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


Fine Art

Scientific Illustration



Concept Art

Street Art


Oceans and Marine Bio

Nano and Microbio


Math and Physics






Zoology and Biodiversity



Durer's Rhinoceras






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


Elephant Art Gallery

Exoplanet photo, Hubble



Spiral Jetty


Underwater sculptures

Space Invaders

Interactive image by Glendon Mellow

Kalliopi Monoyios


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