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Science-Art: don’t call it “Art”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Don’t talk about “Art”

There’s often a lot of confusion when talking about art. “Art” is a word that can be conflated to mean many things: but most often what people mean when discussing visual art, (oh look I’m already putting a qualifier on the term) is Fine Art.

For example, scientific illustration is not fine art: you may find people trying to justify astonishing images from the Hubble or an electron microscope as being worthy of an art gallery, and indeed they are.  But they are not fine art.

I like to say that fine art is a pretty big branch underneath attached to the ART phylogenetic tree, if you’ll permit the metaphor. And it speaks to a particular tradition, notably retroactively claiming threads of imagery starting in Neolithic caves, to Mesopotamian images of story and worship, to the same in Egypt; Greece; Rome; and finally through the religious traditions of Europe and the increasingly secular salons of Europe to the global network of conceptual art galleries today. It’s not entirely cultural appropriation, either. With the exception of the cave paintings, each of these art traditions was directly influenced by the earlier ones.

There are a lot of winding branches on the Art Tree, and there can sometimes be horizontal gene transfers, images making the leap between different types of art. For example, you will often find the scientific illustrations of John James Audobon in an art history text (sorry- fine art history text).

Here on Symbiartic, I think it’s important to stake out some territory and classifications of different types of big-”A” Art: it prevents some of the disagreements in the comments on whether or not something is art: is baking a cake art? Growing cellular cultures? Accurately depicting a deinonychus? They all can be described that way.  More interesting to me is asking: which are done with skilled technique and experience; which are considered scientific illustrations; which are fine art inspired by science? Most interesting of all, when does something cross the line from one to the other?


Science-art, sciart, art inspired by science and art made with scientific tools and materials – you can call it almost anything, but Science-art has quickly become a true movement in its own right.  Is it a new sub-genre of science fiction?
Is it fine art with a scientific muse?
Is it scientific illustration writ loose?

I’ve created this two-umbrella hyperlinked image to try and demonstrate a tiny bit of the breadth of people and creations and mash-ups that interest me in Science-Art. The red umbrella is for types of art, defined mostly by tools and trends; the yellow umbrella describes the scientific fields.  See if you can guess each one! In the middle, following the lines, are little linkyspark things you can click on to see where the art and science I’ve connected them to lead to something fascinating or just plain cool.

For example, if you start at the red and green arrows on the left that represent Design, and follow them along the fuschia path to the brain on the left the represents Neuroscience , try clicking on the little fiery spark that’s midway along the fuschia-line – you’ll arrive at Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” video. Explore!

Art History Design Fine Art Scientific Illustration Photography Infographic Concept Art Street Art Geology Oceans and Marine Bio Nano and Microbio Astronomy Math and Physics Robotics Neurology Paleontology Genetics Optics Zoology and Biodiversity Science Art Durer's Rhinoceras GNSI Hirst Chromoluminarism AMI Genpets People who love fractals are all nuts. There. I said it. A city made of different monuments than these Corpus Hypercubus, Dali ART Evolved Crazy, Gnarls Barkley Man Ray Jon Lomberg Cloaca Factory E.chromi Elephant Art Gallery Exoplanet photo, Hubble xkcd Robota Spiral Jetty BIOArt Underwater sculptures Space Invaders Interactive image by Glendon Mellow Kalliopi Monoyios Me...Grimlock!

Many many thanks to Joseph Hewitt, to Lis Mitchell, and especially to Lousy Canuck and Jason Thibeault.

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jbyrne 6:20 pm 07/7/2011

    Amazing! Congrats on pulling it all together.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 8:13 pm 07/7/2011

    Thanks James! A few false links on the art and the science icons on the side, but the red+yellow sparks are the important part.

    Anyone found the crazy pie yet? ;-)

    Link to this
  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 9:49 pm 07/7/2011

    It’s probably just as well the rollovers on the side icons didn’t come together. I used one of them to make fun of fractal artists. They be crazy.

    Link to this
  4. 4. 9:59 pm 07/7/2011

    Rock out, Glendon. You put Jason deCaires Taylor on there!!!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 8:31 am 07/8/2011

    Hmm, I’m getting a lot of complaints on Twitter about the false links on the side icons. Sorry everyone! Here’s what those represent, from the top:
    Art Umbrella (red)
    Art History (frame)
    Design (arrows)
    Fine Art (Duchamp’s The Fountain – its a urinal)
    Scientific Illustration (eyeball)
    Photography (Polaroid)
    Data Visualization (pie chart)
    Concept Art (Wacom Tablet)
    Street Art (the word “tag” in spray paint)
    Astronomy (made up planet that I think turned out rather well)

