Press "Enter" to skip to content

Art and science; images and concepts

Some of the responses to my previous posting suggested that the relation between images and concepts, as explained by Leonard Shlain in his book on the link between alphabet literacy and patriarchy (The Alphabet versus the Goddess), requires clarification.

What better way to do that than by referring to his earlier book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light (Perennial, 1991), where he traces the astonishing history of the chronological anticipation, on the part of artists, of breakthroughs that would only occur later (sometimes by centuries) in the realm of physics.

The scientific-theoretical underpinnings of this work are similar to those of the later book on literacy and patriarchy, namely the knowledge of those cerebral functions that belong to the right and left hemispheres of the human brain, respectively.

The difference is that Shlain here uses that knowledge to make sense of the fact that art (which is largely right-hemisphere dependent) preceded physics (which depends largely on the left hemisphere) at major junctures in the history of civilisation in articulating the advent of radically different ways of understanding the world.

Taking into consideration the distinctive modes in which the right and left hemispheres operate, as well as the fact that the right-hemispheric way of knowing the world is far older in the history of the human race than the left-hemispheric way, it should not surprise one that art is demonstrably the older and wiser of the two human modes of access to reality.

To put it differently, every person repeats in her or his life what is true in the history of the human species: we know the world through images before we know it more abstractly through concepts and numerical relations. Before children can speak or write, they recognise a parent’s face — that is, the image of their mother or father.

It is well-known among anthro-archaeologists that what neurologists call “lateral specialisation” occurred relatively late among humans — that is, the functional differentiation between the right and left hemispheres was not always the case; language, which is left-brain based, is of relatively recent origin among humans. Before that time, humans, like other animals, had cognitive access to the world in iconic terms, through images.

Needless to say, the acquisition of language made all the difference to the way humans approach the world and opened up revolutionary new possibilities for them, but the historical priority of knowing through images, instead of through abstract concepts such as gravity, inertia, light-speed and so on, not only repeats itself in the growing-up of every child, but — as Shlain shows in great detail in Art and Physics — may also be traced in the history of art and physics. In every case that he adduces, there is a clear parallel between the work of certain artists and that of physicists, with the former anticipating the work of the latter.

One of the most striking instances concerns the correlation between the artistic work (including the many drawings of natural phenomena) of Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton’s physics. Through scrupulous analysis Shlain is able to demonstrate that what Leonardo could visualise in the form of concrete images finds its conceptual counterpart in the highly abstract scientific work of Newton. The forces that receive abstract, conceptual mathematical articulation in Newton’s work (such as inertia, acceleration and gravity) correlate conspicuously with Leonardo’s detailed drawings of whirlpools, falling water and other natural things. And this despite the fact that Leonardo preceded Newton by almost two centuries.

Among the most astonishing correspondences uncovered by Shlain is the manner in which 19th-century artists such as Manet, Cézanne and Monet, through their various space-representational deviations from the hallowed principle of perspective in painting, anticipated the epoch-making theories of relativity formulated by Einstein in the early 20th century. Then there is my personal favourite — because it explains so much that I used to find puzzling about the artist in question: the correlation between Jackson Pollock’s ostensibly inexplicable “drip-swirls” and what is known in physics as “field theory”. The latter means that the “field” was shown to be more important than — in fact, to be a prerequisite for — the existence of “particles”. In Shlain’s words (1991: 245):

“As a result of insights garnered from both relativity and quantum mechanics, the field more than the particle came to be recognised as the true nexus of reality … In Einstein’s formulation of the special theory it was the field of light itself that determined the structure of space and time. Quantum physicists discovered that ‘things’ constructed out of matter originated in fluctuations of insubstantial fields of energy.”

