What is an Artist?: Painting a Picture of What Artists and Scientists of the Future Look Like

Op-ed

People are afraid of the unknown. And much of the world around us is, in fact, the unknown. As humans, we are conscious of our external world, but because we have this anxiety, we have a constant need to judge and label everything. This gives us the illusion that the unknown is in our control. It is not. We can not know ourselves or the world around us when we believe so strongly that all our labels are correct.

Redefining the Artist

This is extremely relevant to an artist. What is the first thing that you think of when I mention the noun artist? A person holding a palette with a mesmerizing range of colors and a canvas with paint streaks that is a masterpiece in the works. However, that is a false perception of what a true artist is and the potential of an artist. In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin says that an artist is someone who must “correct the delusions to which we fall prey in order to attempt to avoid this knowledge.” The artist is someone who is willing and able to face the fears that most people avoid.

Humans are so content, but artists are not. They are okay not being like everyone else and push boundaries of self-knowledge and can make new paths. To be a true artist, you have to have the courage to go into uncharted territory. This is why a good scientist is like an artist: both types people are willing to traverse where most of us never want to venture into, whether it is our own self or ideas about the world.

Baldwin's and Barzun's Analysis of What it means to be an artist

Even Baldwin recognizes that an apt metaphor for an artist is a scientist. Baldwin says that the artist is “his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules.” Baldwin shows that the artist and the scientist must follow what drives them to discover new ideas. An artist is a person who uses their natural creativity to ponder about the potential or basis of the environment around them. Fear and anxiety are everywhere in the STEM fields because people fear being wrong, but it is the willingness to be wrong that allows one to learn. And what an artist has to learn is how to see more clearly than most, so that new discoveries can be made.

Historian Jacques Barzun, in his book Science: The Glorious Entertainment says that an artist is able to “strip the familiar world of clutter and conventional beauties and re[make] it” by recreating boundaries or destroying them in their entirety. Humans are superficial. The people who can break through the surface and fluff are real artists, but an artist isn’t just someone with a paintbrush. The artist is the individual that is willing and able to combat a sedated contentment. An artist can be anyone in any field, they are the people who are willing to go against the way things are and sacrifice for how things might be better.

Tapping into a world of the unknown

Though, the standards may be higher in the modern world, and as a result, as we continue to expand our knowledge, unintended consequences can occur on the way. “Uncharted chaos” and “darker forces” will result because we are bound to make mistakes that will impact the unforetold future. (Baldwin). By exploring, problems will inevitably occur, but the expertise and motivation of the artist will allow them to create solutions that can solve other challenges of the future. Errors occurring or other not so predicted results is an expected outcome of venturing into the unknown. However, by doing so, an unending spiral of innovation can occur.

The Path Between Science and Art

Baldwin and Barzun agree that exploring the unknown is something that we are all afraid of. Regardless of how daring an individual may be, the unknown is a scary place, as we do not know what will happen once we step foot into this uncharted territory. Both thinkers made it clear, though, that the most innovative individuals, whether they are scientists, artists or even children are the ones that are able to grapple with this obstacle. The artist is willing to wrestle with the unknown and use this fear to cause progress, which can become a characteristic of the scientist. These labels do not have to be separate, and we can redefine the boundaries for both fields to foster progress and innovation.

Brittany Newman
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Brittany Newman is a senior at Princeton High School. She is an intern for the Marginalia Review of Books, where she assists with the Meanings of Science Symposium, an internal event shaping how scientists, writers, and philosophers interpret science. Brittany enjoys her time running, writing, traveling the world, volunteering with special needs children and hanging out with friends.