1. August 2007 | Connections

Art and Science

von Hans Dieleman. Mexico City (MX)

„Logic brings you from A to B, Imagination brings you anywhere“ (Albert Einstein). Hans Dieleman takes on the quote and describes the borders of science. Science doesn’t manage to describe things as a whole and explanations collide with the boundaries of the disciplines. Science and politics need art, to grow beyond their horizons.

Lesezeit 14 Minuten

“Suppose you are a carpenter and the only tool you have is a hammer. How will you make your furniture? Of course you will want to fix and construct all your products with that one hammer. After all, that is the only tool you have.” It was Dennis Meadows, writer of the first report of the Club of Rome, who presented this question to me, during one of the workshops that I followed with him.

Our societies are more and more like the carpenter in Meadows´ story and science is the hammer and the one tool we use to approach our problems and create our solutions. We assume they need: “careful analysis, theoretical understanding, empirical proof, statistical data, modeling, piloting, planning and controlled execution”. In other words, they need a scientific treatment. This focus on science is understandable since sciences have huge potentials. Sciences allowed us to make the kind of societies we have today, and their influence has been enormously powerful. But sciences do have their limitations and especially when dealing with sustainability these limitations are becoming more and more manifest. That is why art and artful ways of exploring sustainability are needed to understand the problems related to sustainability in better ways.

I will first explore some of the limitations of sciences, present some of the possible contributions of the arts and finish with presenting some contemporary initiatives that aim to integrate art and science in the concept of artscience.

The limitations of the hammer

There is nothing wrong with science, as there is nothing wrong with a hammer. Science is very helpful when problems need analysis and thorough examination of their parts and the functioning of their parts. But science is not the tool for every problem and for every solution. Science is limited when you need a holistic view or vision of a new society, and when you need creativity to create that new society. Science is equally limited when you are dealing with values and ethics, or with emotions and feelings. And many of the problems we are facing today are indeed asking for a vision, do touch upon emotions and values and are calling upon lots of creativity.

The limitations of science, and the potential contributions of the arts, lie exactly in the 4 points mentioned: system thinking, ethics, emotions and creativity.

1. Systems thinking

Many (if not all) of the problems we have today are interrelated. Sustainability is an example of that, but the same can be found in most of the other problem areas. Environmental problems are linked with social and economic conditions, they are linked with the use of certain types of technologies, they are embedded in certain ways of thinking and all of these aspects are mutually interrelated. They form indeed systems and before changing them it is important to understand them as systems with their systems characteristics. Only then we can start to change them, which involves not only changing the parts. It involves understanding the effects of change on the parts as well as on the interrelationships among the parts. Science is not well equipped to carry out those activities, especially not to understand the wholes. It is too analytical by nature and too much focused on taking things apart. We need integrated approaches that are at least „trans-disciplinary“ and „trans-institutional“, but maybe even these concepts are too much part of the past. I think we need new concepts in which art plays an important role, concepts that go beyond trans-disciplinarity and that can be characterized as ‘post-disciplinary’, ‘artscience’ and ‘artful doing and artful knowing’ (Dieleman, 2007). More and more politics and civil society acknowledge the need of systems thinking, but they are still wrestling with the question how to work with that in day-to-day practice, and are certainly not yet ready to go beyond trans-disciplinarity.

2. Ethics, values and moral

When we are dealing with operational and technical issues and with questions of technical performance, efficiency and effectiveness, science and technology can help us a lot. And many problems in life are just about that: what works ‘better’, product A or product B? What system of regulating labor results in more jobs, system C or system D? What is better for the environment, a traditional light bulb or a light emitting diode (led-light)? Many problems can be approached in this way, but our societies are facing more and more questions of a totally different nature. We are facing ever more questions that involve moral, ethics, values and value systems.