The correlation with Pollock’s work is this: in his painting, too, the “field” was shown to be presupposed by the functioning of perceivable entities, things or objects within the field demarcated by the canvas. Shlain shows that one’s initial disconcertment in the face of Pollock’s abstract swirls makes way for understanding when, instead of searching for objects represented there, his canvases are seen as representing an energy field without any centre or hierarchical spatial coordinates. Shlain (1991: 248) articulates the remarkable parallel between the concept of the “field” in physics and the revolutionary abstract expressionism of Pollock, which anticipated its abstract theoretical formulation in physics, in this way:

“Pollock’s work reiterates a profound truth the physicist discovered: the field is more important than the particle, the process supersedes the object … Pollock’s vision, like the field in physics, is an invisible tension, made out of nothing, that cannot be captured and placed under the microscope for scrutiny.

“Pollock’s painting is not a res [thing]. In physics, the field becomes manifest only by its effects on the behavior of things within it. Pollock found a way to express the same notion with paint … In Pollock’s most famous paintings there are no things, merely the expression of energy and tension … They have no center or hierarchy of interest but instead give all areas of the picture equal importance … His works approximate the principle of the field as conceived in physics.”

By using neurological knowledge of the functional differences between the two hemispheres of the human brain, Shlain has managed to cast important new light on the relation between art and one of the most respectable disciplines in science, namely physics — two areas of human cultural and intellectual activity usually regarded as being poles apart.

His perceptive correlation of new visions in art, on the one hand, and revolutionary breakthroughs to novel ways of conceptualising the physical world in the science of physics, on the other, is eye-opening: it allows one to grasp art and physics as modally different, but ultimately reconcilable, ways of understanding social and natural reality.

To be able to appreciate the full impact of this phenomenal study, it is advisable to read the book, though. More information on this as well as other works by Leonard Shlain is easily accessible on the internet.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Afronooit Afronooit 24 March 2008

    It seems that scientifc discovery is as much a creative process as art. One does not look at a dry experiment and come up with Newton’s equations. One has to interpret what one sees in the light of experience and reflection before comming to this leap to a new equation or theory. The Eureka moment is a real phenomenon.

  2. Siobhan Siobhan 2 April 2008


    I had not read Shlain’s Art and Physics when I had a similar Aha! moment in the Louvre (in 1988) whilst contemplating a painting by Seurat. Suddenly, I realized that I was looking at a rendering of atomic theory. Here was Niels Bohr and Rutherford and Einstein in dazzling light and colour! Seurat had clearly intuited the insight of ‘modern’ physics that atomic structure is mostly empty space. Seurat’s ‘technique’ was not a mere ‘style’ or ‘phase’ in his development as an artist; it was what anthropologists call an expression of ‘deep structure’, a link to the deepest levels of perceptual possibility without resorting to language. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say Seurat’s work is a new way to look at physics.

    That moment was pivotal in my own development and for the first time I was grateful that I had been forced to take a course in Physics (which I prefer to call by its original name:Natural Philosophy) in my first year at university– as a literature major. I hated it at the time, but have followed developments in the field with great interest ever since.

    The practice of ‘forcing’ learning is not one I can endorse but there is value in approaching things like physics–and art–as part of the rich ‘history of ideas’ to which we are heir. In that context, one can teach the conceptual side of the discipline without insisting that non-specialists take exactly the same course as specialists. Putting people through academic hoops is the best way to alienate them from learning for life.

    Thank you for the ‘brain candy’! More, please, Sir?

  3. Bert Bert 3 April 2008

    Siobhan –

    Great comment, and all the more valuable because you noticed the consonance between Seurat’s art and the work of Bohr and others without the benefit of having read Shlain. It does serve to confirm the validity of his (Shlain’s) insight, however – as Feyerabend said, truth begins with two, not with one.

  4. Siobhan Siobhan 5 April 2008

    A very gracious reply. Thank you, Bert.

  5. AMIN OMER AMIN OMER 7 May 2008

    Bert Olivier is professor of philosophy
    what is this U must be very intelligent!!!

  6. nuri comez nuri comez 7 February 2010

    very well designed article which i would like to use for my work to illustrate the correlation between art and science. I would not mind more of your opinion.

Leave a Reply