RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004
  INTERVIEW : JEAN-MARC LéVY-LEBLOND  -  Science and the world, art and the ego

‘I am grateful to certain artists for helping me step back and achieve the essential critical distance which techno-science requires today.’ This ‘saying’ of Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond dates from 1996, but it has not lost one iota of its truth to this day. Theoretical physicist, ‘experimental epistemologist’, lecturer at the University of Nice, director of publisher Seuil’s scientific collection, and the driving force behind the Alliage magazine (see box), he is constantly questioning science which he likes to ‘put to the test of thought’ and to confront with other human activities, like artistic creation.

Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond: ‘An artist uses the first person singular, a scientist the first person plural. This vital difference conditions their ability to engage in dialogue.’
Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond: ‘An artist uses the first person singular, a scientist the first person plural. This vital difference conditions their ability to engage in dialogue.’


Traditionally, people have spoken of a scientific spirit and an artistic sensitivity. Are these expressions meaningful to you?

I would like to turn them the other way round. One could equally well speak of an artistic spirit and a scientific sensitivity. But traditionally, science tends to be identified more with a rational approach and art more with an emotive approach. I do not believe we should attach much importance to such vague categorisations. The real differences between art and science do not lie at this general level of terminology.

Where then should we begin to situate their differences?

The social reality of these two professions is radically different today. The scientist is part of a powerful institution – in most cases, publicly owned – which pays him. He belongs to a team and is part of a collective effort. The artist works alone, with a much higher degree of personal risk. His personality and subjectivity are truly committed and non-recognition and failure can prove very painful. A scientist too can confront career difficulties, but he is protected by the group to which he belongs. This vital difference needs to be taken into account if we set out to promote dialogue between artists and scientists. Most of the time, the latter group are unaware of what separates them. Artists have an image of individual researchers, hidden away in their laboratories, in a creative pose similar to their own, whereas scientists – deluded by the large-scale mediatisation of a handful of artists – are unaware of the isolated and very special nature of the artist’s profession. In short: a double misunderstanding which does little to promote real exchange.

Looking beyond this distinction, are scientific and artistic research driven by similar forces?

Here, too, I would insist on their differences. An artist never seeks to be exhaustive. When Bach or Modiano worked on variations, they were not interested in producing the greatest possible number, but rather those that appeared to them the most interesting. A computer can create an xth Goldberg Variation, but it will be a pastiche. The specificity of the work lies not only in what its creator does, but also in what he does not do.

Science, on the other hand, claims the – utopian – right to knowledge of the entire world. In this process of discovery, it may never limit its variations and it should extend its system with as few limits as possible.   A naturalist will never say to you ‘if I know 30 varieties of this species, I will know how it functions’. He will want to know every single variety.

Moreover, scientific researchers are driven by the desire to add another little stone to the edifice of science, not necessarily very different from other discoveries, modestly, and without a Nobel Prize in sight. Artists do not think in this way. They do not pay any tribute to the edifice of art. They tell themselves ‘I bring what I bring, which is myself’.

An artist uses the first person singular, a scientist the first person plural. This vital difference conditions their ability to engage in dialogue. An artist speaks of his own position whilst a scientist has a lot of difficulty bringing his own subjectivity into play and always speaks, in a certain way, on behalf of the group, under the watch of others and, again, taking far fewer risks. Which often means that, when they do meet, there is no real dialogue – a very interesting juxtapositions of words, but no real exchange.

Do such meetings, when they do take place, strike you as being constructive? In other words, do researchers – mainly in the exact sciences – have anything important to learn from others?

As a scientist, my impression is that right now science is having a hard time. It is running up against a series of difficulties and contradictions. For me, the only way to confront this situation is to fall back on the cultural experience accumulated over the centuries by writers, artists and philosophers, which has remained foreign to scientists for many years. Science as we conceive it today, as an organised, specialist, professionalised social activity, has only existed for around 400 years.

It is one of the rare human activities not to include a historical dimension.   You can be a physicist, a biologist, etc., and be locked into a very narrow contemporaneity, knowing absolutely nothing about the history of your discipline Here again, scientists differ radically from artists who can situate themselves within a historical process, claim allegiance to one or other movement, or break with it and know what they are ‘breaking’ from.

Another particularity of scientists is the way they pride themselves on their critical spirit but, paradoxically, their production is always examined by their colleagues. The peer review system is a form of purely internal criticism. This is not the case for artists who expose their work to outside criticism. This is criticism in the noble sense of the term, which is not so much an evaluative judgement but an attempt to analyse the question of meaning.

But, beyond peer review, scientific popularisation is very much alive…

We are informed, abundantly, of its latest discoveries and latest state of knowledge. But the question of the significance of such work is rarely broached, or only very much later, when discoveries have political or ideological impacts. Take, for example, genetic manipulation. The real problem here is not that of knowing exactly which treatment cells are subjected to, but of questioning the meaning of such work from the viewpoint of the relationship of the human race to the rest of the living world. We need to step back sufficiently from a purely didactic approach and from immediate political criticism and show how our relationship with the living world changes once the subject of technology is life itself and not just the world of matter. It seems to me important to understand not only the replies that scientists give, but why they ask this or that question.

