“The shudder of awe,” wrote Goethe, “is humanity’s highest faculty.” This helps explain the lure of the arts. But people who aren’t comfortable with shuddering have found other, more orderly ways to relate to art.

Art historians research the lives of artists to help understand their work. (The new biography of Saul Steinberg, a splendid piece of scholarship, devotes 732 pages to how Steinberg’s childhood, his sex life, and his paternal grandfather shaped the pictures we enjoy today.) Chemists analyze the composition of pigments for whatever insights chemistry can contribute. Scientists x-ray paintings, searching for discarded drafts. Psychologists rummage through an artist’s underwear drawer for psychological explanations for creative decisions.

But that’s not the worst of it. Prominent economist David Galenson explains that with the benefit of new “quantitative methods,” we can now conclusively list the top 25 “most important works of art of the 20th century.” (Number one is Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, in case you wanted to know.)

Physicist Charles Falco, an expert in molecular beam epitaxy, won headlines with his “scientific proofs” and “mathematical calculations” explaining how great artists painted pictures.

Statisticians have even resolved the long debate over the merits of drawing vs. painting. According to the experts at

Drawing is no longer and will never more be considered a poor relation to painting…. [O]ver the last ten years (January 2002 – January 2012) the price index for drawings has progressed more than 197% versus 161% for that of painting.

Don’t think for one minute that’s researchers shy away from the big issues. Here they address “the entire anguish of humanity”:

Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which condenses in a single image of just 79 x 59 cm the entire anguish of humanity, can be considered the “Mona Lisa of Expressionism.” In just one adjudication, the Norwegian artist has completely outperformed his 2011 revenue total ($7,645,527 from 82 lots ) and has gained the potential to climb to a substantially higher level in the global ranking of artists by annual auction revenue (219th in 2011).

Everywhere we see ambitious academics, authors and social scientists, emboldened by the triumph of information technology, clambering over the arts like over-ardent monkeys. They mistake information for ideas, and rarely come into contact with that “shudder of awe” stuff.

A survey of 230 art critics by Columbia University found that passing judgment on art was at the bottom of their list of priorities, while “providing an accurate descriptive account” was at the top. Such descriptions provide information, but there is a big difference between information and wisdom. James Elkins, chair of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago, concluded that “contemporary art criticism is entranced by the possibility of avoiding judgment.”

If your prejudices are anything like mine, right now you should be objecting: “How can more information ever be a bad thing? Are we supposed to avert our eyes from facts? Is art like a magic trick we shouldn’t spoil by thinking too much about how it is done?”

I am a big fan of scientific research, but the sciences seem to work differently than art. In science, each new fact brings us closer to truth. The more facts we learn, the more we know.

In art, additional facts can take us farther from, not closer to, the highest aesthetic experience. Facts can dilute the most meaningful aspects of art with minutiae. They can distract and deceive the viewer. Art can wilt under the weight of too much empirical data.

Artists such as Michelangelo destroyed their preliminary drafts because they wanted the final work of art to stand alone. For the same reason, Matisse claimed that “all artists should have their tongues cut out.” While we should not necessarily limit ourselves to Michelangelo’s or Matisse’s notions of the best way to experience their art, we should at least think twice before adopting the alternative prescriptions of some ambitious economist.

My disagreement with scholarly research is not anti-science. To the contrary, science itself offers us a more suitable model for connecting with art:

Chemistry tells us that the strongest bonds are formed not by applying glue to a surface but by combining two substances (such as epoxy) whose molecular structures are not too complete, and thus open to filling their gaps by sharing electrons. This has the effect of uniting two molecules into one bigger molecule– a connection called a covalent bond, heavily crosslinked and powerful in a way no mere glue can match. There is a lot to be said for keeping our outer electron ring open and receptive to combinations with other molecules. An approach that at first appears incomplete and vulnerable can, when completed, result in the strongest possible connection.

If we come to art fortified with too much empirical data, we have fewer free electrons left for the couplings that make so much of art worthwhile. We need to preserve a little receptivity in both the object and the viewer. We need the ambiguity that provides the precious space for personalizing our reactions to art. (Anyone who thinks they have done themselves a favor by filling in that ambiguity with facts has missed the point.) A covalent bond enables us to find greater inspiration than the artwork might merit if we simply followed a script produced through factual research.

I don’t dispute that research provides real benefit to art dealers, historians, grad students, voyeurs and economists. But to the extent that research hinders a more meaningful relationship with art, anyone who still seeks that shudder of awe may find the benefits of research a poor substitute.


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