Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Why is an Engineer like an Artist?

This may seem an absurd question, however you look at it. But the ideas and methods that motivate artists and engineers are not so different as might be presumed.

To me, this is evidence that education is weakened by the divergence of art and science. The education of engineers would benefit from greater exposure to the ideas and ways of artists (and, who knows, perhaps, vice versa).

Why would we even suggest that artists and engineers are alike? Because Artists and Engineers both Make Things. An Engineer is a scientist who makes things. An Artist is an aesthete* who makes things.

An engineer is a rational maker. An engineer is led by application of science and craft to reach objective goals.  An engineer is tested by the extent to which their products meet (or fail to meet) these objective qualities. By the extent to which they do what is claimed of them.

An artist is an emotional maker. An artist is led by their emotions to foreground subjective qualities such a beauty, elegance and the intrinsic properties of things. An artist is tested by the extent to which their products exude these subjective qualities.

However, because both artists and engineers make things, what they have in common as makers is a significant part of what each of them relies upon to deliver their products.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me just say what I mean by artist and engineer.

Artists, in my use of the term here, include painters and print makers, musicians and composers, sculptors, dancers and choreographers, photographers, video artists, performers, photographers and film makers. So, primarily visual and time based artists.

Engineers, in my use of the term here, include civil engineers, mechanical engineers, computer and electronic engineers but in particular systems engineers, those who work at a high level of abstraction on systems that are complex by their need to combine skills from across the engineering domain.

The principal attribute which artists and engineers have in common, as makers of things, is that they proceed systematically.

I am going to take an example with which to illustrate my argument. This is a visual artwork (a drawing) by the American artist Sol LeWitt (1928 - 2007). I have made a caricature of this artwork below.

Caricature of LeWitt wall drawing #47
LeWitt was a visual artist who specialised in sculpture and in minimal and conceptual art. His wall drawings were examples of his conceptual art. He wrote out instructions on how the work was to be made, and then the work was made (by assistants, as often as not) on a gallery wall and certified by a certificate of authenticity issued by LeWitt.

The drawing I have caricatured, for example, was installed in a private collection in 1970 and is currently reinstalled in Reina Sofia in Madrid. LeWitt's instructions for making the drawing included sketches and the following description

A wall divided vertically into fifteen equal parts, each with a different line direction, and all combinations.

The assistants making the drawing would be free to choose the actual size and the order of the columns. That would still be a valid instance of LeWitt's creation. There are many examples of LeWitt's work online that are well worth investigation so you can see the breadth of this concept.

This illustration is a very simple example of artwork that is planned, described and then enacted. Most classical music is a much more complex example of such planned and described artwork. Then, when we get to performance, we combine visual art with music and the systems become more complex again. There is as much engineering as there is emotion in the realisation of an artwork of that type.

To create LeWitt's work #47 we need a wall. Let's say the gallery has offered a wall that is 30 ft wide by 8 ft high. We probably don't want to go right to the edges, so we might choose to use 25ft of the width and 7ft of the height. Since we have 15 panels to draw, each will be 25/15 ft wide, or 20 inches. This would make each panel approximately four times higher than it is wide, which is near a desirable proportion.

Next, we need to decide in which order the parts should appear. While this has been left open by the artist there is precedent in having the panels in some logical order. The caricature above has repeated the panels in the order in which they appear in the Reina Sofia installation.


This order is V, H, R, L, VH, VR, VL, HR, HL, LR, VHR, VHL, VLR, HLR, VHLR. This is 15 of the possible 16 combinations of the lines V (vertical), H (horizontal), R (diagonal, down to the right) and L (diagonal, down to the left). The missing combination is "no lines at all" which, presumably, LeWitt decided was not a combination (unlike the silence in Cage's 4'37").

Lest you think this is an atypical artwork and one purposely chosen to be nearer engineering than most, consider a painter at work. They plan by making sketches and trial pieces. They describe their burgeoning work by marking out their canvas and by mixing or selecting their colours. They proceed by trial and error, over-painting sections that do not achieve their objectives or happily modifying those objectives to include a new discovery by chance (as do engineers). The painter proceeds until finished. The outcome may not be exactly what was anticipated (or ordered by the client) but it is close enough to be considered satisfactory (again, just like engineering projects).

If we asked an artist and an engineer to keep careful journals of their progress on their respective projects, including their mistakes and diversions, we would see a great similarity in the entries. We would see them thinking in the same way.

This last point embodies the core of my argument that engineers would benefit from being taught art. School teaching that concentrates on science and technology gives little opportunity for creative thinking. Kids don't make things any more. They would do that in good art classes.

Music composition is a good example of where art and engineering appear juxtaposed, most emphatically in experimental music. Feldman, for example used a systematic means of first notating his compositions and then assembling them from parts just like they were lego. Feldman described his compositions as laying out sounds in time.**

Others in that genre, notably Christian Woolf, used even more systematic methods to denote their composition of soundscapes where performers were prompted by his geometric/mathematical scores to conjure up sequences of sounds from small sets of alternatives. This is a very engineering approach and one might imagine from that that Woolf is a scientist or an engineer. He isn't. He's a classicist. A professor of Greek.

To be taught composition by either of these guys, or their followers, would be an excellent contribution to an engineering education. An engineering student who was to compose works that emulated Feldman, Woolf or Cage would be a different kind of engineer. When back at work, they would be different, more creative, better, in my opinion.

Similarly, studying the work of conceptual or minimal artists (or any kind of artist) for that matter would broaden an engineer's scope for lateral thinking and, in turn, for creativity. I don't see where else they learn that in an engineering education.

It would be interesting see experience the response of an audience of systems engineers to a presentation of the works of an artist (say, John Cage or Jackson Pollock) presented as engineering, or for that matter, the response of an audience of artists to the same ideas. I would hope they would agree that an engineer has much to learn from an artist, and that an artist can benefit greatly from looking at their work from the perspective of an engineer.

* I struggled to choose a term to describe the basic the mental attitude and underlying skill set of a generic artist. I finally chose 'aesthete'. I considered 'romantic', 'visionary' and 'philosopher' (in contrast to natural philosopher) among other alternatives. I need a better term.

** It's interesting that in much of what Feldman wrote (and in his published conversations with Cage) that he was clear about his avoidance of systems. He would be horrified, I guess, at being called systematic. His avoidance of systems, however, was avoidance of what had gone before, specifically the traditional classical western method (which culminates in Wagner, Strauss and Mahler) and the later European traditions of serialism.