Discovery through Art & Science

Friday, 27 July 2018 Dr Philip Kilner shares his inspiration for 'Relational Arts & Organic Design' and how the interweaving of science and art can help us explore the ever-creative, interconnected wisdom and beauty of our living world.

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What inspired the ‘Relational Arts & Organic Design’ course?

It began with conversations between Daniel, Nick and myself, and later others, all based at Emerson College. I had retired after 30 years of work in cardiac imaging and research in a London hospital and was wanting to try to offer back, in Emerson, some of the inspiration and ways of discovering that others, particularly John Wilkes and John Davy, had opened for me nearly forty years ago.

Why is discovery important?
I think that by far the best way to find out about the world is to gain an ability and habit of inquiring, noticing and discovering for your self. School and university may favour more directed learning towards measurable goals. But learning for exams can suppress self-directed inquiry and creativity. And, in my experience, exam learning is forgettable, whereas discovery for your self sows seeds that grow and weave into the richness of your experience.

What enables discovery?

It’s a blessing that can happen at any time, but can be helped by several factors. One is inquisitiveness and unbiased openness, free from received interpretations or assumptions but, at the same time, keeping a sense of reality and discrimination. Open-mindedness needs to be tempered by realism. Practical, hands-on experience and direct observation allow this, and can raise questions - why?, what?, how?, what else?, what if? Original discovery can begin by noticing a paradox or discrepancy... how on earth can this be the case if this is also so? It's helped on its way by active engagement and experimentation - getting stuck in - playfully, or by trying to make something work, or in attempting to recreate something through drawing, painting, modelling or describing. Discovery can also be helped though group participation, where members hear and share their different viewpoints or insights. Recognition can also dawn through formulating and pursuing a question over successive days, nights and weeks.

What will participants gain from this three-month programme?

I would like each to enhance their ability to observe inclusively, question open-mindedly and come to experience the delight of discovering for them selves. We want to help participants to discover, engage creatively and practice new manual skills. I hope, through these, participants will gain confidence to engage more effectively and responsibly in whatever field of work they chose.

How is the programme designed to foster this kind of discovery? 
I’d like it to enable each of the factors I mentioned, in the context of a group working together through the course of weeks. Inquiring together allows progress that is hardly possible alone. The 18th century German writer and natural scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) has been an inspiration. There’s a practice that’s come to be known as ‘Goethean Conversation’ where attentive listening to a contributor is followed, unhurriedly and considerately, by related or complementary responses, so developing and enriching a shared conversation. Inclusive, progressive processes are central to Goethe’s approach to scientific-artistic endeavour. I think he experienced, through repeated, inclusive observation and creative engagement, that human insight can aspire to kinship with the wisdom inherent in nature, and that that wisdom can find novel realisation through art. I see this approach as a much-needed counterpart to more conventional analytical scientific methods and, for that matter, to some trends in the art world. In our programme, manual skills and a sense for colour, texture, pattern, form and proportion will be practiced through craft work, painting and creative design. The sourcing and use of natural materials can deepen awareness of our surroundings. Vija, Daniel, Nick and Jonathan will each contribute in these areas while Steve will guide us in singing and studies of social and economic forms. Francesca has a pivotal role as Emerson’s House Manager, facilitating our integration with day to day life of the community, particularly for those living within the campus. Importantly, the third month of the programme is left more open to allow participants, individually or with others, to work on their own chosen project, with an eye to their life and work beyond the course.

Why ‘Relational Arts and Organic Design’?
I think that qualities and meanings, arising through relationships and changing relationships are fundamental in art; for example relations between colours, lines, forms, textures, or among words, sounds, tones and rhythms. Artistic practice nourishes our sensitivity to these changing interrelations, which are also essential in the living world. My hope is that this programme cultivates sense for interrelations - human, social and environmental - through the interweaving of science and art. And for me, ‘Organic Design’ speaks to the recognition, though observation-based inquiry, of the ever-creative, interconnected wisdom and beauty of our living world. This appreciation is a precondition for more positive ways of imagining, creating and making in a sustainable partnership with Nature.

In recent history, Art & Science seem to have parted ways - what are your thoughts?
I agree that this seems to be the case, although there are and have been exceptions. I personally, through childhood, became captivated by both. Then I naturally absorbed 20th century influences in each and, in the process, became increasingly puzzled by their seeming irrelevance to one another. Through medical school, the scientific interpretations I was expected to learn seemed strangely lifeless, uninteresting and lacking in humanity. Very recently I was made aware of a telling passage in the autobiography of Charles Darwin where he confessed to having gradually lost his youthful delight in poetry, music and art and wrote “The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” Well, I think I experienced something like that as I went through medical school. A couple of years later, I started meeting and working with followers of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner, and kept being drawn by something about their approach to life. For these two visionaries, it wasn’t so much a matter of bringing Science and Art together, but rather of appreciating their common source, and practicing both in ways that gained from and nourished the other.

Can you give an example of the benefits in combining Art and Science?
I think that qualities and meanings, arising through relationships and changing relationships, are fundamental in art. Artistic practice nourishes our sensitivity to these changing interrelations, which are also essential in the living world. A shortcoming of analytical science can be its failure to cope adequately with complex, fluid, ever-changing processes in ever-changing contexts, although that is what life is like. So, in this programme, we aim to nurture the faculties of informed, fluent, inclusive imagining that equip us to better appreciate the world’s fluency, beauty and meaning.

Does this mean re-imagining both disciplines? 
That would depend on where you’re coming from. The experiences, tastes and ways of thinking of different individuals vary so much that there can’t be a single answer. But if you were coming from academic science in a university, on the one hand, or from practice in contemporary arts, on the other, the answer is probably yes - you may have to and wish to change the way you see your field of work. I’ve suggested that, through Goethe’s approach, human insight can aspire to kinship with the wisdom inherent in nature, and that that wisdom can find expression in art. We humans have unique potential to mobilise and refine our faculties, nourished by the wealth of natural phenomena and the insights of others, so as to engage responsibility in the complex, ever-changing world in which we find ourselves.


Dr Philip Kilner, MD, PhD (Goethean science and art-science synergy) is the course leader for the Relational Arts & Organic Science Programme here at Emerson.

He studied medicine in London and worked as a junior doctor before widening his horizons through life in Camphill communities and studies of sculpture and flow with John Wilkes at Emerson College. These led him back to medical research, initially on fluid dynamic aspects of heart surgery, and then in the field of diagnostic imaging of the heart by magnetic resonance (MRI).

Click here to find out more about the course.