Archive for October 31, 2010

After Piero

Posted in Art, Education, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 31, 2010 by telescoper

I don’t often blog about things inspired from TV programmes. I don’t watch that many, and those I do see are rarely inspirational. However, last night, I caught the last of the series Renaissance Revolution, presented by Matthew Collings. It was on the subject of a major obsession of mine, the art of Piero della Francesca, and I thought it was wonderful. I regret having missed the previous programmes in the series, but I’m sure I’ll get a chance to see them sometime.

Collings focused on one particular painting by Piero, The Baptism of Christ, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, and which is illustrated below:

The political and religious backround to this painting are almost as fascinating as its composition, based on the offset superposition of a circle (representing heaven) and a square (representing the Earth). The use of perspective was very new around 1450 when this painting was finished, but that’s not the only geometrical aspect to note. There’s a striking use of symmetry (e.g. in the angles of John the Baptist’s arm and leg), and the central vertical axis defined by the dove, John’s hand and Christ’s hands.

Given the mathematical rigour of his compositional techniques, it should come as no surprise to learn that in his lifetime Piero was just as famous as a mathematician as he was as an artist. In other words he was the archetypal renaissance man. Unfortunately, most of his art doesn’t survive; the vast majority of his works were frescoes in various churches, few of which have withstood the test of time. Regrettably, little also is known about Piero the man, except that he lived into his 80s.

A while ago I mentioned another work by Piero which is the origin of my obsession with his paintings. The Flagellation of Christ is a work that has burrowed so far into my psyche that I quite often dream that I’m in the strange building depicted therein:

In fact I also use this painting in talks about science – I did so in my talk on Wednesday, in fact. The reason I use it in that context is that it is a bit like the standard model of cosmology. On one level it makes sense: the flat Euclidean geometry mapped out by the precise linear perspective allows us to understand the properties of the space extremely well, including the scale (the vanishing point indicates a front-to-back distance of about 250 ft). This is what our standard cosmology says too:- the universe also has a flat geometry. On the other hand, the more you think about the contents, the more confusing the picture gets. The main subject matter of the painting is to the left, in the background, playing an apparently minor part in the whole thing. Who are the characters surrounding the Christ figure? And who are the three figures in the foreground, dominating the whole composition, but seemingly indifferent to what is going on behind? Do they represent dark energy? Do the other characters represent the dark matter?

That’s not meant to be taken seriously, of course, and nobody actually knows what is really going on in this painting. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, but also an enigma, and that combination is what makes it a great work of art. It’s not easy to understand. It makes you wonder.That’s what science is like too. We have our theories, we have data, but there always remains a great deal we don’t understand. And sometimes the more we think about it, the more confused we get. Just as it is with that painting.

As Mark Collings put it brilliantly in the programme last night

When you’re looking at the picture, analysis isn’t exactly what is going on. You’re seeing and you’re getting pleasure from seeing. Partly the picture is telling you how pleasure is constructed, how it’s created, and partly you’re just lost in it. So when you’re lost in the light of Piero, you’re experiencing when you’ve forgotten how to experience. And you’re suddenly curious when you’ve forgotten how to be curious. And what you’re experiencing and being curious about is .. the world.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a scientist or an artist (or a poet or a philosopher or a historian or whatever). The need to be curious about the world – or some aspect of it – is surely what it’s all about. During the Renaissance it wasn’t unusual for great minds to embrace science, mathematics and art – just think of Leonardo da Vinci. However, over the centuries we’ve become increasingly specialised and compartmentalised and more focused on making money than on making ideas. We’re losing what above all else is what makes us human, our curiosity.

Our society increasingly sees education simply as a means to develop skilled workers, smart enough to do technically complicated jobs, but not clever enough to ask too many questions about the materialistic treadmill they will spend their life upon. The UK government’s plan to withdraw funding for arts and humanities departments in universities is just another step along this path.

It shouldn’t be like this. Universities should be about learning for learning’s sake; not about teaching facts or skills, but about teaching people to ask questions and figure out their own answers. In other words, they should be about curiosity.