Steve Martin and An Object of Beauty

In the spirit of reminiscing on old posts while planning content for the upcoming year, here’s a post I love, resurrected from an old blogspot account, written during my days as a graduate student at UIUC in 2011. Steve Martin is a Swiss Army knife of an artist, inspiring as an actor, comedian, musician and writer. Here I revel in his fiction, and explore a counterintuitive relationship between art and science.

I’m about halfway through reading “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin. I think Steve Martin is a creative genius, so it is no surprise to me how engaged I am by his latest novel. He is a skilled writer, banjo player, and has an extensive knowledge of old and contemporary art. The plot of his novel focuses on the life of Lacey, a recent college graduate with a degree in Art History, and her life in the fast-paced New York City art world. Through Lacey, Steve frequently references paintings and includes them in full color his book, a unique touch that draws the reader further into the story.

While reading this book and being able to see the paintings that Lacey is working with in a gallery or that are up for a bid at an auction, I’m reminded of the art classes I took in college and the basic formulaic methods for creating and interpreting art that were taught in them. Every stroke in a seemingly chaotic painting had a purpose. Also, in paintings with many people, I learned to look beyond the central person or group of people, because most often the painter uses periphery figures to make a political or societal statement.

In science, our approach to answering a research question is through the scientific method, so you probably wouldn’t think of science being freeform like art. However, an example against this can be found in the models we use to predict the weather. These models are based on equations that represent atmospheric motions. By nature, these equations cannot be solved to a finite end (this is part of the reason why we will never be able to predict the weather with 100% accuracy). The “science” itself can’t be wrangled, despite how pragmatic the approach used to answer a particular research question may be. But, with art, the artist has complete control over the randomness of his work.

My point is – art can be controlled, science cannot. It’s a counter intuitive conclusion to make since we generally associate art with free expression, and science with rules. I’d like to thank Steve Martin for this thought experiment that his book provoked, because there’s a constant identity struggle in my head between the artist who is driven by emotions and the scientist who has to communicate in numbers and facts. It looks like there are dual natures to my dual nature.

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