Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2119th Meeting

Speaker: John Safer, sculptor and former Chairman of the Board of NationsBank
Topic: “The Science of Art”

President-Elect McDiarmid called the 2119th meeting to order at 8:15 p.m. on September 22, 2000. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2117th meeting and they were approved with additions.

The speaker for the 2119th meeting was John Safer. The title of his presentation was “The Science of Art”.

Mr. Safer said that artists sometimes like to regard themselves as unfettered by either the laws of man or of nature. Scientists, on the other hand, try to discover the laws of nature. The work of artists is, however, affected by elements of mathematics and physics, often without the artists' conscious knowledge and acknowledgment of the debt they owe to science. Scientific discoveries and inventions have enabled great achievements in art.

What is Art? I don't know how to express it, and nobody else does either. Whatever it is, most artists agree that Art should strive to lift you out of yourself. Certainly, the work of Michelangelo in art and sculpture demonstrates that transcendental genius knows no limits. One personal experience of this came when during a visit to the Louvre in Paris I turned a corner and saw the Winged Victory of Samothrace placed dramatically on a landing at the top of a flight of stairs. The chaotic jumble that many people experience with art at close range in a museum, becomes more of a logical entity when viewed as a continuum of many artists' work over a long period of time.

Art appeared at least 20,000 years ago in two forms that have persisted to the present, painting and sculpture. The first evidence of paintings were realistic drawings of animals and more diagrammatic representations of people made on cave walls. Early sculpture includes decorated tools and small statuettes of animals and humans, usually steatopygous females.

In the classical civilizations of China and Europe the greatest achievements in sculpture employed marble, like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and bronze. The invention of bronze must rank as one of the 3 or 4 greatest inventions of civilization. The process of making bronze depends on several different technologies. Bronze is made by mixing 9 parts copper and 1 part tin, elements from different ores not usually found together naturally, so the culture must have mining and transportation technologies. The smelting of these ores to make bronze requires a hotter fire than wood can achieve. In order to make bronze, charcoal and forced air furnaces also had to be available. Forced air furnaces may have first been built at the mouths of caves with natural chimneys. These technologies supporting the production of bronze are often taken for granted in the admiration of classical sculpture.

When painting began to reemerge in Europe during the eleven and twelve hundreds, Italian painters followed the medieval Byzantine style with subjects portrayed in a flat, unrealistic manner. In the 1300's, Giotto introduced, more natural representations. His work clearly presaged the modern development of perspective in about 1425 by Filippo Brunelleschi. With perspective, mathematics stands at the intersection of art and science.

Mr. Safer kindly answered questions from the floor. President-Elect McDiarmid thanked Mr. Safer for the society, and welcomed him to its membership. Treasurer Haapala spoke briefly on membership recruiting. The President-Elect then announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement and adjourned the 2119th meeting to the social hour at 9:18 p.m.

Attendance: 47
Temperature: 21.1°C
Weather: clear

Respectfully submitted,
John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary

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