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Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Time Event
9:02a
Long time ...
Some books just take me a long time to plow through ... this being one of them, having been started in early April, and not finished until the end of June. Of course, in that same period I read 15 other books, so it was more a factor of this "niche" (it was back in my "office reading chair" area) being neglected than any particular density of difficulty.

In fact, Leonard Shlain's Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light is quite interesting and engaging. Contrary to what one might expect, Shlain is neither an Artist nor a Physicist, but a Surgeon, and the book arose from his efforts to explain modern art to his pre-teen daughter, who was not "getting" it in a series of museum visits. As he delved into some art history to be able to communicate these concepts to his kid, he began to realize that what he was reading about art over the past hundred or so years reminded him of his other readings of the advent of modern theories in physics.

Of course, to really understand modern art, one has to go all the way back to the roots of Western art, and so Art & Physics beings with Greek philosophers and moves on from there. Each chapter is titled in a "This / That" format, sometimes being as blatant as taking a specific art movement and putting it in the context of an area of physics (such as "Cubism / Space") and sometimes being more general discursive categories (i.e. "Sacred / Profane"). Although his focus is in the visual arts, examples are also woven through from literature and psychology.

Make no mistake, his thesis is fascinating, and the argument he puts forth for something of a zeitgeist, (especially in how parallel developments in art and science do appear to have been generated without any "cross-pollination" between the artists and scientists) is quite compelling, but he throws a bit of a curve in at the end, which makes the book as a whole a bit less than satisfying. Had Shlain simply "tied up the loose ends" and written a unifying closing chapter, this would have perhaps been "a better book", however instead of going that route, he opts to follow the ellipses into a more "mystical" territory, trying to sort out art and physics in terms of the brain, and awareness (seemingly evolving along dual tracks in the culture) in terms of the mind, and then (as though to close the circle back to the start of the book) in "Dionysus / Apollo" taking a psychological look at the early Greek Gods as models of developing mental states, and coming out with: "By extrapolation, I propose that spacetime generates universal mind."

I am, certainly, not opposed to theorizing along these lines, only it leave the reader hanging in a "Twilight Zone" scenario, where one had been on a train nearly into the station and suddenly having veered off past the signpost into a whole 'nuther reality. I really wish that Shlain had "finished" Art & Physics as noted above, and then come up with a follow-up book where he takes these ideas and supports them in the sort of depth that he uses for the "art and physics" part of this. While fascinating, this sort of "just happens" at the end, and leaves everything open-ended and adrift.

Anyway, aside from this caveat, I found the book quite good, and it's something that is well worth picking up if you have an interest in either part of its title. It does appear to still be in print, so could be found at your local book vendor, but there are copies available via the Amazon new/used guys in "like new" condition for under three bucks.


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