Are We Due For Another Renaissance?

I would argue that today, most people who deem themselves engineers would not think to consider themselves artists, and similarly, most artists would not consider themselves engineers. We understand these titles as having strict guidelines based on education that precedes them and the futures they might lead to, yet the intersection of these fields was not always such a foreign concept. During the Renaissance the existence of an “engineer-artist” was common and can be characterized by Leonardo da Vinci.

When you type “Leonardo da Vinci” into Google, the first two sets of results that are suggested are “inventor” and “painter,” hinting at his equal fame for both pursuits. As discussed by Francis Moon, da Vinci’s contributions to painting are no more and no less celebrated and studied than his contributions to engineering and design. His mastery over these two systems of knowledge is evidence of his genius and can be quantified through his obsession with geometry. Theodore Cook notes in his book, “Curves of Life”, that da Vinci’s meticulous attention to geometrical details and patterns in nature allowed him incredible insight into the patterns necessary to succeed at both painting and design. By understanding the relational qualities of items within nature, paired with their inherent need to create patterns, da Vinci created a system for representing nature and applied this system to his technological designs.

Through the intertwining of these visual systems, da Vinci’s painting and designing benefitted by developing in tandem. It’s not difficult to prove that da Vinci was a genius in both visual and technical representations as it is a widely accepted opinion, nor is it particularly difficult to prove that these systems of knowledge developed simultaneously. What I find interesting is how he acts as a prodigy in both these fields without contest, even by today’s strict standards, as demonstrated in Martin Kemp’s studies on him. His achievements in engineering are never tainted by his title as an artist; likewise his status as an artist is never dimmed by his pursuits in engineering. Instead of being cast into one stream, as is the norm today, da Vinci’s knowledge flowed freely between art and science, allowing his achievement of a level of genius matched by very few. From da Vinci’s success, the question of both when and why we began to categorize students and people into the fields of either “arts” or “engineering” arises.

As with any phenomena, the separation of art and engineering, following their coexistence during the Renaissance, has evolved for hundreds of years. Since the late 18th and 19th century saw the industrial revolution and in turn a period of rapid technological advance, it is a natural place to look for this separation. In his essay “The Exhibitionary Complex”, Tony Bennett explores the new need for categorizing art, natural science, and man-made technology in response to the mental space technology was now utilizing. These categories were reflected in the founding of museums that partitioned their space based on systems of knowledge. Jeffrey Abt notes in his essay, “The Origins of the Public Museum”, that with the founding of art museums, technology museums, and natural history museums as separate entities, the categorization of the systems of knowledge was suddenly institutionalized.

Unlike the heterogeneous space for classically artistic or classically scientific items to coexist during the Renaissance, these items were now more separate than ever through their existence in physically different parts of one city system. This led to the new phenomenon of the public choosing which system of knowledge they would spend their money on by picking a museum to attend. I think this choice of the public’s attendance of museums during the 19th century is echoed in the complicated funding of today’s public education system. The decision of which subject in the public school system receives more funding is essentially the same decision that a museum-goer of the 19th century faced: which is more worth my money?

The differing public approval of the subjects of art and engineering has created the inequality of their treatment in the public school system. It is no secret that the arts in Ontario public schools are notoriously underfunded, with endless studies and statistics as proof. In his study, “The State of the Art and Music Education in Ontario Elementary School” from 2001, Dr. Rodger J. Beatty discovered only 33% of public schools in urban or suburban regions have a full-time music teacher, while that number drops to 15% in rural areas. Of these elementary schools, only 15% have a specialist visual arts teacher and only 9% have a specialist drama teacher, meaning most arts teachers in Ontario are not trained in their subject at a higher level. This should raise the question as to how these teachers will inspire their students to pursue the arts in high school, let alone in higher education; the simplest answer is they are not. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada found in their 2011 study on higher education that enrolment in the humanities at Ontario universities has failed to see the growth that engineering and the sciences has experienced since 1998. At the master’s level, the most popular areas of study are business, engineering, law, and architecture which have seen an increase in enrolment of 75% between 1998 and 2008.

Evidently the separation we have seen between art and engineering/science has led to a system in which one is favoured over the other; however, that does not mean educators have skipped a beat in proclaiming “creativity” as an integral part of education. While the arts are being left behind and the sciences are growing rapidly, the necessity for creativity is still rampant, often being listed as one of the top ten qualities for an engineer today online. For me, it seems like a double edged sword to limit a student’s exposure to the arts, yet demand that same student’s creativity in engineering.

Without the intersection of art and engineering in schools there is no need for a student of science to learn about the intricacies of the arts. While that may not seem important for the student, or the education system, it is hard to ignore da Vinci’s participation and subsequent mastery of both subjects. In his exploration of nature da Vinci was able to apply the patterns he studied to both his art and his engineering design, allowing them to evolve as artefacts of each other. This leaves the question of whether the engineering solutions today are really the most creative. Or instead, whether our manufactured need to separate art from science is inhibiting the great minds of today from reaching the full “creative” potential that is so desperately desired.

One comment

  • What an insightful piece! Definitely an interesting perspective on the divide between art/engineering, and how the two can play off one another for superior problem solving.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *