Recently I went to my city’s art gallery, in search of an inspiration for a new post, and boy did I find it. Lucky for me, there was an exhibition on, titled Math + (a)rt. However the problem was, it was all about symmetry and abstraction. Although these things can be beautiful, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. A little disappointed in the exhibit, and/or my ability to find inspiration for a post, I went to the third floor (The Math + (a)rt exhibit was on the second floor). The third floor had three exhibits on: one on Inuit art, full of abstract shapes that when put together resembled things in nature, such as the sky or ice chunks floating in a river. The one that stood out to me the most in this exhibit was this piece.
There was no information on the artist or title of the piece, so I asked one of the women working there. According to her the piece is Titled “This is a square.” Laughing at the name, I continued into the next exhibit. This one was about violence against women, with more pictures than paintings. Although the exhibit had a good message, I wasn’t very into the artwork, so I left the exhibit.
Stepping through two huge glass doors into the main hall, I was greeted by two workers, offering me cookies and coffee. I accepted the cookies (I’m not a coffee drinker) and looked around, realizing I could access all the exhibits from the four doorways in the hall. I also came across this intricate human sized sculpture of a hollow man playing some stringed instrument I assumed was a guitar.
Invariably, every time I came across I piece I liked, It had no artist or name. I didn’t ask for either this time because I did not want to know. I liked being able to make my own story for him. Maybe the artist used to be a musician, who felt empty inside. Or maybe there was no deep meaning. It didn’t matter to me really, it was, in the end, just a sculpture.
I continued on through the prodigious doors towards the final exhibit. The room was a tall and long corridor, the walls lined with immaculate paintings from the 14th-17th century, and the middle of the corridor, were a long line of Victorian crafted kitchen-ware. Excited to continue exploring this is exhibit, I continued down the corridor, wherein I was called out of the exhibit because “There was no food allowed.” Here I thought about going on a rant about this faulty system giving food and then not allowing it, and how it was basically a derivative of the childhood playground “Stop hitting yourself” but instead I finished my cookie and continued into the rest of the exhibit.
I loved every part of this exhibit, I wasn’t sure why but it was fascinating. Maybe it was because the 15-16 hundreds was my favourite period in history (aside from the current one). Near the end of the exhibit I came across this painting:
This picture doesn’t do it justice, but it was the most realistic painting in the exhibit, if I weren’t close enough to see a few brush strokes I would have believed it were a photograph. It was six feet across and at least 3 feet tall. I tried to describe it to myself but I reached an Impasse. It looked so real, but how real was it?All at once I was out of my mental comfort zone. I couldn’t assign a number to this painting. You cant measure how real something is. I began to wonder if the question was even valid, I mean, the painting is real, the boys were not; wasn’t it that simple?
I turned around to see an immaculate, much smaller painting of a sail boat dock during sunset. I was brought back to my last thought, and how I couldn’t measure this paintings beauty. If I really tried, I could tell you the dimensions of the painting, its hue, its chemical composition, the wavelength of light it reflects at certain points; but none of these things would tell you of it’s beauty.
Unfortunately my phone died before I could take a picture of it. I remembered the Square from before and realized I could not argue that it wasn’t a square. If you multiply the base by the length right side it equals the side squared, and the area of the shape. I felt incompetent, like I should be able to define if it was in fact a square. I wondered how if at all you could define art. If you can’t measure it does that make it art? I mean as of writing this physicists do not have a complete mathematical model to predict and measure turbulence in a fluid. Did that make turbulence an art form?
I walked down to the main floor where after turning a few corners, I found an empty, silent theatre. The chairs were dimly lit and lined a dozen by a dozen, and the stage was pitch black. Stared into the blackness waiting for my eyes to adjust, but they never did. I thought that the empty dark stage would be a good exhibit by itself if it weren’t so pretentious. I walked over and climbed onto the stage, going back until I ran into some wall. I sat in complete darkness lost in thought. And I came to the conclusion that math and art are really two ways of doing the same thing. Allow me to explain
When we learn math, we are really studying two things. First you are studying mathematical language. The simplest part of mathematical language is that when we talk about the number seven, we are not just talking about seven shoes or seven doughnuts; but we are also talking about the abstract idea of seven. Then when you reach algebra the Language of mathematics also involves English or Greek letters and the language gets more and more complex as you learn which is why when most people read about the Riemann Hypothesis they feel illiterate.
The second thing we do when we are studying math is trying to understand the universe. I don’t mean to overstep my bounds but for the last few hundred years we as a species have realized that the universe is inherently mathematical. Ultimately the reason we have to know that the square-root of four is +/- two is that it helps us to build cathedrals , understand geosynchronous orbit and understand the Universe as a whole.
So we study mathematics for the resons of wanting to learn mathematical language and to understand our place in the universe; Which is also precisely why we study literature! To learn about language and to understand our place in the universe!
This is often where someone comes in saying how math is different than literature because there is only one right answer in math and many correct answers in literature. This is completely and utterly wrong. I can not stress this enough, Many times there is more than one answer in math and secondly not every answer is equally correct in literature. For example; If you think that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a pro slavery novel, you are wrong, more wrong than someone who thinks that the square root of Euler’s constant is strawberry’s. The students of the world need to realize this, as well as that what we study in English class, is not that interesting. The questions of whether ‘The author intended a symbol or a metaphor’ are the parabola’s of literature. Sure they are sometimes helpful, but the reason that reading critically, like reading for theme and metaphor and symbolism, is important is because , those things are ways into the big interesting questions; many of which are the same questions that Mathematics is trying to answer.
The vast majority of us section ourselves into either literature people or Math people, but the truth is that our incredible and complex processor in out heads is neither a Mathematical organ or a Literature organ, it’s both. So to the ‘math people’ I say that Imaginary story’s can be every bit as intellectually engaging as imaginary numbers, and to the Literature people I say that Number theory can be every bit as fascinating and moving as The Great Gatsby.
So I challenge you to open your minds, and understand the Universe from the opposite perspective and maybe see another side of yourself.
Until next time