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Scientific Research Speaks through Art

By Claire P. Tan, Contributing Writer

“I like flirting with things that seem dangerous,” artist Alexis Rockman jokingly shared with the audience as he explained his fascination with painting the effects of climate change and ecological disasters. Rockman, along with James J. McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, and Susan Dackerman, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints in the division of European and American art at the Harvard Art Museums, spoke in a lecture entitled “Artistic Visions and Scientific Truths.” The lecture, which took place this Wednesday night at the Boston Museum of Science, was part of the ongoing series “When Science Meets Art,” which supports discussion about how art can convey messages of science to people in a more striking manner.

“Artistic Visions and Scientific Truths”—a collaboration between the Harvard Art Museums and the Boston Museum of Science—stemmed from the ongoing exhibition “Prints and Pursuits of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe” at the Sackler Museum. According to Dackerman, the exhibition examines the intricate relationship between art and scientific investigations in the 16th century. “What I was interested in examining,” said Dackerman, “was the exchanges that happened between artists and scientists and the representative skills artists had contributed to projects that were under development.” As she examined Dutch printmaker Jan Saenredam’s print of a beached whale, she drew attention to the intricate ways in which people assessed the whale. “What the artist is doing for us and viewers ... is translating the data collected and presenting it to us in a form that is visually comprehensible to a non-specialist audience,” Dackerman said.

Rockman agreed, citing naturalist artists Charles R. Knight and Chesley Bonestell as some of his main influences. These painters were, according to Rockman, “my heroes as a child, and [the] people I look up to,” and partly inspired him to become an artist who focused his career on exploring the consequences of science such deforestation and climate change. This examination of the effects of science was clearly manifest in one of his paintings, “Mount Rushmore,” which depicts apocalyptically rising ocean levels. McCarthy praised the painting for its shock element that provoked thought. “This image is gripping,” he remarked. “I think an image like this conveys something no table, no graph, no hour-long lecture on the thermal expansion of the ocean and what is happening with melting ice could possibly do.” Rockman’s artwork has garnered much attention; his paintings having been exhibited in a wide range of museums including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

McCarthy further elaborated on the ability of art to communicate messages in a visceral, powerful manner that scientists, thus far, have unable to achieve. Scientists, according to him, have a tendency to underplay their predictions and data findings. “If a scientist were to overstate ... that person will acquire a reputation as someone who over-reads data [and] exaggerates interpretation ... and this casts a doubt on anything and everything they say,” he explained. On the other hand, artists can be more hyperbolic without the having to put their reputations at risk. As Rockman mentioned, he and other artists can “[use] the authority of scientific pictorialism to walk a fine line between fact and fiction.”

However, Rockman did caution against giving art too much credit in advocating environmental and ecological awareness. “I’ve looked at all the civil rights activist traditions as role models and see the ecological movement as a pathetic disaster. There is no one charismatic enough [in the movement],” he said. “The ecological movement needs a charismatic leader to mobilize many people.”

The lecture was filled with thought-provoking ideas exploring the unity of art and science. Audience member Hilary C. Farlow discussed the dynamic relationship presented. “It was very interesting to have an artist … and a scientist … talk about how similar their fields are, and the overlaps between them,” she remarked at the end of the lecture. “It is interesting to see how art can almost get away with pushing the envelope more than science,” she added.

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