Engineering as Art
Updated: Oct 7, 2022
The tragic divorce of the STEM fields and the humanities was first documented in 1959 in C.P. Snow's seminal essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.1 In it, Snow describes the increasing mutual incomprehension arising between the humanities and the STEM fields, greatly impeding their collaboration and communication. Indeed, this communication problem has caused itself to worsen in the sixty years since, causing even fewer people to be bothered to understand the other side of the divide. Even those who lament their separation tend to only make superficial suggestions for reintegration. Online articles suggest how a painting class can help engineers better their craft by engendering a "spirit of creativity" in their solutions. Not only is this vaguely patronizing to both fields, but it will in no way engender a robust enough relationship between the STEM fields and the humanities to overcome their divorce. The love of these two awkward acquaintances will dissolve at the first fight; once the humanities place any demands on the engineers, the engineer will simply ignore them. As G.K. Chesterton says, you can never really regard someone as your equal unless you quarrel with them.2 My goal here is to explore the inherent and robust connection between the art of engineering and the arts in the humanities by examining their fundamental relationship through the genus of art.
This proposed connection may be surprising to modern readers; one tragic result of this rift is that the word "art" now almost exclusively refers to the fine arts of the humanities. This narrow understanding of art is recent and has impoverished the richness of the term "art" in general. In contrast to the modern understanding, Aristotle describes the Hellenistic concept of art not as a subclass of aesthetically pleasing objects but as a type of knowledge or skill which produces those artifacts.3 In fact, the word "art" comes from the Latin ars meaning skill. In this view, art rightly refers to any embodied skill: the art of medicine, the art of painting, the art of engineering, etc. Contrary to modern usage, "artifacts" or "works of art" more properly refer to products of these skills. Indeed, viewing art as the skill which produces the artifacts, rather than identifying art with the artifacts themselves, has been the dominant view until around the middle of the 19th century. Jacques Maritain documented this shift in Art and Scholasticism, recovering this view from the works of medieval Scholastic philosophers.4
Even if one accepts this more traditional definition of art, there remains an intuitive problem: it is difficult to see how the art of engineering could exist on a continuum with the arts in the humanities. The fact that both are productive skills initially seems a mere technicality; Snow's yawning chasm still appears between painting and engineering. In appreciating art, we should grasp something of our humanity; the STEM fields seem to strip us of our humanity. Poetry can shape us as people; a circuit board seems to hold no such edifying potential. People often paint for the sake of painting; engineering mainly pursues some extrinsic practical end. Can engineering ever produce artifacts that exist without a practical need? Or is engineering simply a pragmatic stain on an otherwise purist pursuit of scientific knowledge? And how can engineering as an art be reconciled with our humanity? This essay will seek to show that the art of engineering indeed exists on a continuum with the arts in the humanities by addressing these questions.
The most apparent divide between the humanities and the STEM fields arises from the impersonal nature of the STEM subjects. Scientific inquiry specifically succeeds by minimizing the effects of the human observer in the experiment's method. Indeed, the physical sciences cannot succeed unless the human person is not simply diminished but purposely eradicated from the experiment. In contrast, the human person is always central to knowledge sought by the humanities. To properly engage with the liberal arts, one must engage with the whole person: body, mind, and soul. At first glance, this divide seems impossible to bridge. Can the arts in the humanities be reconciled to the art of engineering when the latter relies on such impersonal scientific knowledge?
Engineering injects the human person back into the scientific context by shaping and applying scientific discoveries to distinctly human needs.
In reality, engineering actually succeeds through a rehumanization of scientific knowledge. Engineering injects the human person back into the scientific context by shaping and applying scientific discoveries to distinctly human needs. For example, when creating piezoelectric transducers for ultrasound imaging, biomedical engineers use otherwise abstract material physics for the restoration of the human body. This reintegration of the human person into scientific knowledge is actually so common and well done that it often escapes notice. That most people don't give a second thought to how they use their phones is but one of many examples of how well industrial and design engineering has grafted humanity into scientific advancement.
However, engineering's humanizing effect on science doesn't entirely satisfy the cultural divide gap. We encounter the artifacts of engineering at a different level than the artifacts from the humanities, whose arts affect us personally. Engineering artifacts do not seem to impart aesthetic experiences as those from the liberal arts do. When we listen to music, we not only feel as though we have grasped the melody but that it grasps us in turn. These experiences guide the fine arts to produce objects that exist for their own sake. One only needs to look at Michelangelo's David to see why it exists. Beauty has no final cause, no end beyond itself that it serves; it simply and entirely justifies its own existence. Servile arts such as engineering, on the other hand, produce objects that are always in service to some extrinsic end. For example, a remote is only useful as long as the specifically-paired television is near. Thus, it would seem that the fine arts would reside most naturally in the humanities; in contrast, engineering is almost always practiced as a servile art. Is it ever possible for engineering to generate works of fine art?
The DIY community in engineering would answer a resounding yes. Singing Tesla coils are one such example of engineering used as a fine art. If asked why an engineer would build a machine that plays music by generating lightning, they would simply respond, "Because it's awesome!" They would indeed be correct; these arcs of lightning are truly proper objects of our awe. All works of fine art incline us to wonder, causing our will to direct our intellect to know more about the source of this wonder. Works of fine art in engineering are no different. They captivate and offer an inroad to learning. Who wouldn't want to know how a singing lightning machine works? The delight of any artist inherently and almost unknowingly produces objects that also justify their own existence.
All works of fine art incline us to wonder, causing our will to direct our intellect to know more about the source of this wonder. Works of fine art in engineering are no different.
