Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Arts of The Sciences

"Are nuclear explosions art?"

OK, you've piqued my curiosity.

Photograph of the Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954 of the United States' first hydrogen bomb. Image from Wikipedia.
Alex Wellerstein (@wellerstein) asked this question at the beginning of his article Art, Destruction, Entropy on the Restricted Data blog about nuclear secrecy.

On its surface the question seems patently ludicrous. A nuclear detonation brings to mind heat, fire, blast, radiation, fallout, war, conflict, apocalypse, destruction, and death. Anything but art.

Chopping up a piano with an ax isn't art either.

Or is it?

Art, Exhibits, and Museums

Let me back up. Wellerstein's inspiration was an exhibit at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum that he saw called Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 that features both film footage of nuclear test detonations and Raphael Montanez Ortiz' piano destruction (among many other pieces by many other artists). Ortiz is not new to this, having been involved as far back as 1966 in the Destruction in Art Symposium, a reaction to the human race's "will to kill" and a recognition that death itself, not life, needed a sense of the transcendental.

Wellerstein, a historian at the American Institute of Physics, seems to take the position that the exhibition's inclusion of wall-sized looping footage of U.S. above-ground nuclear tests from the 1950s is art only because it is being shown in an art gallery and because of the innate aesthetics of the images. According to him, this focus on the aesthetics distracts the viewer from the larger context of these events such as their intended cataclysmic use, the effect of fallout on innocent bystanders, and the societal cost of the Manahattan project and subsequent decades of nuclear weapons development. He asks whether this particular presentation of nuclear force robs it of something, specifically its larger global context.

Screen shot of the Hirshhorn's webpage for the Damage Control exhibition.
I seems to me that this decontextualization, to use his word, is precisely what contributes to the film's artistic value. Or maybe, more accurately, it's the recontextualization of the work when juxtaposed with Ortiz' and others. To rely solely on aesthetics as a barometer of art misses the point. Certainly the original purpose of the detonation films was one of scientific and historic record and their aesthetic value is merely coincidental.

But those two purposes aren't necessarily at odds either. I am reminded of something William Deresiewicz wrote in The American Scholar: "We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?” But of a proposition in the humanities we ask, “Is it true for me?” So while the nuclear scientists could use the films to learn scientific truth, their inclusion in the exhibit allows the public to assess their implications in a more personal light. In other words, by placing works of scientific origin within the context of Ortiz' work and the works of other artists it humanizes what might otherwise be too incalculably vast to be comprehended.

Are Squares Art?

Let's look at this from a slightly different perspective. You might just as easily ask whether squares are art. This would be coincidental because also on the Hirshhorn's website is a section dedicated to an exhibit on Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration. Albers is probably best known for a series of paintings called Homage to the Square that he used to explore the interaction of colors through the form of inset squares. Through the interaction of form and hue Albers was able to achieve sensation of depth through the picture plane and a shimmering vibration within the plane itself.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1966. Image from the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation website. (I chose this painting in particular because it has a certain abstract similarity, in my opinion, to the Castle Bravo photo above.)
Albers was also a great color theorist and author of Interaction of Color, a pivotal work on color. (See also the app.) In the preface of this important work Albers wrote "Just as knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical... so no color system by itself can develop one's sensitivity for color." "What counts here - first and last - is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision - seeing."

Note that it is the act of seeing - by the observer - from which value is derived. The intent of the producer may have been something totally different.

It is the relative interaction of various colors and forms - i.e. their context - that change a color into something else. Two different colors appear to be the same, the same color appears differently due to interaction with a third, two colors in proximity create a third in their midst. Many monochromatic painters achieve effects on the entire gallery in which their works are placed. 

Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. (Highly recommended but not an easy read.)
So questioning whether squares are art is similarly off target as questioning whether film footage of nuclear detonations are art. Albers' forms interact with each other through their placement and relative color allowing you to see more than shapes and hues. The detonation film puts Ortiz' piano destruction in its own new light and vice versa, allowing us to perceive each in a new way.

Multiples and MIRVs

Wellerstein also raises the issue of producer's intent, questioning whether something made specifically for one purpose can be regarded in another. From the art world, he cites work by Andy Warhol (included in the Damage Control exhibit) and exemplified by the image below.
Andy Warhol, Red Atom Bomb, 1963. Image from the C4 Contemporary Gallery. (Note: I don't know whether this work was included in Damage Control. Its inclusion here is simply for illustrative purposes.)
Wellerstein compares Warhol's work with the photographic series of the Trinity explosion taken by lead photographer Berlyn Brixner (see below).

Berlyn Brixner, TR-NN-11, 1945. Image from the Restricted Data blog. (I tried to find an independent source of this image but failed.)
Clearly, Brixner's purpose was scientific while Warhol's was artistic. A cursory interpretation of Warhol's work is that it makes  a statement on the commoditization of destruction. I would argue that his colorization - and admittedly I'm not a huge Warhol fan - draws something from Albers, if not in this particular work then in his others.

The question remains whether there is any artistic value in the Brixner photographs. Again,  I would argue that there is - or can be - depending on context. I'd make my argument by introducing the work of Edward Tufte, author of the seminal and beautifully produced text, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. As the name of the book implies, Tufte is a master of making dense data understandable through visualization. One of his techniques is the method of small multiples.

The essence of Tufte's concept of small multiples is to contextualize data by answering the question "compared to what?" (Chess players can see a good example of small multiples on Tufte's website for Magic Knight's Tour.) As opposed to a single photograph of the Trinity explosion, Brixner's photograph above compares the fireball are various times. A single photo almost begs the question "So what?" while the array of photographs reveals details about the evolution of the explosion. And here I would make the argument that it's done in a highly visually appealing manner.

To complete the tie-in, I'll mention that it was via Tufte's recommendation, after attending his seminars in Dallas, that I purchased and read Albers' book.

So What?

So what exactly is my point? First, I have kept to this blog's intent to be a rambling stream of consciousness. Second, as frequent readers know, I have this fetish for instances where my various interests are juxtaposed. In this case we have Cold War and nuclear history crossing with modern art and data visualization.

But that's what's in it for me. What about you?

Are nuclear explosions art? The answer, like most things in life, is "it depends." They can be simple scientific and military tools to the extent they impart understanding and support national objectives. And they can be art in how they make each of us think and feel about life and death.

Like the old - really old - SNL skit said, "Sometimes a banana is just a banana." And sometimes a square is just a square. But through contextualization of a square's color and form it can become a striking work of art.

And just because science and math are quantitative, it doesn't mean their execution and explanation and insight can't also be executed beautifully.

Frederich Nietzsche is credited with saying something that seems quite apropos for the subject at hand: "We have our arts so we won't die of truth."

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