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David Bohm and Art

David Bohm and Art

The Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity and Science

David Bohm has been described as one of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century. A theoretical physicist whose radical theories challenged the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, his interests and influence extended far beyond the narrow confines of science. He worked on theories of mind and consciousness, and had close relationships with J. Krishnamurti and the Dalai Lama, who called him his ‘science guru.’ He believed that the same principles which underlie the behaviour of matter also operate in the realms of consciousness, society and culture and to address societal problems during his later years, Bohm proposed a solution that has become known as Bohm Dialogue.

But an aspect of David Bohm that is rarely mentioned, is his influence on the work of artists. The following is a small selection from the many visual artists—painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artists—who are using Bohm’s ideas in their work.

David Bohm and Charles Biederman
In 1999, The Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity and Science edited by Bohm scholar and philosopher, Paavo Pylkkänen, was released. It was a selection from the four thousand pages of correspondence that had passed between the artist and the scientist in the sixties. Charles Biederman (1906-2004) was an American abstract artist who lived in Chicago and was the founder of Constructivism in the 1930s. In the foreword to the Correspondence he says:

It was sheer chance that I encountered David Bohm’s writing in 1958. … I knew nothing about him. What struck me about his work and prompted my initial letter was his underlying effort to seek for some larger sense of reality, which seemed a very humanized search.

Bohm-Biederman Correspondence: Creativity and Science
Edited by Paavo Pylkkänen     Routledge, London 1999

The Bohm-Biederman Correspondence appears at a particular appropriate moment. This book, which runs to over 300 pages, is the fruit of a sustained and highly focussed investigation by a scientist, David Bohm, and an artist, Charles Biederman, into the nature of the creative process as well as into questions of order, perception and consciousness.

David Bohm, who died in 1992, was a student of Oppenheimer and, if political events had not overtaken him, would have been an assistant to Einstein. Viewed, back in the 1950s, as one of the most promising new stars in the physics constellation, Bohm not only made significant contributions to theoretical physics but was also concerned with the philosophical foundations of his subject. Charles Biederman, for his part, was both a working artist and a theoretician who had been attempting to place the last 150 years of Western art in a new perspective. In addition to his books, The New Cezanne and Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge, he had influenced the British painters Anthony Hill and Victor Pasmore with his constructivist art experiments.

The present book represents only a fraction of the letters that passed between Bohm’s home in Edgware, London and Biederman’s in Red Wing, Minnesota. The publishers have indicated that this is only Volume 1 of a correspondence which would, in total, extend to some four thousand pages.

It was clearly a collaboration of great importance to both men and is of significance to us in the light of the current fashion for ‘art and science.’ (By way of illustrating this fashion, during the past year I have been invited to over a dozen conferences, meetings, exhibitions and other events that revolve around connections between art and science. In Britain several funding agencies have created a consortium to foster art-science participation while in the United States a number of foundations and individuals are heavily involved in offering similar support.) Yet how genuine and effective is all this new interest? What is the quality of new artistic work that is being produced? And how useful are officially sponsored collaborations compared with those, occasional, intense encounters, such as that between Bohm and Biederman, when two individuals from very different disciplines strike sparks off each other?

It is certainly true that artists of the past had temperaments similar to that of the scientific mind. Uccello, Piero della Francesca and Vermeer, to name but three, each had a profound sense of the mathematical order underlying the physical world. Leonardo da Vinci, for his part, was a great observer and experimenter. Other artists explored the limits of new technologies and new ideas. Impressionism was made possible by new synthetic colours and the availability of paint in tubes. Seurat was inspired by Chevreul’s theories of ‘the simultaneous contrast of colours.’ Likewise contemporary artists today are pushing the limits of information technologies, medical scanning, new materials and all the potential of image processing. But what is science gaining from this? Is there any way in which art can foster scientific research?

I have been asked if there is a good example of a scientific discovery or new insight that has emerged out of an interaction with the artistic world. Or of a single discovery that would not have been made without the help of art. In the last analysis, I don’t think these are very useful questions to pursue. Scientific insights arise from a wide variety of experiences and attitudes that are, in the end, aspects of a general worldview that art certainly informs. That is why it is often so satisfying for a scientist to speak with an artist. Each from their own areas of expertise, helps to illuminate the insights and conceptual assumptions of the other. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Bohm-Biederman correspondence.

In many ways the origin of the exchange of letters is as fascinating as the correspondence itself. In 1952 David Bohm was living in a self-imposed exile in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A victim of the US anti-Communist witch hunt mentality he now found himself cut off from active scientific exchanges and with scientific journals arriving months after their publication dates. Bohm was also smarting from the indifference of the scientific community to his new ideas on hidden variables in quantum theory. It seemed an appropriate time for him to take a philosophical overview of the nature of chance and causality in physics and so he began to write the book that was published in 1957 as Causality and Chance in Modern Physics.

