Analyzing Art and Aesthetics

Inspired by the thirteenth annual meeting, held in Washington, DC, in October 2008, Analyzing Art and Aesthetics investigates the materiality of science and technology, focusing on art and aesthetics. During the two-day meeting, the conference presentations raised fascinating questions. How have artists responded to developments in science and/or technology in their own times or from the past? Moreover, how have art forms as diverse as glassblowing, sculpture, drawing, and painting responded to discourse and achievement in the arenas of science and technology or inspired innovation and discovery in these fields?
Rather than limiting the discussion to art alone, the conference organizers also invited participants to consider aesthetics, a field originally conceived as the philosophy of beauty but reframed in recent years to include the scholarly consideration of sensory responses to cultural objects. When considered as aesthetic objects, how do scientific instruments or technological innovations reflect and embody culturally grounded assessments about appearance, feel, and use? And when these objects become museum artifacts, what aesthetic factors affect their exhibition? For all of these questions, the participating scholars looked for answers in the material objects themselves. By doing so, the conference-and this volume-reconsidered how science, technology, art, and aesthetics influence one another.

Given the opportunity to develop this volume, we asked the authors to delve further into these cross-disciplinary questions, with particular consideration of the centrality of material culture. In addition to scholars who participated in the conference, we invited submissions from people who had not been present at the original conference but whose work engaged the volume's projected themes strongly. The three-part consideration of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program from the perspectives of an artist, a scientist, and the program's former coordinator was one such addition. The resulting submissions fell rather naturally into three categories: models as aesthetic objects, the aesthetics of technology, and artists interpreting science and technology. All three sections include both topical analyses and exhibit overviews.

The resulting compilation, international in scope, takes seriously both academic and museum practices, bringing to light critical relationships in the work of a diverse range of professionals and intellectuals. It draws not only from art, art history, museum studies, and the history of science and technology but also from other social sciences and humanities fields. This variety reflects the multiple methodologies employed in the study of material culture. Yet the result is a set of papers that speak to each other around a central set of questions. In contributors and topics, this edited collection reflects the diversity that characterizes Artefacts, an international scholarly collaboration that combines the intellectual frameworks of academic study with the practical considerations of museum work.

Museums provide a rich site for collaborations between the arts and sciences. The examples featured in this volume represent only a small part of the burgeoning interest in combining art, science, and technology. For example, in 2010 and 2011 the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History participated in The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a collective project creating artistic renderings of coral reefs using crochet. Working with Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring (IFF), the museum organized volunteer crocheters to produce a textile coral reef. In addition to the inherent visual appeal, the project illustrated complex geometry-and material culture.[1] The ruffled edges of corals are defined by hyperbolas. For centuries, mathematicians struggled to model hyperbolic planes in three-dimensional space, until Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina solved the problem by crocheting the shapes using yarn. The solution was material. According to Margaret Wertheim, the Hyperbolic Coral Reef project illustrated "the importance and value of embodied knowledge." Rather than relying on symbolic knowledge representations (words, equations, or codes, for example), models like the textile coral reef allowed complex ideas, such as hyperbolic geometry, to be grasped, both literally and figuratively.[2]

As we investigated the materiality of science and technology, the category of models presented itself as a special case, integrating many of this volume's themes into one particular kind of objects (and thus featured in their own section). Moreover, these analyses of models also laid out the foundations for material culture analysis in a way that set the tone for the entire volume. As this first section of the volume demonstrates, models serve many functions. They can be miniature versions of large-scale objects that cannot easily be comprehended (or that no longer exist) or durable examples of things that are fragile or perishable. Models can be physical representations of three-dimensional structures (either biological, architectural, or otherwise). Or they can be industrial tools, providing constants against which variable or changing materials can be compared and categorized. They can stand alone as art works. Or they can be practical representations. In their very definition, as material versions of another object, models elicit fundamental questions for material culture scholarship.
Likewise, the material culture studies that follow illustrate the connections between science, technology, art, and aesthetics. The scholars featured here investigate the culturally grounded judgments of taste that guide the development of cell phone towers disguised as trees or that underlie the transformation of space shuttle orbiters into toys. In unpacking the question of how artists have responded to contemporary science and technology, the authors represented here explore what it means for a contemporary artist to develop animated sculpture mimicking deep-sea fish or for an eighteenth-century painter to have fashioned a complex allegory inspired by a shark attack. How does that relate to an outsider artist filling sketchbooks with drawings of fantastical flying machines, inspired by early dreams of flight? How have scientific developments driven artists to reimagine both star fields and their own identities? Interspersed with these essays are case studies addressing the development of exhibitions. What questions must be considered when exhibiting an artist's cameras, the tools of modem biomedicine--or the industries that built a nation? How do artistic representations illustrate a culture's understanding of its cosmology? Can institutions foster interplay between science and the arts?

Charged with preserving artifact collections for posterity, museums enable visitors to learn by encountering objects. In recent years, museums have employed new techniques to reach visitors with different learning styles-and new expectations for interactivity-using touch, interactive displays, and other immersive strategies. The display and production of art can provide valuable lessons for exhibition designers and curators. Thus, the study of intersections between aesthetics and the material culture of science and technology has critical implications in the context of the museum.

Juxtaposing art and aesthetics with science and technology also has broader practical application. Recently, education reformers have begun adding an A for art to the commonly used education acronym of STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, four areas of study that have been singled out to be fostered through renewed attention and funding), now rendering it "STEAM." The connections this volume suggests between art, science, and technology could provide some ideas for classroom- or museum-based education planning in support of those efforts.[3]

As a collection of essays, a sourcebook for graduate or undergraduate seminars, and a resource for museum professionals, Analyzing Art and Aesthetics not only provides a framework for thinking about the topics addressed in these pages but also offers lessons with a much broader application. We hope that these essays will help museum studies students think about how to exhibit scientific and technological artifacts, art historians to rethink the ramifications of science and technology for the development of visual culture, and historians of science and technology to reconsider the aesthetic dimensions of the material they study. Above all, we hope that these essays, drawn from a broad range of disciplines, will demonstrate the benefit of interdisciplinary study for reinterpreting the rich material culture we occupy.

1. Institute for Figuring, National Museum of Natural History, "The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef," (accessed April 24, 2012).
2. Daina Taimini with D. W. Henderson, "Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane," Mathematical Intelligencer 23, no. 2 (2001): 17-28. Also Daina Taimina, Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (London: AK Peters, 2009); TED, "Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Math of Cora!," filmed February 2009, posted April 2009, (accessed April 24,2012).
3. See, for example, Learning Worlds Institute, "The Art of Science Learning," (accessed April 24, 2012); Harvey P. White, (SHW)2 Enterprises, "STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics," http:// (accessed April 24, 2012).