Alpha Art, Edinburgh, 8th June 2011
Solo show: "Useless Fictions"
115 x 80cm Oil on board
Let there be Newton 50 x 50cm, oil on board
Paintings exploring the relationship between Art, Religion and Science.
Every dog hath his Descartes
58.5 x 58.5 oil on board
Most beautiful and most wonderful
90 x 90cm oil on board
Newton's Big Apple
75 x 58cm oil on board
The Creation of Watt
100 x 100cm oil on board
The Fabric of Space-Time
42 x 42cm oil on board
The Planetary Revolution
88 x 37cm oil on board
"Useless fiction" would no doubt have been Galileo's assessment of a poem about a cow jumping over the moon; but according to the records it was also his description of Kepler's new proposal that the moon was the cause of the tides. "Useless Fiction" could be taken to represent anything that seems to be unscientific- and to represent Science's derisory attitude towards the seemingly irrational. The flip-side of its sober pursuit of truth was the drive to weed out the fabulous and the fantastical from the collective imagination. This would come to include what it would regard as the "useless fiction" of Religion - and Art, which had long been Religion's major ally.
This exhibition delves into the story of the power struggle between Science and Religion, a battle of apparently opposing world views, in which Art had a foot in both camps. My own "useless fictions", have freely plundered both the realistic and the visionary traditions of Art, and thrown the symbols and myths of Religion and Science into the mix. What we see is not just evidence of a historic battle; for the struggle is ongoing, part of the story of our own time.
The Rise and Fall of Useless Fiction
Galileo helped to shape Science's aspiration to make the imagination conform as closely as possible to the world we perceive with our senses. In the scientific mind, imaginative ideas are tested by experience to evaluate the extent to which they correspond to reality - and then esteemed or derided accordingly, as useful or useless. This sifting of ideas would have major implications for the practice and status of Art, determining whether, in the scientific sense, it would be regarded as wheat or chaff.
Before the coming of Science, Art had helped to explain the world to ordinary people. It did this by representing in symbolic form their place in the bigger picture, a picture in which they were seen to play a meaningful role. Artists gave visual form to the collective imagination, and in turn helped to shape how people saw the world. The age-old alliance between Art and Religion had its own tensions and difficulties; like an old married couple, they were argumentative but indispensable to each other. Religious symbols were the backbone of Art, while the lifeblood of Religion was revitalised by the inspired visions of artists like Michelangelo.
For a brief time during the Renaissance, Religion, Art and Science went happily hand in hand. Exalted as a form of knowledge, Art was part of the early scientific enterprise, combining the observation of reality with mathematical laws of perspective, embracing the human and the divine. But when Religion found its authority called into question, it tried to put Science in its place; and in the ensuing conflict Art was left standing awkwardly in the middle, finding it increasingly hard to please both.
And in the Nineteenth Century, photography threatened to make realistic art redundant by offering an instant and objective record of visual reality at the click of a button. Disillusioned artists began to abandon what had become a token attempt to remain part of the collective scientific endeavour; instead lone artistic "prophets" like Van Gogh and Munch swam against the tide in pursuit of their own idiosyncratic visions, setting the pattern followed by the artists of today. In forsaking its claim to represent shared, objective truth, Art became more personal, gaining subjective power; but in the great shadow cast by Science it came to seem fragmentary, peripheral, even dispensable -just so much "useless fiction".
As the Seventeenth century wore on, the aspiration to scientific realism in Art was beginning to sit uneasily alongside symbolic content; only the rare exceptions such as Rembrandt achieved the tricky feat of wholeheartedly embracing the two. And the alliance with Science began to prove increasingly one-sided: while Art could try to conform to scientific principles it was no longer making any "useful" contribution to the pool of knowledge, and had little hope of making an increasingly rigorous Science indulge a more "artistic" world view.
The Triumph of Useful non-Fiction?
The modern sensibility is to a great extent a product of Science's aspiration to exorcise the collective imagination of its irrationality: to understand and to tame not only Nature but human nature. Its success can be measured by the extent to which traditional religious beliefs have been sidelined, and an acquired cynicism has replaced natural human credulity. Its failure can be measured by the fact that people still venerate the absurd (e.g. Monty Python) retain nonsensical loyalties (e.g. to Partick Thistle) and seek out antidotes to their sensibleness (e.g. drugs and alcohol).
But in its campaign to usher in the rational world view, Science took a leaf or two out of Religion's book, developing its own dogma and mythology. Like Religion, Science is founded on unprovable assumptions (e.g. that the universe is intrinsically comprehensible); and it lauds its own illustrious martyrs and saints, the likes of Galileo and Newton, who have their own shrines and sacred relics. And like Art, Science requires inspiration as well as perspiration, its rational picture of the world often being expanded and even radically revised by irrational leaps of the imagination and bizarre flights of fancy (such as Einstein riding around the universe on a photon, and returning with the Theory of Relativity).
There is no doubt that scientific discoveries have proved useful, giving us the Harley Davidson motorbike, and a plethora of functions on our mobile phones. But Science finds itself ill-equipped to provide consolation in times of suffering, and struggles to explain in a meaningful way the mystery of our existence. Without a symbolic dimension, a "mythological" framework in which humanity has a place, it is in danger of becoming simply an ever-expanding sea of obscure facts, each comprehensible only to a few specialists - swamping ordinary people in a tide of "useful non-fiction"
Visible and Invisible
120 x 59cm oil on board
The unfortunate fact is that human nature seems to yearn for a sense of personal meaning as well as objective truth, to seek more than just the plain bread and butter of the material world. It yearns for more exotic dishes, those found in the more elusive and ethereal realms accessed by the imagination, places that do not always conform to rational principles or the laws of mathematics. Traditionally, Religion was the palatable banquet, cooked up (with a stirring imagination) from the raw ingredients of Truth, and served up for popular consumption on the symbolic platter of Art.
Such a spiritual feast represents in symbolic form underlying truths about the reality of human experience; and whilst it may not follow the strict recipe of scientific cuisine, it meets an inner need, nourishing our imagination. Despite Science's best efforts, the need for some form of semi-mythical fodder goes unabated - hence the popularity of Hollywood. And despite apparent evidence to the contrary, sometimes, like the theory that the moon was the cause of the tides, useless fictions can turn out to contain more than just a seed of truth.