Interview Questions from Richard Bright (Editor: Interalia Magazine)
Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
David Lewis-Baker: I am a retired Warwick professor of political economy living in Bath with my wife Su, a wonderful textile jewellery maker.
I have been drawing and painting since childhood and gained whatever compositional skills and those of colour and form from a lifelong self-education in the visual arts. Since my late ‘20s this has included a passion for collecting and reading art and photography books and viewing master works of art and photography in galleries and exhibitions around the world. I was able to do this as I travelled to academic conferences and also on vacations. I also possess a photographic memory for visual images and colours which is very useful.
I never expected my art and photography to be anything more than a hobby, since I enjoyed a very busy academic career, but my life took and unexpected turn, and I spent the first six months of 2002 away from Warwick after suffering a health breakdown. Ordered by my doctors not to engage in academic work, I placed one of my old watercolours on a flatbed scanner at home and set about working on the results with a simple photo manipulation programme. The result was an instant love of the digital arts medium.
After my return to Warwick in September 2002 I fitted my digital art work in alongside my academic work, since all a digital artist requires is a good computer and scanner and by 2006 I had three websites and thousands of digital artworks on line, with my colourful abstracts selling as archive quality Giclée prints selling mainly to US and European cities and London.
I took early retirement from Warwick in 2006, and moved to Bath, a city we both loved, where I intended to engage more-or-less full time in my art and photograph, as well as continue academic writing.
Arriving with a large body of digital artworks on line I have since assembled a consistent body of street photographs, shot principally in Bath, Bristol and London, but also in the big cities of the USA and Europe, displayed alongside my artworks on my site: http://david-lewis-baker.smugmug.com/
My ‘new media’ artworks (2D digital) are mainly based on scanning or photographing images and downloading them and subjecting the resulting files to what I describe as ‘all-out attacks’. In the process I stretch manipulate and generally abuse the raw images (and the controls of the programmes I employ) to create new and novel forms and reveal hitherto hidden colours and ideas.
Sometimes, as in many of my Prisms works, I keep the original forms as the basis for the works; in others the final work bears little or no resemblance to the original images. Once a piece is completed I destroy the original images since I consider them to be under-paintings superseded by the final works.
RB: You are an artist as well as being former academic in the field of politics. How do these two worlds combine?
DL-B: The study of politics and science are often viewed as the antithesis of each other one based on facts the other on values. But I do not consider this to be so; rather they answer different questions, but related questions. As E H Carr has pointed out:
“Scientists, social scientists, and historians are all engaged in different branches of the same study: the study of man and his environment, of the effect of man on his environment and of his environment on man. The object of the study is the same: to increase man’s understanding of, and mastery over, his environment” [What is History: 1987: 86]
However, my form of political economy represents a break from the crude deductive scientism of orthodox Economics, in which attempts are made to directly draw from and mirror scientific deductive method through abstract modelling and pure data analysis.
Whilst deductive reasoning is employed by political economists, they principally employ empiricism and inductive reasoning, involving the empirical observation of external events, often in historical perspective (i.e. all market societies have gone through repeated cycles of economic boom and bust) which leads to pattern recognition and the formation of a hypothesis (crisis is inherent to all market societies) and the generation of an associated theory (these crises are linked to falling rates of profits and rising levels of debt) which is then repeated tested against new historical observations and accumulated data.
In that sense my work is normative, because I believe that the social world is impregnated by historically generated values and ideologies which condition and generate policy programmes and political actions ‘and that this compliments the methods of science by allowing the study of complex value based human interactions. Thus:
The most important limit to science arises from the distinction between facts and values. This isn’t to deny that science can shed light on values — lately an active area of research. Science can make moral values intelligible in physical terms. It can reveal what’s happening in the brain when a person wrestles with a moral dilemma; it can explain how certain moral instincts might confer an evolutionary advantage, or why they might persist. It can show that the supposed empirical basis for some moral values is simply false — for instance, as Pinker puts it, that “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution or answered prayers.” https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2013-08-20/why-science-and-politics-don-t-mix
RB: Your work is included in the exhibition Sci-Art Synergy, at the RUH, Bath. What do you understand by the term ‘sci-art synergy’ and how does your artwork reflect this?
DL-B: My interest in science as a subject for my art derives from many sources, but in particular from the examples set by Leonardo Da Vinci and Jacob Bronowski.
In the case of Da Vinci, I consider him by far the greatest figure of the Renaissance, effortlessly encompassing his role as artist, engineer, surveyor, anatomist and scientist. He worked before the modern professionalised disciplinary boundaries of modern Science, Humanities and Social Sciences existed, and both he and humanity profited from this, as we will rediscover if we have the foresight to allow the arts and sciences to work together.
For me both art and science deal with the subject of ‘nature’ and ‘truth’ and in that regard are ‘beautiful,’ great art both creates and also transcends any simple definition of conceptual beauty/truth, while science with it’s mathematically based and experimentally proven findings, produces knowledge, both mental and physical, of transcendental beauty, as well as use. Thus, even when science produces a hideous weapon of mass destruction, the nuclear fission device, the result is a thing of terrible beauty and an indication of the quest for mankind of knowledge and mastery over nature. Similarly, when artists explore the dark and ugly side of humanity – the War Artists of 1914-18 for instance, or Picasso in his monumental Guernica – they also highlight a terrible beauty and reveal essential truths about humanity in their work. Both offer a light to illuminate a better future.
