mathematics and art history: a reconciliation.

art and math have never really gotten along. in elementary schools, math and art enter into an unspoken hierarchy. math class means stumbling over numerical sentences and lots of homework, while art class involves making messes and stuff you can bring home to hang on the fridge. i think it is in this early stage that art gets a bad reputation as being “easy”- a quality it self-conciously battles by making exponentially (a math term: it begins!) incomprehensible visual metaphors.

under the auspices of the classic villainous phrase, “you’re not so different, you and i…” , i’d like to play kissinger for this post and diplomatically reconcile math and art.

it occurred to me, while reading hickey’s air guitar, that art history can be boiled down to the creation and ordering of different sets of iconographies and symbols; an infinite loop of cataloguing. according to hickey, “looking at banks of images… one after another, interpreting finite permutations of a limited iconography” ( dave hickey, air guitar, p.24 ).

for example, to label a sculpture “minimalist” is to communicate a wealth of information by way of a simple gesture. not only does a reader or viewer immediately attribute a time period, a visual aesthetic and a repertoire of popular artists’ names to the phrase “minimalist”, but they also consider what the term “minimalist” explicitly excludes. this is, in a bungling nutshell, the idea behind structural linguistics- that signs fit into an equation (more math lingo!): sign = signifier + signified. the signified consists of all the connotations with which the signifier (the actual object, in this case the sculpture) is associated. minimalism, is, then, both a sign and a set– its own iconography of which there are “finite permutations”.

if we strip mathematics to its fundamentals, it is all about these sets. steven strogatz (professor of applied mathematics at cornell university) explains the concept of sets by way of this sesame street video.

ultimately, the number of fish or spark plugs (6) doesn’t really matter. it is just a shared characteristic among different clusters of objects. what does matter is that the number acts as a system for ordering, a surrogate sign to interpret shared characteristics among disparate items.

so here’s your SAT question: six:minimalism as math:?

so even though art and math have been diametrically opposed in academic circles, an embedded societal principle beginning in elementary school, and manifest in such confessions as this:

“I have a friend who gets a tremendous kick out of science, even though he’s an artist. Whenever we get together all he wants to do is chat about the latest thing in evolution or quantum mechanics. But when it comes to math, he feels at sea, and it saddens him. The strange symbols keep him out. He says he doesn’t even know how to pronounce them.” (steven strogatz, From Fish to Infinity, nytimes 2010)

essentially, art historians and mathematicians perform the same task; making sense of symbols and ordering them into more complex categories and equations. although the languages rarely intersect, the equations in both fields can be dizzyingly complicated and abstract along different trajectories.

so if diplomacy is, in kissinger’s words, the art of restraining power, lets let math and art follow their own trajectories, in their own languages, but let them do so on a leveled academic playing field. that means keeping both forms of pretension in check.

for all of us who don’t speak the language of math, luckily, steven strogatz acts as an interlocutor for us in this article for the new york times.


One thought on “mathematics and art history: a reconciliation.

  1. Sometimes the math system works aesthetically, and they share the same language. I am using simple geometry behind optical principles. The geometry orders and the color disorders, but they are speaking the same language.

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