The studio and the laboratory

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As part of my current research on comparative epistemologies of art, science, and religion, I came across an excellent essay by Svetlana Alpers: “The Studio, the Laboratory, and the Vexations of Art.” Alpers begins with the admitted aim of comparing and contrasting the workplaces of art and science, considering the studio as represented in 17th-century Dutch painting in relation to the 17th-century “house of experiment” in the Baconian model. She notes, however, that the analogy breaks down due to the consistent pictorial representation of the studio through the lens of individual experience, while the laboratory more overtly incorporates assistants and even the general public. While the model of solitary work may not be historically accurate (many artists had assistants, not to mention live models and even household servants in the studio), it is at least conceptually accurate: the representation of the studio is not only a visual representation, but also a representation of bodily experience, and phenomenology always starts from the individual. This has interesting implications for the truth value of art and science, respectively:

What I am invoking is not a personal matter. It has to do with how every individual establishes a relationship with the world. One of the vexations of art is man. In the laboratory, by contrast, the impact of the interference of the human observer in an account of natural phenomena was neither acknowledged nor taken into account until modern times, and then with a different effect. … It is possible to argue that the practice of painting was ahead of the practice of science in regard to the observer. The truth of this might account, at least in part, for the studio’s enduring life (Alpers 404).

Alpers goes on to discuss the evolution of studio to landscape as a site and motif for painting in the 18th and 19th centuries. She holds up Cezanne as emblematic of this transfiguration, in which landscape comes to be treated–constructed–in the same way as the elements of a still life in a studio. This in turn suggests a parallel transformation of scientific experimentation in the late 19th century, when C.T.R. Wilson’s cloud chamber at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge came to be used for observing subatomic particles. It is a change from mimetic experimentation–reproducing meteorological effects in the cloud chamber–to analytic experimentation–studying the actual particles that constituted those effects.

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Alpers’ analysis is admittedly preliminary and incomplete, but it offers some provocative ideas on the way the sites of science and art are instrumental in the knowledge they respectively produce. You can find the whole essay in the book Picturing Science, Producing Art, edited by Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison (public library).

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