16 July 2010
Some scientists have used Technology to unlock the secrets of the Mona Lisa. On closer inspection, the "secrets" that the scientists deduced (using Technology!) turn out to be some interesting but trivial details about Leonardo's brush technique and color-mixing. Interesting, sure, but not exactly the Secrets! that I was promised. Nor does it seem as if this could be a line of inquiry as promising or at least provocative as the Hockney-Falco thesis. The scientists seem to be only interested in making some very specific measurements about Leonardo's skills, which are far less interesting than some generalizable theory about, say, Florentine painters generally. Nor does there seem to be any pressing reason to engage in the dispute, as with the shroud of Turin controversy. (Note, by the way, that debunkings of the shroud are almost as common as devotionals to it.)
In fact, for polemical purposes, I am almost disappointed that the scientists were French, not American. If they'd been Yankees, then I could have turned in a paint-by-numbers screed about how Americans are uniquely susceptible to the fallacy that Art can be subsumed by Science, and chide my fellow countrymen for their failure to appreciate both noble truths and noble lies. So I'll rewrite the critique, only substituting "modern" for "American"--a more useful turn, anyhow, albeit one that leaves itself open to criticism on its flank, as the scientists could then advance the line that un-modern thinking has a hard time appreciating science in any of its flavors, from proper Lakatosian thought to Dexter's Laboratory.
The essential point holds: although there may not be separate magisteria for religion (in its vernacular sense) and science, that is a negation of a specific manifestation of a more general proposition about the relative autonomy of spheres of human endeavor and understanding. As it is impossible to understand the weather based on quantum dynamics, so too is it fruitless to try to understand intentional behaviors, like the production of art, by the tools of science alone. I don't claim that this argument is original--how could I?--but it is good to be reminded of these arguments from time to time.