Can the creative arts influence the sciences?

The creative arts have always had a complicated relation to the sciences (Hughesdon 1918). In recent years, a revitalisation of interdisciplinary work between the fields has occurred. This has included use of scientific concepts, tools, and results in the creative arts; artists in residence in scientific labs or institutions; scientists in residence in artistic studios or institutions; artist-scientist collaborations; and co-research in the arts and sciences in a new field termed “artscience”. It is clear both from the quantities of such programs and outputs, and testimonials from participants, that artists have productively used the outcomes of the scientific enterprise to further their artistic goals. So far, however, there appears to have been relatively little influence going in the other direction. There has been much wishful thinking that the creative arts can influence the sciences in meaningful ways, but the evidence for such influence is scant. A 2012 white paper by the Science-Engineering-Art-Design (SEAD) network states, “Few if any demonstrated cases exist which prove that Art-Science projects, extended now as SEAD projects, have or can contribute to the advancement of science.” (Zilberg et al. 2012)

Of course, the creative arts have no need to influence the sciences, as they are justified (and provide great value to society) in their own right. Similarly, the sciences achieve many of their goals even without engaging with the creative arts. Yet, in the growing spirit of interdisciplinarity, it seems worth asking whether the interplay of these fields can find loci of productive influence.

While the separation of the fields has been much bemoaned in the form of discussion of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (Snow 1959) and the desire to seek better interaction between, or even merging of, the fields, this feeling is not universal. Prominent biologist Lewis Wolpert argued that the direction of influence between the arts and sciences is completely unidirectional and he states, regarding looking for ways in which arts influence science, “of all the things I wouldn’t waste my time on, that’s one of those” (Lythgoe 2007). This attitude is widespread among scientists who believe, contrary to sociological evidence (Longino 2016) and philosophical analysis (Reiss and Sprenger 2017), that science happens in a vacuum, with a claimed purity and resistance to influence from anything outside the scientific research community.

On the other hand, there is a growing body of researchers from a variety of fields, who are interested in establishing an “artscience” “third culture”. This view is espoused most visibly through editorial comment in the journal Leonardo (Ox 2014) and the writings of Arthur I. Miller (Miller 2014), a professor of History and Philosophy of Science. And yet, there is a relative dearth of actual examples of how this third culture manifests in practice. One of the most likely candidates for a working artscience laboratory is SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia (University of Western Australia 2017). Even then, its co-founder Oron Catts “emphatically feels that they are separate disciplines” (SciArtSci 2011).

If true interdisciplinarity between creative arts and sciences is to be enacted, it seems there should be the possibility that influence could run both ways. If there is to be a viable artscience, which makes contributions to both arts and sciences through its efforts, then both fields need to find ways to interact on relatively equal terms, without one field becoming subservient to the other, as so often happens in existing art-science collaborations.

A draft typology of the influence of the creative arts on the sciences

Based on a survey of case studies, theoretical arguments, and conversations with art-science practitioners, the following list is a draft categorisation of ways in which the creatives MIGHT influence the sciences. Examples aren’t listed here, and some categories are missing examples completely. Even for those cases where the arts do appear to influence the sciences, we also need to ask “how do we know?” and “how do we measure the scale of that influence?”

1. Raising awareness (among scientists)
a. Ethical/philosophical issues (lots of examples here)
b. Technical issues
c. Diversity/sociological issues
d. Exposing limitations in scientific practices

2. Presenting new research topics
a. “Huh?” observations
b. Scientific solutions to artistic needs
c. Crazy ideas
d. Design provocations
e. Speculative fictions

3. Creating new scientific knowledge
a. Gamification of tasks
b. New applications of theory
c. Conceptual transfer/analogies

4. Revealing patterns
a. Inspiring structural understanding
b. Noticing patterns through data visualisation

5. Focussing scientific thought by providing narratives
a. Literary narratives that give a framework for understanding

6. Developing intellectual tools
a. Creative tools
b. Providing practice with the creative process
c. Analogical thinking

7. Enabling cross-disciplinary knowledge flow

8. Providing new ways of observing
a. Naive/beginner’s mind questioning
b. Re-observing the familiarly invisible
c. De-/recontextualisation

9. Co-creation
a. artscience


Hughesdon, P J. 1918. ‘The Relation between Art and Science’. Mind 27 (105): 55–76.

Longino, Helen. 2016. ‘The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge’. Edited by Edward N Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Lythgoe, Mark. 2007. ‘The New Two Cultures: Episode 2’. BBC Radio 4.

Miller, Arthur I. 2014. Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art. WW Norton & Company.

Ox, Jack. 2014. ‘Editorial: Art-Science Is a Conceptual Blend’. Leonardo 47 (5): 424. doi:10.1162/LEON_a_00814.

Reiss, Julian, and Jan Sprenger. 2017. ‘Scientific Objectivity’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N Zalta, Summer 201. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

SciArtSci. 2011. ‘Science and Art – Talking about a New Art Movement’. Sci Art Sci Blog.

Snow, Charles Percy. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. University Press.

University of Western Australia. 2017. ‘SymbioticA’. Accessed July 10.

Zilberg, Jonathan, Barrie Kitto, Helen-Nicole Kostis, Linda Long, and Kathryn Trenshaw. 2012. ‘Can Art Advance Science? A Hypothetical SEAD Experiment’.