Notice that the modern world, steeped in pragmatism, inverts how works of art are justified. Engineering is rarely thought to need justification; however, only the fine or liberal arts naturally produce objects capable of justifying their own existence. It is actually engineering whose artifacts are only justified insofar as they are needed. As soon as this need vanishes, so too does the artifact's value. A TV remote is only valued within 20 feet of a particular television set; otherwise, it is garbage. The servile nature of engineering brings us to another question: if engineering is most often a servile art and cannot define ends itself, how can engineering affect us in any way comparable to the fine arts in the humanities?
In our modern setting, however, the servile nature of engineering has the power to shape humanity even more deeply in some ways than the modern fine arts. This is because, in meeting practical needs, most engagement with engineering is essentially participatory. Because action involves our intention and willful assent, all participatory art has the power to shape mankind. Virtue, for instance, cannot be gained from mere bookish study; it requires participation in grace and the suffering of divine realities. As Jonathan Pageau notes, this participatory nature is lacking in modern fine arts, where we merely appreciate ballet or a painting from afar.5 While these can be moving, the edifying effects of modern fine arts will be limited in most people since it requires a rare interest and intentionality to seek them out and reflect on the experience. In contrast, the artifacts of engineering are specifically designed to be used, not simply admired. Its artifacts are sought out because of the practical nature of engineering, thus affecting a wide range of humanity. Through the use of technology, we participate not only in the desired end but also in the means of obtaining that end through whatever solution is designed by the engineers. These solutions etch themselves into human culture, offering paths that others will inevitably travel, which, like water eroding rock, further cements their shape into society.
These solutions etch themselves into human culture, offering paths that others will inevitably travel, which, like water eroding rock, further cements their shape into society.
The formative power of this etching effect cannot simply be ignored through some brute exercise of our free wills; the votes of our ancestors have already been cast through the democracy of the dead. Cars have shaped how we have built cities, precluding any casual possibility of abstaining from motorized transport since the car's existence has enabled buildings to be built far apart. Advances in biomedical engineering have largely removed physical suffering from our everyday lives; how can we become people who suffer well when the artifacts of medicine remove opportunities for everyday training? We are profoundly shaped as people by the art of engineering in ways that the fine arts often cannot do in a modern context.
Advances in biomedical engineering have largely removed physical suffering from our everyday lives; how can we become people who suffer well when the artifacts of medicine remove opportunities for everyday training.
However, in recognizing the formative value of engineering as a servile art, have we unintentionally driven a pragmatic wedge between engineering and the liberal arts, which tend to pursue knowledge for its own sake? Is engineering fundamentally limited as a pragmatic degradation of an otherwise purist pursuit of scientific knowledge?
The central claim of Christianity fundamentally upsets such a Platonic view of knowledge. As John 1:14 says, the Word, the ultimate object of contemplation, became flesh. Contrary to the Islamic tendency towards aniconism, the marble in a statue does not degrade the human form by not having life; rather, the human form elevates the marble to a marvel. God was not degraded by becoming man; rather, the hypostatic union elevated all mankind. In a shadow of this divine reality, art does not debase knowledge but gives it tangible substance. In this way, all art is fundamentally Christian because all art is fundamentally incarnational. As such, it fundamentally endeavors to make the invisible visible. Engineering concretizes abstract scientific knowledge otherwise inaccessible to the layman. Like all art, engineering does not invent truth but makes it more readily accessible, both consciously and unconsciously. By simply pointing a remote at the TV, anyone can participate in the cumulation of scientific knowledge from all previous generations. In this way, engineering bridges class and education barriers, allowing laymen access to scientific wonders that would otherwise remain elitist knowledge.
Recognizing that engineering is an art because it is an embodied skill is not a mere technicality. In sharing the powers of making, of humanizing, of making truth accessible, and of the formative power latent in all art, the liberal arts and engineering are fundamentally and profoundly connected as art. Engineering is an incarnational knowledge that shapes and guides humanity. Without the proper recognition of engineering as a servile art, the myth of technology as a neutral agent, where it is only good or bad insofar as it is used, acts as a veil to hide its inherently formative effects, causing growth to occur unchecked and unmanaged. Technology inherently entails both an embodied means directed towards an end; both matter.
The connection between the art of engineering and the liberal arts will naturally connect engineering to the rest of the humanities as well. Knowledge of right ends and means are the domain of theology and philosophy; engineering, as a force for good, cannot thrive without them. As G.K. Chesterton says, modern engineering is ugly not because it has a doctrine but because it lacks any.6 Its relation to doctrine would have made something proportionate to the whole of humanity; modern engineering is ugly because it was divorced from the humanities. Conversely, theology and philosophy also need servile arts, such as engineering, to embody the fruits of their studies. Otherwise, their wisdom would remain abstract and have no enduring shape, nor would their works be accessible to much of the public. If their mutual need and benefit is properly communicated to each field, it may be possible to begin reweaving engineering and the humanities once again, creating enduring paths that will casually connect the two estranged cultures.
1. Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1959.
2. Chesterton, G.K. “The Modern Scrooge.” The Free Library, Catholic Insight, 2014, https://www.thefreelibrary.com/G.+K.+Chesterton,+The+Modern+Scrooge.-a0396136620.
3. Aristotle. “Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI.” The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C. Stevenson, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.6.vi.html.
4. Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism. Cluny Media, LLC, 2016.
5. Pageau, Jonathan. “The Recovery of the Arts.” Orthodox Arts Journal, 4 June 2012, https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-recovery-of-the-arts/.
6. Chesterton, G.K. “The Telegraph Poles.” G.K. Chesterton’s Works on the Web, Martin Ward, http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/telegraph-poles.html.