Has art outspaced science? A scientist says yes; A Search for Structure, by Cyril Stanley Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. $30.; From Art to Science, by Cyril Stanley Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
Cyril Stanley Smith is a metallurgist by training and philosopher by avocation. In the service of discovering an unrecognized sympathy between Whitehead's two cultures, art and science, he has searched for patterns of structure and discovery common to both.Skip to next paragraph
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His thesis in these two books, and in much of his other writing on the history of materials and technology, is that craftsmen working in the decorative arts from earliest recorded time have made the same discoveries, on different levels of awareness, as scientists working to advance technology. Further, the artists' discoveries have, in most cases up until the present century, anticipated the scientists' by decades or centuries. The point he insists on is that aesthetic concerns have superseded, until our age, intellectual ones in providing the spur that resulted in the discovery of processes and properties in the materials humans use to create -- everything from celadon bowls, intricately decorated armor, and temple bells to high-resolution lenses.
Smith's holistic approach to technology and art is characteristic of a point of view that seems increasingly prevalent among scientists who possess a literary bent. "From Art to Science" is in the tradition of Lewis Thomas's "Lives of a Cell," seeking as it does to see in single handmade objects microhistories of the course of human aspiration and technological advance. I was also reminded of Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach" as I went through this catalog based on a 1977 exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institute and MIT, where Dr. Smith is institute professor emeritus. Subtitled "Seventy-Two Objects Illustrating the Nature of Discovery," the catalog includes beautiful photographs of ceramic, glass, fabric, shell, and, naturally, metal objects, which provoke textual meditations on their manufacture that illustrate, along with the objects themselves, Dr. Smith's thesis.
Contemplation of a 6th- or 7th-century Peruvian textile moves him to consider: "Weaving is one of the most subtle ways of combining materials and in terms of the number of unit operations among the most complex. Yet the Incas and other cultures produced beautiful cloth like this using simple devices like the backstrap loom, which is hardly more than two sticks and some cord. The combinations might be explained by the theories of the mathematical topologist: the interwoven fibers follow the same topological limitations in building up a superstructure as do atom rows in crystal." Multiply this abbreviated entry by 72, and three introductory essays -- one most provocatively presented by Hilde Hein of Holy Cross College -- and the result is rich and industrial treasury.
"A Search for Structure" is a collection of Smith's longer essays which expand and elaborate on the themes presented in the exhibit. Laymen should be warned that the technical nature of most of these essays makes them difficult going.
One may not be converted to Smith's point of view by reading one or both of these books, but the search for a certain wholeness is heroic and heartening. It offers a welcome antidote to the increasingly fragmentary sense that technology and specialization produce, now, as a matter of course.