Could not the artistic endeavour be compared with that of the ‘fundamentalists’?

Claudio Parmiggiani, Deiscrizione.‘I do not believe that we have any other message to pass on than the sign, the trace of our path and of what we are, that is: comets.   Advancing like blind men, we have only our solitude to hand down.’ (Parmiggiani)
Claudio Parmiggiani, Deiscrizione .‘I do not believe that we have any other message to pass on than the sign, the trace of our path and of what we are, that is: comets. Advancing like blind men, we have only our solitude to hand down.’ (Parmiggiani)
The problem is that fundamental research is becoming increasingly ambiguous. Until a few decades ago, it was possible to uphold the idea of research undertaken out of curiosity, independently of any subsequent application. This separation between fundamental and applied research has weakened from the mid-20th century onwards. Its concrete symbol is the nuclear bomb, developed by the most fundamentalist theoretical physicists, driven by the curiosity to know how the nucleus of an atom works. Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race mark the beginning of a fusion between the fundamental and applied sciences which today makes the demarcation line increasingly difficult to draw.

Astrophysics is probably one of the few areas where science can boast it retains a certain original purity. But the impressive images that have made this science known to the general public are the fruit of space technologies. Probes would never have been sent to photograph Saturn without the communication satellites that industrialists are interested in… 

We have spoken a lot of the differences between arts and sciences. But, when in the same context, they must share a certain number of questions.

People have often quoted the symmetry, in the 1910s and 1920s, between the physicists who invented the theory of relativity – which totally overturned our conception of time – and the work of the cubists who revolutionised the representation of space. The artists themselves, however, do not make the slightest reference to Einstein. What we have is rather a historical situation in which a whole series of representational structures were beginning to become unstuck. The traditional conceptions of time and space were being called into question by the historical upheavals – market globalisation, colonial empires, the widespread movement of goods – which were shattering traditional stable conceptions. This widespread impact affected every sector, both in science and art. It is quite possible that comparable phenomena are taking place right now. In any event, we can point to the increasing merchandising of both science - major companies buying and selling know-how and applying the criterion of profitability to scientific discoveries - and art, where the market potential is particularly powerful.

Today, we see scientists open their laboratories to artists working on living objects, for example changing the design of butterfly wings or using pig stem cells. How do you react to this type of encounter?

In a world in which technology is raising a host of problems – even if it resolves some of them – I would see rather a trend in scientists seeking to use one or the other art form to legitimise their research, on the lines of ‘this can even create art’ or ‘what we are doing in our laboratories in not only real but is also beautiful’. This can be pretty gratifying self-justification, and it is no accident that biotech art has appeared just when the impact of genetics on industry is, rightly or wrongly, being called into question.

Artists, in turn, can find a sort of guarantee of modernity in this relationship with contemporary technologies in today’s highly technological and scientific era – though not enough of course to explain the contemporary world. The works of artists like Joseph Beuys have long drawn our attention to the development of science and technology and questioned the roles they play in our lives.

Indeed, it can be asked whether the current insistence on a purported syncretism between art and science does not reflect the period of uncertainty in which we live. Science is adopting a human face. Through art it is entering the world of culture and sensitivity. Art is becoming rational and using science as a badge of modernity. Personally, art attracts me precisely because of its differences with science. I am very sceptical towards seeking any new alliance between the two under the pretext that beauty does not belong solely to art, nor truth solely to science. Otherwise, beauty – ‘the splendour of an equation’, for example – could, for certain scientists become proof of validity. Let’s not confuse the two.

Let’s try, in any case, to avoid science and art making fools of themselves, the former like the jay parading in a peacock's plumes, and the latter like the peacock lending its plumes to the jay.

In your own books, and in the publications you manage, you have ‘used’ works of art for many years. What role do they play?

Certainly not that of illustrations. A work of art cannot be reduced to illustrating a concept or a theory, which it generally has nothing to do with. Contradictions of this type abound, for example when people link elementary particles with Kandinsky. When I use a work of art, it is always with a certain caution and a slight sense of unease.   What I seek to find is a work that can resonate, in a sort of temporary and fugitive way, a distant, diffused echo. This distance is very important. For example, for the cover of a book on Galileo, we took a work by the Italian artist Parmiggiani who has developed a profoundly metaphysical system, but in an entirely different context. Not a figurative representation of the Earth, but rather a poetic counterpoint which distances us from the purely historical scheme of things. Not a face-to-face encounter between art and science, but a relationship hinted at by this shared philosophical background, which imbues both of them with meaning and enables them to communicate.


  Enlightenment from Alliage  
  Alliage has recently published its 52nd issue, dedicated to the topic of science and war. This out-of-the-ordinary review seeks to deepen reflection on the place of science in culture and the relationships between techno-science and society. The ‘decoding’ of contemporary art forms and of their relationships with their environments is another common theme. One of Alliage’s greatest qualities is perhaps its aversion to everything banal. All texts are downloadable [ http://www.tribunes.com/tribune/alliage/accueil.htm ] .