Strange and charmed

Science is changing our moral world. But, writes A S Byatt, it is also altering the visual landscape

If you ask a City financier - or a diplomat, or a journalist, or a writer, or a student - what he is reading just now, the answer is likely to be books about science. We think about ourselves and our place in the world in terms of what we know of astrophysics, or genetic research, microbiology or the study of the brain and the physiology of consciousness. This was not so 30 years ago - people thought in terms of Freud, Jung and Marx, all prophets who had made belief systems and issued commandments. More recondite theorists - Derrida, Foucault - have created a suspicion of thought itself, alongside a belief in the "social construction of reality". We have considered the idea that our language and our social circumstances speak us, not we them, and we have believed that the ideas of objectivity and reason are impossible and perhaps unnecessary. It is possible that the immediate politicisation of all ideas is diminishing with the great belief systems that - in the west - came after religions. (This is not to say that politics in unimportant. And we should remember that the United States is a predominantly Christian country, with places where Darwinian theory is considered false and evil.) We read science out of concern for our own health and environment. But I think we also read scientific books because they are the best way we now have of answering the perennial human need for understanding, contemplation of our place in the order of things, a sense of complexity and mystery, an inkling perhaps of the order of those things which are not ourselves. For the Age of Suspicion led to solipsism, to navel-gazing, to a sense that the inside of our own head was all we could know. This complacent mental misery makes no sense in the world of scientific discovery. We need to feel that there is something real out there - of which we are a part and not the whole - and science reveals it to us in its beauty and its terror and its order and its chaos, bit by fascinating bit, cell by cell, gene by gene, galaxy by galaxy. Curiosity doesn't kill cats; it saves them. It is a fundamental human drive, and the opposite of solipsism.

The "artistic" culture differentiates itself from the scientific culture by cherishing the individual gesture and scribble, and very often by characterising itself as the subversive, the destabilising, the contrary. As a young actress said to me enthusiastically in the 1980s: "The theatre is the Opposition." "Automatically?" I asked. "To everything?" "Yes," she said firmly. I sometimes think that the culture of automatic subversiveness is itself a pervasive and uniform orthodoxy, in urgent need of being questioned or subverted. We may come to see its products as the "salon art" of our time, conformist while somewhere else other artists are doing something dangerous and new. Perhaps, by taking science seriously, looking at it with true curiosity, making the effort to study and understand, at least in part, how scientists work and what they find.

The scientific culture is changing our moral world. This is not because it represents a belief system, although individual scientists have beliefs - socialist or social-Darwinist for instance - that do affect the way they do their science and the arguments they put forward about the world we all live in. The passions expressed at the Darwin seminars at the LSE, which began in 1995, show how close both Darwin's discoveries, and the opposition to Darwinist rigour, come to giving rise to belief systems. The embryologist and science writer Lewis Wolpert has argued that it is possible - and necessary - for the work of scientists to be carried on objectively, rationally, and in the interests simply of scientific knowledge. Moral discussion of the uses of that knowledge - from genetic engineering to embryological manipulation - is the province of politicians, ethical "experts" and the public. In literature, the ethical problems are being dramatised in the "Darwinian" novels - not only the religious crisis and loss of faith of the 19th century, but more subtly, the changes in our images of ourselves that come with the understanding of Darwinian arguments. I recently wrote an essay on the modern English Darwinian novel and made the surprising discovery of a constant, desperate attempt by male novelists to defend the idea of Romantic Love (not God) against the understanding of sex pheromones and the tyranny of the selfish gene.

I believe that the new images and understanding we are acquiring of the biology of consciousness will slowly change the forms of works of art in many disciplines. Colin Blakemore (in the Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2000), writing on the new problems to be posed, or solved, by the study of the brain, says that neuroscience will "undermine such cherished notions as spirituality, intuition and altruism - not by denying that people have them, but by providing rational accounts of them". Some artists react to this kind of perception by fierce and immediate defence of the notions. But I cannot believe that curiosity about the science will not be more illuminating than automatic principled opposition to it. Just as understanding the complexity of genetic alterations will, in the end, surely produce not naively mocking potato-headed men, or banana-tailed superlambs, but shifting metaphoric forms like Bernini's Daphne or Polke's witches and demons in caverns of poisonous and lovely pigments.

