost much of the way artists add style to their own work. We are only now coming to terms with what happens to the idea of art when images can be endlessly circulated, reproduced, and manipulated, we’ve prized the “look” as an instant style, said Ricky D’Ambrose of the Nation. This sort of “look” changes the way we look at the value of these images.

Philosopher John Dewey said that glorifying art and setting it on a pedestal separates it from community life. Such theories might do harm by preventing people from realizing the artistic value of their daily activities and the popular arts (movies, jazz, newspaper accounts of sensational exploits) that they most enjoy, and drives away the aesthetic perceptions which are a necessary ingredient of happiness.

Has science gone down the same path? Coming to appreciate the equations on the chalkboards of my courses in mechanics and differential equations, I’ve always been moved in much the same way an aficionado of an art museum would be. Finding the meaning and purpose of different sorts of theories and mechanisms, whether its about the structure of DNA or on a convoluted chemical reaction, there was always something more to understand than its utility for human progress. It becomes an art. Even the search for utility (in maximizing the practical value of a scientific phenomena) would provide me with a feeling of satisfaction only comparable to the happiness of listening to my favorite music. Everything becomes just right.

Through this understanding of the nature of art and its place in the world, scientists could develop their own ideas of the purpose of their own fields and disciplines. Not just for the sake of the fields themselves, but for the sake of finding that sake.

“Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.” – George Sand

The relation between aesthetic and science should be explored. Throughout his work, cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter thoroughly examines how life can come out of the inanimate. Anything without a soul moves us in a certain way, whether its through a computer algorithm or an analogy. Hofstadter’s work on the relations between words, ideas, and anything else at the core of cognition sheds light on these answers. He could show that the decision of a computer might be the result of an aesthetic choice, not an algorithmic one. 

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