SOME art exhibitions offer answers. Others offer nothing but questions. The interesting bunch of exhibits organized around the theme ``Art and Science'' at this year's Venice Biennale of the visual arts (on view until Sunday) are all of the second type. In fact, their very thesis would seem to be that today we live in an age of questions, not answers.
Question: Does this make art more like science than ever before? Visitors should not expect an answer, even to this.
Maurizio Calvesi in his introduction to the exhibition's catalog announces the aim: Not to compile an ``encyclopedia or a treatise'' but to ``stimulate a broader discussion'' by ``giving samples of the problem.''
The theme is explored in shows called ``Space'', ``Art and Alchemy'', ``Wunderkammer,'' ``Art and Biology,'' ``Color'' (parts 1 and 2), ``Technology and Informatics'' and finally, ``Science for Art'' (dealing with the application of modern technologies to the ``protection of the cultural patrimony'').
The array of questions prompted by all this results from the show's continual yo-yoing between an interpretation of art as a parallel for science (for its processes, practices, and evolutionary ``progress'') and then, again, as entirely contrary to science.
The ``Space'' section suggests that an interface between the two fields is not quite as new as we might think if we looked only at Charles Ross's ``Mind Space Projected Onto Star Space'' and Buckminster Fuller's ``Dymaxion Air-Ocean.''
The inclusion in this section of a wooden model of Brunelleschi's Renaissance cupola of the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and of a large-scale model of Borromini's 17th-century perspective gallery in the Palazzo Spada in Rome points to old examples.
But the exhibition also makes clear that today's sense of art-space is entirely different from the old masters'. Subjectivity creeps in. For a 20th-century painter like De Chirico, perspective had to be disrupted in order to visualize an enigmatic dream-space. In fact, ever since Einstein, the ``world view'' often has included four, seven, even 11 dimensions. Though such ``spaces'' are next to impossible to depict in visual terms, both scientists and artists find them very exciting to the imagine.
The enormous section devoted to ``Art and Alchemy'' suggests even older links between the fields of art and science -- going back to the ancient Egyptians. But in these links, the two fields are seen as essentially opposed, or at least caught up in a paradox of attraction and repulsion.
Here the catalog essay by Arturo Schwarz is especially helpful. Schwarz informs us that alchemy (never actually ``a primitive . . . stage of chemistry,'' he insists) was really a search for ``intuitive knowledge of the external world,'' a search that was ``holistic'' rather than ``analytic'' and ``fragmentary.''
In short, it was a lot more like art than science: Art looks for the universal; science produces specialization. Art can afford to look back to the past, indeed probably needs to. Science must look forever forward. Artists do not have to understand what they have done. Scientists do, don't they?
In interpreteting the significance of Surrealism, this section raises still more questions. Schwarz writes, for example, that the ``artist/alchemist ``reverses Hegel's argument that `All that is real is rational, all that is rational is real' and affirms instead: `All that is real is irrational, and all that is irrational is real.'' Not everyone would agree.
Rather more enchanting is the ``Wunderkammer'' section. It explores modern evocations of an old idea -- those collections of ``curiosities'' displayed in ``rooms of wonder,'' precursors, perhaps, of the modern natural science museum and of the laboratory. The point is, though, that the rooms of wonder contained, without any sense of contradiction, manmade as well as natural objects, underlining the fact that the collectors saw no conflict between man's artifacts and nature's strange phenomena.
The wunderkammer can certainly be seen as predecessor of the work of such artists as Joseph Cornell, an American represented here by ``Pharmacy,'' with its rows of bottles containing miscellaneous items. Perhaps the artist is, after all, not a creator but a collector.
But, then, also included in this section are such classic gestures of Surrealism as Meret Oppenheim's ``Ma gouvernante -- my nurse -- mein Kinderm"adchen'' of 1936, which serves up high-heeled shoes on a dish, as if they were haute cuisine. This is art that transforms objects by a whimsical change of context. The old ``room of wonders'' included such objects, so why not the new? Or so the exhibit seems to suggest.
The section ``Art, Biology, and the Invisible'' includes a great deal on abstraction in art. Giorgio Celli, in the related catalog essay, sees in abstraction an ``extraordinary consonance between art and science in our time.''
Celli argues that, ``while naturalistic painting attempts to represent phenomena, abstract art aims at the description of laws.'' He points to similarities (not always quite convincing) between works of Pollock, Klee, and Kandinsky on the one hand and images seen under the microscope on the other -- the ``physical invisible.'' Pollock's painting, we are told, ``in the end . . . resembles a complex diagram of the paths of a fine dust of electron particles.''
The sections on ``Color,'' too, present abstraction as the common ground of scientific and artistic endeavor. And even if we are not persuaded by Mr. Celli's ideas, we must admit that it is in the area of color research that art and science do indeed seem to come closest and that this section is the most persuasive of the exhibition.
Fausta Squatriti, writing in the catalog, attempts to classify in a scientific manner the ways in which color is used by numerous modern artists. Color, however, is always, to a degree, subjective. Perhaps this is why artists have felt so free to study it in proto-scientific ways. There is security for art in color's final defiance of objectivity, of its unavoidable involvement with personal response. In such an area, science is forced to approach art, no less than art is happy to approach science. Isn't it?
Such considerations launch us into the astounding, reverberating worlds of ``Technology and Informatics'' and ``Science for Art,'' where suddenly the boundaries between artist and viewer seem to disappear. Everyone can now behave as active ``users, engaged in open-ended creative interaction,'' writes Roy Ascott. In fact, he sees computer science as exploding ``immutable canons of `excellence,' `beauty,' `value,' and `truth.' ''
One wonders where he has been in the last hundred years or so. Or how he can so oddly think that in art or even science such measuring rods have been considered ``immutable.'' What he calls the ``dream world of the microprocessor'' is surely only taking to surprising extremes a technological tendency already long with us. Can it now make us lose our heads?
Fellow catalog essayist Don Foresta, discussing the communication of ``individual realities,'' puts it more soberly: ``As artists . . . move into the . . . global communication networks . . . , their role does not change, but the scale and the speed are new.'' Over which, though I don't want to be repetitive, hangs yet again a question mark.