The visual arts have always had an aspect of practical science - John Gage, in his new Colour and Meaning: art,science and symbolism (Thames and Hudson) deplores the failure of scientific theorists of colour vision and colour mixing either to consult art historians or to study individual works of art. His account of the discovery of pigments, and the cultural effect of the difficulty of obtaining, say lapis lazuli, and its superior durability once obtained, is fascinating. Sigmar Polke uses old and discontinued poisonous pigments, lapis, orpiment, Schweinfurt green. But he does not stop there - he mixes traditional materials with iron, aluminium, potassium, manganese, zinc, barium and adds turpentine, alcohol, methanol, sealing-wax and candle smoke to very corrosive lacquers. Many of his paintings are unstable, designed to change in time in unpredictable ways. Some are made with meteorite and tellurium - his work is a physical and chemical exploration of the world of "matter" - though the title of the earthiest series (derived from a native American saying) is The Spirits Who Lend Help Are Invisible. The British abstract painter Patrick Heron, who worked in oils and in gouache, but also in glass and metal, always resolutely described himself as a "materialist". There is more to be learnt, more richly, from Heron's expanses of colour, their borders and meetings and intersections, about the relative stability and instability of our colour discrimination than from a host of experiments - just as his large bright canvases fill galleries with hosts of dancing variegated after-images: all part of the work.

Heron's materials were traditional. So much more is now available to artists - cameras and optic fibres, radioactive isotopes and X-ray films, microscopes, telescopes and cellular materials. There are some splendid examples of artists working with flesh and blood, embryos and sperm. There is a sense in which artists have to fight to make art and to know that it is art in a world full of seductive, delightful, intriguing and brilliantly crafted technological visions, from the juxtapositions and framed geometrics of commercials to the beauty of time-lapse films of the growth of plants and the movements of air, earth and water, which, like early photographs of race-horses, provide new scientific information as well as aesthetic delight. Video art and installations often have a hand-held, amateur look which is more boring than moving to an audience accustomed to the stimulation of the world of the web and the light show and the television. What (besides being made by an individual and labelled as art) makes art art? All my life, I have urgently been asking myself why human beings make work of art at all - there is no obvious moral or Darwinian reason why they should. The answer, often enough, seems to be: for the same reason that they make metaphors. I don't understand that either - except that metaphor-making is a fundamental part of the way the human mind makes connections. And art explores connections like those in ways very different from science's orderings - even though scientists are aided by flashes of intuition.

There are subtle and elaborate explorations of connection-making in the work of several contemporary artists - think of the bodily metaphors of Helen Chadwick and Cornelia Parker. Connection-making itself in the age of neuroscience can be imaged, can almost be felt, as a subtle movement and flashing of the neurons and synapses of the brain - creating and recreating in memory and imagination representations of things meeting and parting, arranging themselves and dissolving. Scientists, without embarrassment, use the words "beautiful" and "elegant" about mathematical solutions and the structures of cells and stardust. They tend to expect artists to be interested in beauty, and to be surprised to find that we have a stock response that "beautiful" things must be sentimental or facile. The culture of subversion, and suspicious solipsism make it hard to admit that a need for beauty has driven human beings for as long as a need to make connections. And the idea of beauty is connected to Gombrich's idea of knowing if something is "just right". We see a Patrick Heron, or a Polke scribble, and know without knowing how, that it is "just right", that moving a part of the form would destroy it. Coleridge called this just-rightness "cohaerance", using the Latin form to display its ancient meaning, of clinging, or holding, together. Artists and scientists both recognise cohaerance. Artists often bring an alien sense of order and connection to a scientific object or concept that can reveal new things in it. Again, it is like metaphors. It's like the difference between the sentences of ordinary language philosophers - "There is an apple on that table" and

This my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red.

You can argue for days about the meaning and technique of that, but its effect of complex and multiple interactions of language and feelings is instantaneous. It makes the hair stand up on my neck. There is a scientific explanation for that, I'm sure. De Quincey called his great and interlinked dream metaphors "involutes". The immediate, and subtle, and complex involutes of art can reveal new connections in both language and the material world. It increases wisdom and understanding - and pleasure. I'm with the scientists, not the automatic opposition, in finding a need for beauty human and desirable - whatever strange new forms it may make.

A. S. Byatt's article is the preface to Strange and Charmed: science and the contemporary visual arts, edited by Sian Ede, to be published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on 11 April (£10.99)