Bronowski was also a polymath: mathematician, historian of science, author, poet and inventor. He was a thinker who, more than any other modern writer and public intellectual brought art and science together. As one reviewer of his Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science (1979) observed:
“[He] practiced in life what he expresses in this work; he brought..….ideas and information without condescension, without absolute certainty, made science an adventure in the human predicament. He showed all of us that we share that challenge of beauty and values which is art, with the other way of knowing which is science.” [Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times.]
Amongst his many inspiring statements, he observed that:
“The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents….two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. And: “Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her.” Science and Human Values (1965): “The Creative Mind”, §9, pp. 19-20.
But the best quotation I have seen on the synergy between art and science comes from the artist Marc Quinn:
“…science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions“. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/21/collaborations-between-artists-and-scientists
Quinn’s most famous work, Self (1991), is a permanently frozen sculpture cast from his head, filled with 9 pints of his deep-frozen blood reminding us of the fragility of existence.
RB: Do you have any specific examples where scientific thinking have helped to guide your artistic explorations?
DL-B: In terms of the works on show at the RUH, the Prismatic works were inspired by a visit to Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire several years ago. Woolsthorpe (now NT owned) was the birthplace and family home of Sir Isaac Newton. Woolsthorpe is a modest yeoman’s farmstead, principally for rearing sheep. Newton returned in 1666 when Cambridge University closed due to the plague, and performed many of his most famous experiments, most notably the calculus, laws of gravitation and optics. It is said to be the site where Newton, observing an apple fall from a tree, formulated his law of universal gravitation. I was very moved by the room in which he undertook his optical experiments and a small display of prismatic light effects and also by geometric drawings on the wall plaster thought to be by the childhood Newton. I returned inspired by the colours and forms of prismatic apparatus and the dispersive prism decomposing white light into the colours of the spectrum light which emerges from it, and started my abstract and semi-abstract Prismatic series, which is still ongoing. I am still amazed by Newton’s observation that colour is the result of objects interacting with already-coloured light rather than objects generating the colour themselves.
The Life Essences series which is represented in the RUH exhibition in the form of a monochrome diptych piece, emerged from my interest in the beauty of the foundational structures of the universe, as revealed by particle physics and the biological sciences.
In a similar fashion to my prismatic studies, I am also entranced by the beautiful colours and double helix forms of DNA, which I first saw represented in a photographic artwork by my deceased friend Rex Valentine. Rex gained entry to the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s, but gave it up to study medicine and become a doctor, his other great passion. Rex was very active as an artist after retiring from medicine and many of his works dealt with abstract wave forms and kinetic structures, as well as his interest in DNA. The DNA piece posthumously exhibited in the RUH exhibition is wittily entitled ‘Everything you wanted to know about your father and some things you didn’t want to know as well’. Rex embodied the synergy between art and science in his life as a medic and an artist.
RB: What approach to you take on your photographic work?
DL-B: I am an experienced street photographer, centring my practice on the streets of Bath, but also working in Bristol, London, the USA and Europe. In my work I try to follow the rule laid down by the great American street photography Robert Frank:
“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough, there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.”
My work is essentially a celebration of humanity when off duty and relaxed in public spaces. I often look for humour and irony in my subjects, but I do not shy away from darker and more thoughtful images when they present themselves. There is a full description of my methods and working practices as a street photographer, along with selected examples of my work in this recent article: http://macfilos.com/photo/2016/10/2/david-lewis-baker-street-photography-in-bath-and-london
I also produce urban and rural landscape and abstract photographic works. In recent years I have used a Leica V-Lux Bridge Camera and recently acquired a state-of-the-art mirrorless Fujifilm X-T2 with 55-200mm telephoto lens.
RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?
DL-B: I hope that the answers I have given above demonstrate that I am completely supportive of this statement. As far as I am concerned, when working together, art can add wisdom to scientific knowledge, while science can add knowledge to artistic wisdom. Equally, as Valerie Hazan, professor of Speech Science at University College London put it after working with the poet Lavinia Greenlaw:
“… we’re both manipulating reality to understand it…..What makes a good scientist is someone who can see beyond the obvious.” https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/21/collaborations-between-artists-and-scientists
The pieces I am showing in the Sci-Art Synergy exhibition are mainly photographic images transformed into digital artworks and displayed in a non-reflective matt finish on dibond aluminium board.
The Prismatic series of works attempt to bring out the beautiful colours and forms created by nature when light passes through glass prisms and the way in which light splits into its component parts. The white areas in some works represents the original white light seen before it passes through the prisms.
The Life Essences piece is intended to be representative of the beautiful inner-forms of particles drawn from the sub-atomic level as seen through electron scanning and other techniques. This is a purely digital art work in which the image was created inside a computer without a prior photographic image.
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