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Science and Art

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During one of those fairly common and extremely rambling chats that PhD students have, one of those dropped a statement to the effect that “playing the piano is an art, not a science”. It is a view many will agree readily with, or at least accept pretty easily.

A slightly different thought then occurred to me. Maybe every skill is both a science and an art and it is the practitioners who can be classified as “scientists” or “artists”.

The word “science” conjures up an image of being bounded, restrictive and boring, while “art” represents the more free flowing, unfettered and exciting component of life. When we think about learning a skill though, it is easy to see the advantage of starting out as a “scientist”, with limits and rules to ensure focus on the basics, exhaustive records to pinpoint and eliminate mistakes, and repeated trials of the known to ensure fluency and accuracy.

Everyone will therefore start off doing things in the scientific way. At some point though, the student will have mastered the elements to such a high degree that things start to change. Liberated from consciously having to focus on the fundamentals, the practitioner is free to explore the limits of their skills. The task at hand ceases to be “work” or “practice” and starts becoming “play”, something enjoyable, fuelled by internal and not external motivation. Rules designed to guide are made redundant, fall away and the transition from the restrictive to the free flowing is complete. For all observer, this tipping point is easy to spot, because now the task seems to be effortless, the practitioner entranced and the word “artist” forms automatically in our minds.

Which is why we see “artists” in every sphere of life, from the musician and painters to the chef who confidently and skillfully creates mind boggling food, the sportspeople who do things laymen would never even think about and writers who transforms language, often considered mundane and into a work of tremendous beauty. Depending on natural propensity, some people achieve this tipping point early while others can go their entire life without seeing it.

Playing a piano by itself is not an art, like everything else, it is an art only if the pianist is an artist.

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Written by clueso

August 23, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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