Here it is not about “Am I doing things in the right way?” but it is about “Am I doing the right things?” Again sustainability is a good example of an issue that involves values and ethical questions. But so are issues of multi-culturality and of finding new binding principles for our societies, just to mention two key issues in contemporary society. Sustainable development is clearly all about progress and growth, but the meaning of those terms is no longer prefixed or clear. The European and western model of looking at reality, development, improvement or growth is heavily disputed, within Europe and the Western world itself, as well as in other parts such as the Arab/Muslim world or the American indigenous world. The issue of development needs an approach that I like to call ‘more-than-rational’: combining technical rationality with philosophical, spiritual, and cultural orientations, embedded in normative views. Science alone clearly falls short. Here and there, societies acknowledge this, but they are wrestling a lot with the question how to organize this new way of approaching the key questions of contemporary life.

3. Feelings and emotions

Many problems we face are not about knowing, but about emotions and changing our behavior. We know that smoking is bad for our health, but many people still smoke and youngsters start to smoke. It is the classical example where knowledge does not work to change people and information dissemination falls short. For many environmental issues the situation is the same. We know that using a car and eating meat is bad for the environment and increases enormously our ecological footprint and personal impact on the ecosystem. Yet we almost all use cars and eat meat regularly. We know, do not change and have tons of rationalizations to defend us and explain our behavior.

We talk a lot about our ‘knowledge societies’ but knowledge is very limited when it comes down to change. And change is what is needed in many of the problems we are facing today, sustainability again being a very good example. Change involves emotions: a desire to change, a fear for (non) change. Knowledge is not stored in the same part of our brain than emotions and feelings. When knowledge and emotions are not connected, knowledge dissemination will not lead to change. Again, science as a producer of knowledge can be helpful, but when we only use science we will not be able to tackle those societal problems that involve behavioral change and changes in life styles. And thus: in most of our societal problems.

4. Creativity and lateral thinking

A classical quote that allegedly belongs to Albert Einstein is: “Logic can bring us from A to B, imagination can bring us anywhere”. And it is true. The strength of the scientific approach is also its limitation: the scientific approach is highly methodological and guided by specific and precise rules. Research findings need to be derived from well-controlled experiments and conclusions need to be derived in logical ways from previously introduced statements and arguments. Science is not the domain of free-floating ideas or free experimentation. Because of that science is cumulative and can build up knowledge over time through sequences of projects, all following a similar logic.

Creativity by contrast is the domain of free-floating ideas. It is often personal in contrast to science that is impersonal as it is above all methodological. Creativity involves lateral thinking: combining things that have no logical links to each other. And because of that creativity result in creating things that are really completely new. This happens also in science, but merely as a coincidence. The sociologist Robert Merton labeled the coincidental discovery of new phenomena where scientists were not looking for ‘serendipity’. Now that we have this label we know that ‘serendipity’ is an important source of new findings and new knowledge. But it is there in a sense despite of the scientific methodology.

In the context of an issue like sustainable development we hear repeatedly that we need creativity. We need new products, new institutions, new systems, new conventions and new lifestyles. We cannot really invent these new entities by applying logic. We need free-floating new ideas, lateral thinking and intuitive searching. In theories on organizational change and innovation these terms are the ‘buzz-words’ of today. In politics ‘creative cities’ are now among the new ‘buzz-words’. This marks a difference with the highly fashionable ‘science-parks’ that were embraced in the ninety seventies and ninety eighties. Does this mark a changing interest away from science in the direction of the creative sector in society, the artists and designers?

From the hammer to the chisel

There is nothing wrong with science, as there is nothing wrong with a hammer. But the carpenter also needs a chisel: to carve the wood and to create new forms. So the question is: can art and design be the chisel that society needs? Can they play a role in the 4 points that I just mentioned, where sciences manifest their weaknesses? I think the answer must be an affirmative: yes.

Like science, art is a divers complex of activities that aim to explore, shape, form, construct, test and challenge reality. Too often we look at art only in terms of paintings and sculptures, or as poems and novels or as performances, theatre, music or dance. But behind these products lies the artists’ process of inquiry, a search process to understand the essence of reality and to reflect upon that reality. The articles and papers of the scientific world are like the works of art in the artworld: they are the manifestations of a process of inquiry and reflection that lies behind them. In many ways art is very comparable to science, but with some noticeable differences.

