“Intersection of Math and Art”

February 20, 2014



Is this a cringeworthy title?  I think so.  What images does it conjure in your mind?  In its more dignified form, (arguably quite artistic), it’s Escher tessellations and Helaman Ferguson sculptures.  Going further down the path you encounter colorful Mathematica tori and fractal art, icosahedra made from marshmallows or macaroni, knitted Möbius strips.  The last stop is visual puns on pi=pie and clip art caricatures of skinny white guys with acne and thick glasses, or anthropomorphized cartoon numbers dancing together.   The common denominator is a simple formula:

X is visual


X references, usually quite literally, an idea, an object, or a stereotype from the world of mathematics.  


How does this fail and what right do I have to say most of this is neither math nor art?  Good question.  I have no authority, except as someone who is not totally blind to the world of art.  I see that fine art, in general, has strayed far from the literal, and involves abstract ideas, often challenging ideas, and requires a context, appropriately referred to as a dialog.  

 (This doesn’t make me an expert.  It makes me one of millions of people that pay occasional attention.)  

Let me contextualize my complaint.  Say, instead of an American Mathematics Society joint meetings art sectional, you had the analogous display at a huge medical technology symposium.  What would you find?  maybe finger paintings of prosthetic devices.  Maybe wood carved hypodermic needles.  Paper mache stethoscopes.  Maybe some of it would be “cool” like a knitted skeleton with knitted organs (I really liked this one when it made its rounds around facebook).  But I guarantee such a display doesn’t exist and wouldn’t, it’s a ridiculous idea.  Would lawyers at a law convention humor amateur pencil sketches of handcuffs? No.  In part this is because law and medicine have a culture of practicality.  

But mathematics, as well as philosophy and physics, concerns itself with abstract ideas.  You might expect the intersection of art with these disciplines to capture ideas that had fertile roots in each.  Instead, you get a void of any critical standard, except, and this is my point, that works are expected to be predictable, to reference math literally and directly and predictably.  Some pieces will receive awards.  These will demonstrate craftsmanship, precision.  The world of art subsumes works which are anti-art, because that has been voiced in dialog.  The urinal.  The can of shit.  It is therefore reasonable to me that you might expect to find antagonism against math in an art show for mathematicians.  Generally, sadly, you do not.  Not that I need art to be controversial or antagonistic.  But math art = vanilla safety pleasant clever clean.  The formula is there, repeated to nausea. You know it, and you are bored by it.  


I am bored by it, too.


 I was asked to draw a cartoon character for our math department T shirt.  Initially I was asked to draw a superhero, but realized in the process I do not abide superheros, in principle.  This is what I submitted:



As of today, the image has met with disapproval by an invisible committee of people invested in the integrity of this year’s T shirt.  All I know is a friend of mine wants the eyes to be filled in, and some other people, the identity of whom is unknown to me, have objected that it is “not totally relevant” to the math jokes text it would accompany on the T shirt.  


It’s not great art.  The face is stolen from Modigliani.  The rest, the body, is stolen from 2 other sources.  What it is, what it is to me, is deliberate.  It is what I wanted it to be, and is yet a mystery to me.  So let me explain why.  

I have a 12 year old daughter who is exceptionally capable at understanding and originating mathematics.  She’s receptive to the ideas I introduce to her in graph theory, in set theory, in programming, in logic.  She gives back to me solutions and startling reflections on her own thought process.  She’s artistic and fluent with analogies.  She’s the only 12 year old mathematician I know, because I do not know many kids her age.  She also is passionate about style.  She has a style that is both conservative and defiant.  She has a mother that is an artist and a father figure that is an architect and a father that is a mathematician, and she exhibits an influence of each of these.  She has drawn tall, slender women since she began drawing around the age of 3.  And so… I had in my mind a role model.  An image of a woman that is attractive but not hypersexualized; both fierce and feminine.  I think I accomplished that.  Why Modigliani?  In part, a tribute to the vertical figures my daughter has built on paper and emulated.  In part, because of some mysterious attraction I have to this figure.  I wouldn’t fill the eyes in.  Come forth with a criticism that I have depicted a soulless woman, or that I have shrouded her in a mask, or that she has lost her gaze.  I would be interested in any such critique, but not “you should fill in the eyes.” Of course, I will disagree with you.  She could be looking down, she could be lost in her thoughts; I really don’t understand the image entirely and that’s exactly why I’ve chosen it.  


(a) A committee cannot create a piece of art

(b) Suggesting to the creator a minor change to some piece of art without addressing any of the ideas expressed is, plainly, insulting.

(c) What stands in as the most acceptable stereotype is significantly less genuine than a genuine portrait, which is necessarily idiosyncratic.

(d) I’m bored to vomit by the shit you call the intersection of math and art.

Feel me?