    Sciences (yellow umbrella)
    Biodiversity (frog)
    Optics (3D glasses)
    Genetics (DNA)
    Paleontology (dinosaur)
    Neuroscience, psychology (brain)
    Robotics (robot)
    Math and Physics (cube diagram)
    Micro and Nano (petri dish)
    Ocean studies (nudibranch)
    Geoscience (volcano)

    Hopefully that helps.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Glendon Mellow 8:32 am 07/8/2011

    In my comment above, “Astronomy” should be on the list below, under sciences, after Math and Physics. Typo.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Emily D 10:03 am 07/8/2011

    Very interesting image, Glendon. The hyperlinked sparks are neat. I’ve never seen an image that so clearly shows how art and science can be connected. I enjoyed clicking on the sparks to see where they led – and especially like the underwater sculptures, which I hadn’t seen before. It must have been a challenge to decide where along the dotted line (under which umbrella) to place some of the sparks.

    Link to this
  8. 8. kclancy 3:22 pm 07/8/2011

    As a scientist with no art background at all, I appreciate how you described the phylogeny of art and the particular clade of sciart. I think I’m going to have an awful lot of fun on this network…

    Link to this
  9. 9. Glendon Mellow 10:04 am 07/9/2011

    Thanks Emily!
    Thanks Kate! Originally, this started out as a taxonomic diagram of types of art in general, but became too big. So I focused on aspects of science-art and tried to make it into more of a game.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Aur_ora 8:37 am 07/10/2011

    This is a great concept, and it was really fun exploring it (even though copyright issues mean YouTube Germany won’t let me see the video you highlighted… :s)

    And thanks for the labels – as an art ignoramus, I felt I really needed them!

    Link to this
  11. 11. Laura Lynn 1:31 am 07/12/2011

    I think that assigning labels in this way leads to the ghetto-ization of artists and scientists who do art and science.

    Everyone just ends up calling it ‘illustration.’

    Anyway I’m more willing to go w/ the ‘scott mccloud’ definition of art.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Glendon Mellow 3:50 pm 07/13/2011

    Thanks for the McCloud cartoon, Laura!

    I disagree that labelling types of art or artists is “ghettoization”; can you explain what you mean further?

    My interactive image is actually trying to show a very small number of the many ways the artistic and scientific disciplines cross over. ‘Two cultures’ is a myth, but one that many people have bought into, which then fulfils itself. Our aim with Symbiartic is to show the symbiotic nature of the arts and the sciences.

    Link to this
  13. 13. h. gillespie | biocreativity 1:34 pm 07/31/2011

    Hi there. This subject is very interesting and something I’m exploring in my own blog ( which focuses a little more on biology-art in particular (rather than all sciences). Debate has raged throughout all eras of human history to define what “art” is. This is why I chose the name “biocreativity” for my blog instead of “art” – because as you say its definition can be quite nebulous. I attempt to define what I mean by biocreativity on one of my first posts (, and would be interested in hearing what y’all have to say.

    There is such a continuum of artist-scientists (or scientist-artists) out there that I think any attempt to discretely categorize what I call “biocreativity” is going to be a bit difficult. I would argue that some specific movements, such as BioArt, are certainly found along the biocreativity continuum. I’m not sure I would argue, however, that anything along that continuum is one single movement.

    I’m hoping one of the “movements” that is arising along this biology-art continuum is a realization that we scientists need to get better at explaining our work to a broader audience, and that “art” (whatever we define that to be) is one way to do so. There are also many artists who are using biological subjects in their art to bring awareness to important issues of our time (e.g. conservation of biodiversity or the ethics of creating GMOs) and there are yet others who are incorporating new and old scientific techniques, materials and technologies to create art which may or may not be used to speak to such issues.

    Really glad to have your Symbiartic blog to discuss these issues as well as The Flying Trilobite!

    Link to this
  14. 14. Glendon Mellow 6:15 am 08/3/2011

    Thanks for all your thoughts Hayley! And I’ve added biocreativity to the Science Artists Feed.

    I agree, any art movement or list of artists is hard to categorize into discrete labels, but it can be useful to try. From my perspective in the dine arts field, 15 years ago while starting my undergrad you couldn’t get peers or professors to give art inspired by say, microorganisms a second look. I went back to school in 2009 after a long absence, and the attitude had changed dramatically. That’s a small sample size, I know, and anecdotal. In addition, the amount of artists inspired by science who are active online certainly seems to be increasingly. The ‘Two Cultrues’ dogma is being washed away by some really amazing work.

    One of the problems I have at the moment is the Science Artists Feed caps at 100 blogs: I have to delete some from the list to make room for new ones. So I subscribe to the older ones in my Reader (I usually delete blogs that are inactive or sporadic).

    Your comments about researchers using art to communicate is one I hope blogs like Symbiartic and your own will continue to inspire.

    Link to this

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