I've just returned from a one week course in art history. I am aware that there is a movement in education circles to put an A in STEM*. I now had the opportunity to become enlightened, although I believe that I never really did separate art from the sciences. I was well aware of the interplay of the arts and sciences of Leonardo da Vinci as far back as my own high school days when I was fascinated by a book on the da Vinci’s notebooks. As a teacher, I took my classes one year to the travelling exhibit of objects from da Vinci. In the past I have blogged about visiting Museo Galileo - the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence. I know the need for earlier scientists to be artistic and this was true right up until photography was developed as a way of recording observations. Even now, many of the sciences require an artistic vision to produce visual models. We learned that prior to widespread literacy, people were very visual learners. Examples of this may be seen in the stories told via symbolic illustrations in scenes depicting religious figures in paintings. Now, we need scholars to interpret these for us. Even though there have been a number of literate generations getting information from reading, I have heard it argued that future generations will return to the visual again learning more through such things as video and anime. In a Twitter/Facebook world we will all be learning in a new way.
In the course I took, we examined artwork from the Etruscans to the Moderns. Rather than fitting Art into STEM, as I took in the information of my course, I continued to marvel at the STEM in Art. Two major areas of art history were directly related to sciences, one being archaeology, the other architecture. Additionally, sciences developed out of metalworking and developing pigments for paints and dyes for fabrics. The arts have probably always been influenced by the developing sciences and the sciences pushed forward by the demand of the Arts.
At the initial meet and greet, there was an opportunity to talk science as some fellow students indicated that the 'accent' they developed learning to speak a foreign language (in this case Italian) was influenced by the regions of the country where they were learning it. Well, I was able to chime in on a recent study of accents I read about that used the controlled laboratory of a closed system - people with different English accents locked together for a length of time on the show Big Brother UK. I didn't watch the program, but I understand the researchers used about seven years worth of raw footage to determine which parts of an accent are hard wired, and which parts are very fluid and change quickly. People evolve their speech rapidly in order to get their point across. I thought this research project was a great example of the skills of a scientist.
Keep in mind that there is a whole history of art when we talk about putting the art in STEM. I found myself thinking about the history of metallurgy, the use of metals for paint and sculpting. Was this early chemistry or a form of alchemy? The effort of trying to turn lead into gold perhaps involved adhering gold onto brass using mercury. The results are outstanding.
Will I remember all the finer points of my course? Certainly not! Some academics have spent an entire lifetime examining the meaning of a single painting. But I will take away a greater appreciation for the role that art plays in science and that science plays in art.
Art history courses are widely available. I took mine at the British Institute of Florence. This one week course, 100 Treasures in Florence, was designed to celebrate 100 years since this institute’s formation. The British Institute of Florence is the oldest overseas British cultural institute in the world. Florence is considered to be the heart of the renaissance. It was a good fit for me.
S - science
T - technology
E - engineering
A - art
M - math
Link of Interest: 100 Treasures of Florence
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