Art & Science: Q&A with Arthur I. Miller

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Author Arthur I. Miller.

Arthur I. Miller is a professor emeritus of history and philosophy of science at University College London. Author of the fascinating books Einstein, Picasso and Colliding Worlds, he is an expert on the science of creativity and on the contemporary connections of art, science, and technology. I met Dr. Miller on a cold London day at the Wellcome Center’s café, where we discussed some of the ideas in his interdisciplinary writing.

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BOJANA GINN: Your book Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and Beauty that Causes Havoc was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In it you describe two important discoveries that happened simultaneously, one in in art, one in science. Can you tell us about them? 

ARTHUR MILLER: What always was of interest to me concerning Einstein and Picasso is that they were born within two years of each other—Einstein in 1879, Picasso 1881—and they both made their first great discoveries at about the same time: Einstein discovered the Theory of Relativity in 1905, and Picasso created Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, which contains the seeds of Cubism. Yet they did not know anything about each other, and actually they never met throughout their entire lives. What I found is that they were both swept up by the intellectual tidal wave that swept across Europe: the avant-garde, the principle problem of which was the nature of space and time. Einstein explored temporal simultaneity and Picasso spatial simultaneity, which is essentially Cubism. In the very first page of the relativity paper, Einstein makes it clear that he has no qualms with the equations of the physics of 1905 but with the way that scientists interpreted them, in ways that implied asymmetries that were not inherent in nature. He recalled that he found this situation unbearable. He found their sources were inessential concepts and redundant explanations and turned to a minimalist aesthetic to pare them away. The result was the 1905 Theory of Relativity—a response to his aesthetic discontents.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907. Oil on canvas, 8 by 7¾  feet.  © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 1907. Oil on canvas, 8 by 7¾ feet. © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Picasso was inspired by the developments in science, technology and mathematics. This is evident everywhere in his 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Concerning science, there were the X-rays, which he interpreted as what you see is not necessarily what you get. That is clear from the faces and forms of the five demoiselles. Concerning technology, it was cinematography and photography—you can see the setup of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is essentially a motion picture in five frames with increasing geometrization as you move from left to right. And we see mathematics in forms that he reduced to geometry, which was his aesthetic choice. Note especially the face of the demoiselle on the far right, the most interesting face. It’s represented simultaneously in two perspectives: front view and side view. This is the spatial simultaneity—two perspectives at once. So at the beginning of the 20th century scientists were beginning to think like artists and artists like scientists. And that is what I wanted to bring out in Einstein, Picasso.

BG: Your more recent book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art, starts with a very interesting event that happened in the ’60s in New York called “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.” Who were the protagonists and what was this show about?

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AM: Okay, just a little background. Previous to the early 1960s, artists were influenced by science, technology, and mathematics, as were Picasso, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. They used the ideas of science and technology but not the mediums themselves. In the beginning of the 1960s, a lot of electronic equipment became available and artists wanted to use it. At that time in New York, Fourth Avenue and 10th Street was the haunt of Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, John Cage, and Jean Tinguely, among others. The critical mass was formed with the appearance of Billy Klüver, whose day job was as a scientist at Bell Labs, the American Telegraph and Telephone’s highly innovative research laboratory in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He was no ordinary scientist, moving as he did between the worlds of science and art. He collaborated individually in the early 1960s with all of those artists. In 1966, he decided that it was a time for a large-scale collaboration, so he brought 30 scientists down from Bell Labs to the East Village where he teamed them up with 10 artists.

The culmination was the show “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.” As Klüver recalled, the inspiration was Rauschenberg, but the star was Cage. Rauschenberg’s performance was a tennis game in which each time the ball was hit, one light in the space went out. Cage’s was a sound show in which he piped in sounds actually occurring at that moment, from 10 telephone lines, from hotel kitchens, the ASPCA, police and marine radio bands. He also wanted sounds from outer space and he could have had them because two scientists from Bell Labs the year before had discovered the echo of the Big Bang, but they couldn’t hook up a phone line from their lab into the 69th Regiment Armory, where the show was held. And it was not totally by coincidence that the show was held there, because in 1913 there was a big exhibition where avant-garde art from France was introduced into the United States.