Artist and self-styled experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats is hoping to persuade the art world to join scientists in the Copernican Revolution—nearly 5 centuries late. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus made the humbling observation that the Earth revolves around the sun. Modern physicists often cite the “Copernican principle” that, as nature’s rules are the same everywhere, the human viewpoint isn’t unique.
But the art world, Keats says, is still stubbornly Ptolemaic, in that it emphasizes the “exceptionalism” of humans and centers on stories about ourselves. So, in “The First Copernican Art Manifesto,” an exhibit that opened Thursday at the Modernism gallery in San Francisco, California, Keats will feature art that reflects banal, average truths about the universe.
So, the Copernican Revolution showed that "nature's rules are the same everywhere, the human viewpoint isn't unique;" art ought to catch up with science; and all of that leads to the conclusion that there is something unseemly about promoting "human exceptionalism" in art. Rarely does one see the effects of worldview so neatly encapsulated in so short a snippet.
Let's dispense quickly with the obvious errors. The Copernican Revolution was not the "humbling observation" we make of it today. The center of the universe was, in those days, the humble position, and Copernicus lifted that stigma from us. The "Copernican principle," scientifically speaking, says that the human vantage point (the physical location from which we observe the universe) is not unique; but that is not the same as saying the human viewpoint is not unique. That is a philosophical conclusion, one that is fed not only by science but by many streams of thought; and the science contributing to it is at least as much Darwin as Copernicus.
Beyond that, there is something deeply troubling about the implication that art needs to get in step with science. Science is very good at what science is good at, while art is (or can be) very good at other things. Science knows how to deal with impersonal, law-governed regularities. Art is for personality, for freedom, and for surprise. Science per se knows nothing of beauty. Scientists do; and they often experience it in their investigations, their discoveries, even their equations. But this is a human experience, accessible only from a human viewpoint. It is not a laboratory finding.
To say that art should follow science is to say that personality, freedom, surprise, and beauty must decrease, while that which is statistical, predictable, and banal must increase. At least Keats seems to recognize this:
One canvas is painted a bland tan, the average color of the starlight of all stars measured by astronomers. Hydrogen gas released from glassware suspended above otherwise empty pedestals assumes a form invisible to human eyes. A quarter of the notes in a once-orderly Bach composition are rearranged—reflecting the increasing entropy of the universe since its tidy, pre–big bang singularity.
Though I haven't seen it, I can easily imagine that his art feels dead, or at least deadening.
His personal style (see the Google images), ironically enough, appears sharp, personal, individual. He looks just as he is: really alive, and fully human. He has a viewpoint, a unique one, a personal one. He decries human exceptionalism, but in the very act of persuading others to adopt his opinions, he practices Jonathon Keats exceptionalism.
It is not only Copernicus that he gets wrong. He contradicts himself, as anyone must do who would deny what it is to be human.