When Ron Newby worked at the Salk Institute, he brought in celebrated artist David Hockney to talk with his scientist colleagues, including Nobel laureate Francis Crick.

The artist was interested in how we see, from an artistic point of view. Crick and others were studying vision and the way the human eye and brain constructs an image. Both sides had something to learn.

That meeting sparked Newby’s interest, and a few years later, once he’d retired from Salk, he started a forum to discuss the intersections between art and science, named for Jacob Bronowski, a Salk founding fellow, who championed science and art.

Newby chatted with us about those intersections at the Del Mar home he designed a few years ago.

I love the three words you use to draw what art and science have in common: “Creativity, Elegance and the Sublime.”

They came to me out of long thought. They’ve been with me for a while. I think it sort of distills down to those qualities. We know that an art piece may be elegant. But I’ve heard it used by scientists, a certain experiment: “Oh, that was elegant.” And it encompasses a lot of concepts about the creativity of the experiment, about the individual, the way it was set up, it’s complete in itself.

Whether it’s a scientist or an artist, perhaps most any person has to solve a problem. The great scientist and the great artist makes a leap forward.

Say you’re not a great scientist or a great artist —

Well, that would be me.

— how do you develop that ability to see?

You don’t. You can work hard. Go down to Balboa Park, there’s a lot of artists. You can see their paintings — waves crashing on the beach, seagulls flying by. They’re beautiful, and they’re modestly priced, and they look well up in your home as decoration. But that was done three or four hundred years ago. But it progresses. I could do an experiment with pond water and look at it in a microscope, but that was done in the 15th century. It’s constantly evolving. So how do you become great? I think you have to have the insight and I think you have to be blessed with the intellect to be able to do that.

Not all scientists are great, but they all have to complete the puzzle. A few people stand out and make a real advancement, just like the Picasso made a real advancement in art, as did (French artist Marcel) Duchamp and Jackson Pollock and all these people.

Do you find in either community that there is misunderstanding among scientists for artists, or among artists for scientists?

My thought is that nobody outside the scientific community really understands science because it’s very complex. You’d have to take science in high school, major in college, do a post-doc, do graduate work, to be able to read a scientific paper. It’s very difficult.

Even I find with papers now, I can get the idea of where they’re going, but I’m so far behind the curve that I cannot (fully understand). For the general public, science is made popular by journalists doing the best they can, to bring it down to its understandable level and that’s a good service. But the complexity of it cannot be understood except by experts.

Is it the same way for art?

I don’t think many people understand contemporary art in the general population. Very few scientists or politicians or other people understand art the way it’s practiced today. I think many people think Monet was a great and wonderful artist. Maybe they say, “Look, I’ve got a tablecloth with his prints on it.” That’s nice but I think, it’s about 140 years or so since Monet was doing the painting that people love. But how many people know who Duchamp is? Or Jackson Pollock? “He just splattered paint on the canvas.” But the artist that we have coming, Ruben Ochoa, uses pallets, construction material, rebar, concrete. Well, most people would not understand it unless they took time to understand where he’s coming from.

And that goes for most contemporary artists. They’re difficult to understand if you just pass by. It took Monet 50 years before he was accepted. And a lot of people will say Picasso’s terrible.

We’ve been talking about public art in Chicago, about the controversy that Chicagoans had felt, and demonstrated toward having a Picasso in their city. The mayor said, Well, we’re having this no matter what, and now everyone loves it. It’s not new that artists struggle in their own lifetimes.

People objected to Nancy Rubins‘ piece that they were going to install, but they embraced that sailors kissing sculpture. Most people within the art world think it’s pedestrian. Nice, but there are so many great artists. It just takes a great deal of education for people to get up to speed. Now if Monet wanted to paint something, they’d be behind it, because his name is now recognized as being acceptable.

Why should people get up to speed?

Well, I don’t know that it’s possible. I think the art community tries to make an argument why we should have a Nancy Rubins piece or another artist. But it falls upon a population that is not educated in the arts. And they’re the ones that foot the bill and then veto it.

So it’s a real conflict. I suspect that if we left it to the people of San Diego to decide which scientific projects they would fund, if they read the titles of the projects, none would be funded. They wouldn’t understand it.

If we were able to bring ourselves up to speed so San Diego would embrace the kind of piece you’re describing, what would be the benefit?

What’s the benefit of having great art in San Diego? It’s looking to and examining and giving praise to the creativity of man. It’s inspirational. It’s uplifting. It creates great thought, discussion.

If you have just a stick in the ground, well, it’s a stick in the ground. But if it’s something more, it creates interest. And it broadens one’s perspective of the world. Everyone appreciates beauty. Not necessarily aesthetics — brightly colored, painted objects. But something that has a deeper meaning to it. People are very smart and they like to be challenged intellectually.

COMING UP: The next Bronowski forum, on Oct. 6, will highlight the work of artist Ruben Ochoa and architect Teddy Cruz. The discussion will be moderated by Robert Pincus, former art critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Interview conducted and edited by Kelly Bennett, who can be reached at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531. Follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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