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Blake vs. Newton

Newton by William Blake

The image shows Newton, painted by William Blake in 1795. To the left of the picture is brightly colored flora and fauna, the complexity of the natural world. To the right is order, the precision of geometry and the compasses. In the middle, between these two incongruous elements, sits Man. Except, in this case, it isn’t just any man, it is Isaac Newton, writer of Principia Mathematica, the founding work of classical mechanics. Blake’s painting is a criticism of Newton’s world-view; he is turning his back upon the beauty of the natural world, his sole interest is in his scroll and compasses.

William Blake was a Romantic, with a capital R. He was part of the Romanticism movement, the artistic, literary and intellectual reaction to The Enlightenment of the late 18th Century. The Enlightenment was the time that heralded the birth of modern science, where purest reason was the dominant philosophical trend. The Romantics feared the coming godless world and clung to the dying remnants of an idea of natural idyll; the aesthetic, the rural and the picturesque. They saw the future on their horizon, the world of the rational and scientific, the future we now live in, and it repulsed them.

The modern computer programmer may adopt the same pose as Newton. She spends her working day entranced before a screen, squinting at a glowing monitor in a dimmed office, making only the barest micro movements with her mouse-hand and keyboard fingers. She may spend the majority of her life focused upon an ordered reality, only dimly aware of what is beyond the screen, outside the window, outside the city. The chaos of the natural world is not welcome in her world of logic, unpredictability is not something one wants from a computers.

The Generative Artist would be the programmer sitting facing the other direction, straddling that rock like Christine Keeler. The Generative Artist comes from the world of logic to look toward the natural world for inspiration.




9 Responses to “Blake vs. Newton”
  • Owen Says:

    What you seem to presuppose is that nature is nature and logic are mutually exclusive. This is demonstrably not true, something that scientists were well aware of, even before Darwin. The more science looks at the natural world, the more logical it turns out to be. The focus of science has changed considerably since the 18C, and it is no longer defined by man’s supposed dominance over nature, but that the complexity and uncertainty of the natural world has to figure in any science that is not entirely theoretical. Ask any natural scientist why they study and it will be more about exploring the fascinating complexity of nature and less about forcing the secrets of the universe to submit to their will. If you want any further proof of the contributions of science on the realm of beauty look no further than this: http://is.gd/5mGpy

    These days, computer programming, in the way that you are describing, has little to do with science and everything to do with industry and commerce – fields that seek to remove uncertainty in order to maximise profit. You don’t want uncertain responses from Amazon, or Google, because they need to give you the answers you want, each and every time.

    The other thing is that I’m not sure whether you are talking about Computer Art or Generative Art. The computer is a tool, in the same way that a vibrating motor or the wind can be, in making Generative Art. A ‘programmer’ could be more generally used to describe the constructor of a generative system, but has a specific relationship to a computer. Most of generative art I have seen has been computer based, and takes its inspiration from mathematical descriptions of natural phenomenon, rather than nature itself. I think that for Generative Art to get out of the niche that it has occupied comfortably since the 1970s, it has to be more radical. If your message is that people should look away from their computer screens, then why is so much Generative Art displayed on computer screens and why doesn’t it force them to question that behaviour?

  • Phi Sequence Says:

    I don’t necessarily see the same things in this image as you might. I see instead Newton embracing order, but being firmly rooted in the natural world (his right foot is deeply rooted in nature literally and symbolically), and his form comes out of the rock of nature. He is at once between the two worlds straddling both. His form actually could be considered an extension of the natural world from which he springs forth.

    No I don’t see a division. Instead I see this as man’s attempt to understand the natural world in which he is a part. It’s always the chaos vs. order debate. In fact both are found in nature, and both can very readily be found in our “science” – they are not far removed. They are two parts of the whole.

    That’s my take. ;-) good article, and a beautiful image by Blake.

  • What is Generative Art? | 100 Abandoned Artworks Says:

    [...] which is much more nebulous. In my mind generative art is just another bi-product of our eternal titanic battle between the forces of chaos and order, trying to work out their natural harmony, as expressed in a ballet of light and pixels. But [...]

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    Kramer auto Pingback[...] French Revolution. —from William Blake, by William Vaughan."William Blake – Isaac Newton, 1795Blake vs. Newton Pencil study for William Blake’s Newton, 17952008 April: The Notebook of William Blake2009 [...]

  • Mikey Says:

    Great painting, really spiritual and a good article :) Thanks.

  • Mikey Says:

    Great painting, good article and helped me out a lot :) Thanks

  • Will R Says:

    I think that there is an extra “a” in the last line of the third paragraph.

  • Annonymous Says:

    Why does Newton have such a muscly back? is this suggesting that Newton is god? This painting came before its time, it is only being truly understood now.Why the cone shape? Where is Newton, in space or underwater or somewhere else?





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