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Paul T Kidd's Pages on the Future of Science & Engineering

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The Da Vinci Project - IET E&T Leonardo Letter

The Da Vinci Project - IET E&T Leonardo Letter


What follows is a provocative letter sent to the IET. It did provoke and produced material that I use in a book (not yet published), which then led to discovery and the seeing byond the myth and legend, and enough understandings to be able to move forward.



Leonardo: Artist & Engineer? Why has the Science Museum chosen to portray this great figure of the Renaissance – an artist – as an engineer too? Are those from the world of STEM just seeing what they want to see? What do I mean?

Artists, being artists – polymaths or otherwise – would say that “there is no such thing as a view from nowhere.” And the place where your article and the Science Museum are viewing Leonardo is located in the minds of those rooted in STEM culture and beliefs, living in the 21st century, with several hundred years of scientific and technology development behind them, along with restrictive biases concerning what constitutes art. All this is influencing thoughts, words and deeds. The comments waxing lyrical about Leonardo’s note and sketch books well demonstrate this, as well as indicating that there are misunderstandings about how artists work and think.

Let us imagine for a moment that in some future time, the sketch books of the British sculptor Antony Gormley are discovered. Those from the world of STEM looking at these, see outline ideas for what is evidently a flying man, and thus conclude that Gormley was an inventor, a designer, an engineer! But you already know that this is not the case, because the idea has been transformed into a constructed sculpture called ‘The Angel of the North’, about which engineers can feel good, because without their assistance it would never have been realised. This should be self-evident to engineers given the size of the thing and Gormley has never hidden or downplayed this aspect of the work. This could perhaps be seen as a very simple example of art-technology collaboration, but without all the noise.

Artists looking at Leonardo’s sketch and note books would recognise them for what they are. Most artists have such books, and some of them contain some very weird and unconventional things, but the contents are not intended for public viewing because they would be judged and misunderstood, as your article well demonstrates. The books are private spaces for thinking and an important part of the artistic process. And looking at Leonardo’s books, an artist would not necessarily see invention, design or engineering, but ideas for a different kind of art of the type that did not appear until the 20th century – constructed sculptures and art installations.

Leonardo, perhaps frustrated by the limited conceptions of his age (this is a familiar theme across time), may have been working in private to reinvent art, to set it free, which is exactly what modern artists have been doing continually since the mid 19th century. And on encountering the results of such art, many people remark that “this is not art.” One can be fairly certain that this same attitude would also have been strongly entrenched in Leonardo’s Italy, leaving Leonardo in the position of knowing that his ideas for works of art would never be realised in his own time. I am being subjective and speculative, but so are the Science Museum and your article. It seems that the supposed two cultures do at least have one thing in common!

The Renaissance notion of the individual creative genius, which was reinforced by the individualism of the Age of Enlightenment, is deeply embedded in European culture, which is one of the reasons why those who practise STEM are idolising Leonardo. This is part of an elitist culture probably inherited from Ancient Greece. Yet there is a stream in contemporary art, now many decades old, which dismisses elitism and instead pursues the aesthetics of involvement and participation, and artists in this field speak of ‘distributed authorship’. And some of their work involves a type of art that does not produce any art objects at all, thus dealing with yet another restrictive bias – that of the art object.

STEM is still largely rooted in an elitist attitude which is a measure of how out-of-step it is with society (I should also mention that this elitism can still be found in the arts as well). Consequently, there are all those initiatives that address open science, Science 2, citizen science, citizen engagement, Responsible Research and Innovation, etc. The age of the ‘expert knows best’ is dead and gone. Many artists have known this for decades and this is reflected in contemporary art, only someone now needs to tell the experts this, which is something art can do.

As for Leonardo, he belongs to no one group and his works are the collective property of the whole of humanity. It is not necessary to reclassify him as an engineer; all you need to do is to enjoy and appreciate what he left behind.

And now I end with the most important point: try to understand what Leonardo might have been trying to say to humanity, for art tends to speak about that which is universal, through means that invite contemplation and reflection. Strange shapes in very old notebooks may well resonate with objects found in the modern world, but Leonardo would mostly likely have been saying something more fundamental and subjective about the nature of human existence, in his time, as well as our own.


Paul T Kidd, BSc, MSc, PhD, CEng, FIMechE, FIET, SMIEEE




PS: Subsequent research shows that Leonardo in context is far more interesting that the legend, and that Leonardo and the many others like him, were just a product of their age: an age we do not want to see again, but which still exists, but in a different form, as I hinted at in the letter.







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