Biederman’s English friend, the painter Anthony Hill, sent a copy of this book to Biederman, believing that he would respond to its ideas. While Bohm was now no longer in exile, having moved to England, Biederman had adopted his own self-imposed exile. At odds with the current New York art fashion, led by such critics as Clement Greenberg, he had turned his back on most of his contemporaries, and set up his studio in Red Wing. His own paintings and constructions, he felt, were a direct continuation of the experiments of Monet, Cézanne and Mondrian to discover new orders and structures in art.

For his part, Bohm believed that the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg was proving sterile and could never be unified, in any deeply satisfying way, with Einstein’s relativity. It was not so much that new ideas or insights were required but that the whole language of science had to undergo a radical change. The basic grammar, through which all equations are expressed, is that of Cartesian coordinates—dimensionless points—which assume the existence of  continuous space and time, notions Bohm felt were incompatible with the deeper meaning of quantum theory. Thus both Bohm and Biederman were, from their respective fields, concerned with generating new notions of order.

On March 6, 1960 Biederman wrote to Bohm, telling him how much he had enjoyed Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. In his acknowledgement Bohm mentioned his own feeling of a deep link between art and science. Soon Biederman was asking him to write on this topic for a magazine, The Structurist. When Bohm protested that he was not qualified to deal with the relationship between both fields, Biederman made a remark that is particularly pertinent today ‘Do you know of a single soul who is?’ For Biederman one had the choice of remaining humble, or writing from one’s position of qualification in one of those two fields.

Now the two men began a highly active correspondence, virtually on a daily basis—how lucky we are that email did not exist in those days and so we have a complete record of their exchange. Saral Bohm, David’s widow, recalled that on some days Bohm would dash of a fifteen page letter, take it to the post box and, on the way home come up with some new ideas that simply had to be sent off on the same day!

Working from deep foundations within their respective disciplines both men soon reached common ground in pinning down questions of order and structure. Bohm, for example, wondered if it were possible to develop a new form of context-dependent mathematics that would be capable of describing the order to an impressionist painting. If such a mathematics existed, he said, then it would be the ideal vehicle for describing quantum theory and a future unified theory of relativity and quantum theory.

The two men also exchanged ideas about the nature of perception. Bohm related to Biederman’s descriptions of the way Cézanne saw the world, in terms of pulsations of colour. In the theatre of his own mind, Bohm also saw the world as pulsations, with electrons and other elementary particles constantly unfolding and collapsing back into the entire universe.

Perception was also about the nature of human consciousness, for perception—the way we see the world—also depends on how we think about the world and describe it. Thus, for Bohm, what he termed ‘Perception-Communication’ formed an indivisible whole that was essential to an understanding of human consciousness, an opinion shared by Biederman. Not only did Biederman feel himself heir to Monet, Cézanne and Mondrain but also to the linguist Alfred Korzybski, whose ideas Bohm had also studied back in Princeton. In Science and Sanity, Korzybski argued for what he termed a ‘general semantics’ which would help ideas to be transmitted from generation to generation. Biederman felt that something similar was also happening in art and that a new art could affect a transformation of human consciousness.

The contents of these letters is always fascinating, and we must thank the editor, Paavo Pylkkänen, for having made the selection. While they always sparkle with ideas, some that are conceived in the heat of the moment, don’t always make for easy reading as the two men discuss the ego process, the nature of memory, the nature of creativity, the role of mathematical symbols and the importance of process in nature and art.

There were, as in any passionate relationship, also areas of potential discord. At times Biederman seemed over dismissive of other painters and he had misgivings about Bohm’s interest in the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. But let us save those particular exchanges, and their further discussions on creativity for Volumes 2 and beyond and return to a question I posed near the start of this review. Artists certainly profit from their contact with science, but how does science benefit from art? It will be clear to anyone who reads this correspondence that Bohm was being deeply stimulated by Biederman and that in discussing order in art he was also forming insights into the nature of order in physics. Of course Bohm would have pursued such a path even if he had never heard of Biederman, yet the stimulation he gained from the exchange of letters must have pushed him to new insights.

And the end result? Too soon to tell. Bohm died, but his colleague, Basil Hiley, continues their work, attempting to develop a new mathematical order to physics. In turn, Bohm’s notion of ‘the implicate order,’ which must have, in part, been the product of his meditations with Biederman and, in part, the product of his investigations in theoretical physics, is proving itself to be an exciting and attractive notion to many artists. When David Hockney, for example, came across Wholeness and the Implicate Order he found that Bohm’s ideas translated directly into his own visual language. And so a dialogue between ‘art and science’ continues, not so much via formal channels but through chance meetings and the fortuitous encounter of different ideas. Likewise, Antony Gormley’s discussions with Basil Hiley on Bohm’s notion of pre-space have inspired the sculptor to attempt new work, his Quantum Cloud series.