In the context of point 4 – creativity – art can be characterized as a search process that is not stuck in the systematic scientific methodology. Because of that it leaves much more space for associations and imagination. And as a consequence, artists often transcend existing boundaries and use more their capacities of lateral thinking and intuitive searching. That is why it is not uncommon to find artists as pioneers of new practices, new technologies and new institutional forms. In mainstream thinking this often proves that artists are somewhat ‘crazy’. Yet quit often scientists and politicians pick up the ‘crazy’ ideas in a later stage. Quit often as well, engineers and scientists will then mold the new findings and make them accessible to a larger public. And that is good: the chisel needs the hammer, as the hammer needs the chisel.

In the context of points 3 and 2 – emotions, ethics and moral – art plays very interesting roles too. Compared to scientists, politicians and social activists, artists have specific capacities and powers to conceptualize and communicate societal issues. Art is ‘par excellence’ very well equipped to touch upon the „non-rational“ aspects of life, such as tastes, perceptions, emotions, feelings, as well as convictions, values and (non-articulated) worldviews. Art creates space for imagination, for interpretation, opens the mind and touches that part of the brain where emotions and feelings are located. As a result the arts can influence humans in terms of change, can detach them from existing routines and worldviews, empower them to really make changes and enchant them to commit to certain changes. Here again the chisel and the hammer can work together very well.

In the context of point 1 – systems thinking – art certainly has interesting characteristics. Lets return to Dennis Meadows for a second. For him, systems thinking is a language and unfortunately most of our institutions do not speak that language. So how can we conceptualize and understand reality in all its complexity and richness, when the language is missing? The reality however is that the language is not missing and can be found in the realm of the arts. I like to give one example to show the power of the non-scientific language in describing a multi-facet situation:

I looked at the setting sun, listened to the sound of the darkening sea, felt the warm wind in my hair, touched my friend’s arm lying on my shoulder and played with the taste of a magnificent cool beer in my mouth. I felt like I was one with the universe and one with myself as never before. That moment was heaven on earth!

We are perfectly capable of apprehending such an experience, meaning that we can understand it through imaginating the emotions and tangible qualities of that moment. We immediately know that the “surplus or added” value of the moment is not in one of the different elements (the wind, the sun, the sea, the arm, the beer) but in the combination and ‘interactions’ of all of them. Yet we have enormous difficulties in dealing with such experiences when we use scientific terms and try to comprehend it. In applying scientific terms we soon end up in twilight-zone discussions about ‘the relative importance of the beer’ or ‘the preferred strength of the wind’ in realizing the ‘overall’ experience of the moment.

That is why, and I am really convinced of that, we keep having problems with a concept like sustainability. We say it is about economy, ecology, social equity, culture and more and we are having huge debates over the importance of one or various dimensions. And we forget that sustainability cannot be traced back to its parts and that it is not the sum of its dimensions. And I am equally convinced that when we continue to apply scientific language we will continue to ‘flip-back’ to ‘an analytical mode’, because the language forces us to. And even though we need to know – as an example – the technical details of the introduction of electrical cars to make our cities more sustainable (and honestly I think this is really important), this thinking will not bring us closer to the understanding of the essence of sustainability. Again: the hammer needs the chisel, as much as the chisel needs the hammer.

…and what about the carpenter?

In the metaphor, society is the carpenter. And society needs to learn to work with more than one tool and needs to learn how to combine the use of various tools. It is time for society to dare to rely on more than science-based technical-rational knowledge and knowing alone. And this is in fact a huge challenge since our societies lost most of their institutions and experiences to do that. Art is far too much reduced to the level of its products (paintings, sculptures, etc.), stripped of its great potential as an activity of inquiry and reflection [1]. Societies need to find ways to reintegrate art as a means of inquiry and reflexivity, and to contextualize science as a powerful but restricted tool within a larger set of means and methods of exploring reality and reflecting on reality.

Towards the chisammer: artscience or sciencart

And fortunately we can find little by little more recognition of this wisdom. Greenpeace was among the first to understand how to touch people’s emotions and how to communicate about environmental issues in a contemporary and fashionable way. By now many environmental NGO’s use various art forms to communicate about sustainability and to involve people in the issue. Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is the most recent powerful example of the impact of images, visualizations and stories. But this is mainly all in the field of communication and ‘marketing’. There is more.

Some universities go beyond art as communication and accept art as a serious and ‘other-than-scientific’ way of understanding reality and sustainability [2]. Yet the examples of this are still very rare. Very interesting and already more established as an emerging field is artscience. Artscience is emerging out of contemporary art practice and aims at incorporating scientific knowledge and research methods in that practice. One of the first bachelors programs in artscience can be found in the art academy of The Hague in the Netherlands. David Edwards, founder of the artscience center ‘le Laboratoire’ in Paris just finished his book “Artscience, Creativity in the Post-Google Generation” that will be published by the Harvard University Press in January 2008. Edwards talks in his book of the artist/scientist as a creator. He describes how contemporary creators are capable of achieving breakthroughs by applying new methods in an intermediate zone of inquiry that can no longer be defined as art nor science. Edwards expects these creators to be the future innovators of research institutions, industry and society. So maybe these creators, that can integrate the hammer and the chisel, will show us the ways to reintegrate art as a means of inquiry, and to contextualize science within a larger set of means and methods of exploring reality and reflecting on reality. Let us hope that scientists will be willing to walk this walk together with the artists, maybe by creating a parallel practice of sciencart, a way of integrating artful doing and artful knowing within the scientific practice. Anyway, the future looks to be laying in the merging of the chisel and the hammer in a post-disciplinary chisammer. For me, this is a very challenging and inspiring thought.

© Hans Dieleman, 01.08.2007


  • Althöfer Heinz (2000); Kunst und Umwelt – Umwelt und Kunst. Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main
  • Berger Peter and Thomas Luckmann (1966); The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise its the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, Garden City, New York
  • Booth-Sweeney and Dennis Meadows (1995); Systems Thinking Playbook; Exercises to stretch and build learning and systems thinking capabilities, ISBN: 0-9666127-
  • Dieleman Hans (2007); The Competencies of Artful Doing and Artful Knowing in Higher Education for Sustainability, paper presented at the Second International Conference on Higher Education for Sustainable Development, “World in Transition – Sustainability Perspectives for Higher Education”, – July 5 to 7, 2007 San Luis Potosí, Mexico.
  • Dieleman Hans (2006): Sustainability as inspiration for art, some theory and a gallery of examples. In: “Caderno Videobrasil” Publication of the ´Associçâo Cultural Videobrasil´ in Sao Paolo, Brazil, nov. 2006
  • Dieleman Hans (2004); The Powers of Creative Practice; artists as change agents in sustainable development. Conference Proceedings of “The Art of Comparison” 6th Conference of The ESA Research Network for the Sociology of the Arts Rotterdam, Erasmus University, the Netherlands, November 3-5 2004
  • Edwards David (2008), Artscience, Creativity in the Post-Google Generation, Harvard University Press in January 2008, ISBN 13: 978-0-674-02625-4
  • Harlan Volker (2004); What is Art? Conversations with Joseph Beuys, Clairview Books, London, UK
  • Kagan Sacha Jérôme (2002) ; Youngsters and Communication about Sustainability. Thesis Erasmus University Rotterdam
  • Lash Scott (2003); Reflexivity as Non-linearity, In: Theory, Culture & Society 2003. SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi, Vol. 20(2): 49–57
  • Leff Enrique (2005); Nature, Culture, Sustainability: the Social Construction of an Environmental Rationality, Paper presented at the Conference: “Ecological Threats and New Promises of Sustainability for the 21 Century, Oxford, July 2005



[1] In a comparable way spirituality as well is too much reduced to religious institutions that usually preach messages of the past, but this is outside the context of this contribution.

[2] In just a few weeks I will start to work on the development and execution of a new Masters program in environmental education that will be largely based on this notion of ‘other-than-scientific’ ways of understanding reality and sustainability, in the UACM, the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico-City)

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