The discussion of symmetry in an earlier post might seem strange to most readers, who likely think of it as a left/right mirroring, such as we have in our bodies. Science makes a more fundamental use of the concept. An example that crosses the realms of both art and science might be Hans Haacke’s old systems piece, made of water trapped in a glass cube.
The water evaporates and condenses on the glass, and will cycle around forever, barring leaks in the cube. As a conceptual piece it moves out of “art” into real world systems, but it also stays within art as a critical parody of the repetitiveness of aesthetic experience. To take up another metaphor, the art viewer, and the artist, is like a hamster in a wheel, going round and round, always finding new pleasures in the same old thing – an endless pursuit of novelty in a society that’s stuck. In this view, art is blind and neurotic, and of course unaware of its own limitation. For a scientist, Haacke’s closed system is symmetrical. Vapor and liquid water are very different states of the same thing, and the system as a whole doesn’t change. Most of nature is like that – many and various local changes in a larger stable system. But the points of asymmetry are very important, in fact they are the origin of everything. The following quote from a popular study of the topic explains
“Our entire picture of how the universe works is based on an interplay between symmetry and randomness, and to be perfectly frank, we’re not entirely sure where one ends and the other begins…The laws of the universe are symmetric, but once we introduce the demon of randomness, the results of those laws, the universe we see around is, are most definitely not going to appear symmetric. Randomness is the hallmark of a quantum mechanical universe. Start with the same initial configuration and run an experiment again and again, and you’ll get different, perhaps profoundly different results…It was randomness that first gave rise to structure, even though the symmetric laws of gravity allowed that structure to grow, collapse, form into stars and build complex chemicals (and, I might add, life).”
I would quarrel with the use of the term “random,” which I don’t think exactly gets it, but two things stand out for me here. The first is that a broken symmetry is a beginning, for that’s how the universe itself started. But once started in a particular way the pattern is set, symmetry rules and possibilities are limited. In that sense, the physical universe is a great metaphor for art history (or the reverse!). Secondly, a system is either symmetric or not, but it might be hard to say exactly how much. This bit of very useful nonsense comes about because quantum fluctuation means that the new, or asymmetric, is always present on the micro level. The large structures may be set, but creativity has not entirely passed from the world. The work of Gerhard Richter is symmetrical—which means that one could change all the particulars without making any difference to the painting—but it’s full of random events. Yet random events are not what we need—we need events that break symmetry, and it appears that science gives us scope to make qualitative judgements about symmetry. Some art is too symmetrical, other art less so.