Scientific Approaches to Art
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Scientific Approaches to Art Sunday, October 18, 1998
I don't question that scientific or mathematical approaches to art can be insightful. What I question is their repeatability and therefore their accuracy, but given a good method their accuracy will largely be a function of the quality of their assumptions about the human mental activities that are involved in the creation and perception of art.

Most of the approaches I am familiar with tend to make two (sometimes unspoken) assumptions:

That the perception of "art" has certain objective aspects that are a function of physical and biological (or sometimes spiritual) conditioning.

That the perception of "art" can be consistently reproduced so long as the art object is produced in accordance with the principles that invoke the conditioned response.

Architecture is particularly subject to what have been considered "aesthetic universals," usually in the form of geometrical constructions based on what are now called the equiangular logarithmic spiral and the golden section, which were applied to classical Greek architecture and form the basis of the proportions used in the five Greek orders. The Greeks applied these proportions to their architecture in the belief that they were mirroring fundamental harmonies of the universe as revealed in their mathematics. Later investigators (1) have indeed found these basic forms (and a small handful of others) widely reproduced throughout the natural world and in human art of many periods and locations. Whether they really reflect universal harmonies or not isn't the point; the point is that in consciously using such concepts in the production of art the artist is making use of a "weighted trinity" of art, craft, and science to attempt an objective result. Le Corbusier used a similar approach to architecture (2), based on the proportions of the human body.

The human response to music was also subjected to the scrutiny of the Greeks, who devised musical scales based on mathematics and analyzed the physical nature of sound. A good treatment of the theoretics of ancient music as understood by the ancients themselves can be found in Sachs (3). Modern scientific studies of the art of music as related to the physics of sound can be found in Helmholtz, Revesz, and Meyer (4). Schillinger attempted an exhaustive scientific theory of art in 1948 (5).


(1) Among the later investigators were D'Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form (Abridged), Cambridge (1961) and Gyorgy Doczi, The Power of Limits, Shamballah (1981)

(2) Le Corbusier, The Modulor 1 and 2, Harvard (1980) (trans. Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock)

(3) Curt Sachs, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West, W. W. Norton (1943).

(4) Hermann Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, Dover (1954); G. Revesz, Introduction to the Psychology of Music, University of Oklahoma (1954); and Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, University of Chicago (1956).

(5) Joseph Schillinger, The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, Philosophical Library (1948)

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