SPEECH AT THE FORUM IN MAUBEUGE
by Michele Emmer
When, in 1977, I began my "Art and Mathematics" project (and it is
unimportant which word comes first), I had something that was very clear in
mind, I was not at all interested in making "educational" films like the
ones being produced at that time, which tried to explain what a result, a
theorem, in mathematics was. Films that were very boring, and essentially
very short, and in my opinion completely useless. I was not convinced, and
I am still not convinced today, that a film, a video, a software can act as
a substitute in teaching, and in particular in the case of mathematics, to
a direct contact with the teacher.
One of the things that the media will never be able to do, is to react to
the faces of the persons that are listening to what you are saying. Anyone
who has ever taught knows that the faces of the students are a very
A film therefore cannot be used for this, it cannot be used to replace
studies that must be individual, with books, exercises software or
CD-roms, that can always and only be used as a material support to the
"physical" contact with the person who is teaching, with the one who
suggests, informs, explains, clarifies. Besides, there is also another very
important aspect, a famous Italian mathematician, who died a few years ago,
said a number of times that teaching is the best way to learn deeply.
However I was convinced that a film, a video, could be very useful to
strike one's fantasy, to stimulate imagination, in other words to make one
feel the need to understand, to study further. And not only a film, but
also an exhibition, a book, a show.
From the very beginning of the project I thought of making films,
exhibitions, books, meetings, all these things together, and after a number
of years I can say that the project has worked. It has worked because one
of the great fortunes of art and mathematics is that of being universal. If
one speaks of mathematicians or artists from any part of the world, one
can be understood if he succeeds in finding the right interpretation key.
Why am I speaking of art? Because from the very beginning, as the first
idea was that of realising videos, "visual" images had to be used. And
therefore why not also ask the collaboration of artists, besides
mathematicians? I am also convinced that it is not possible to speak of
"Visual Mathematics", in all the sectors of mathematics, just as it would
be absurd and ridiculous to make art seem to be always tied to scientific
or mathematical ideas. Just like it would be absurd , today , to privilege
the computer, the Internet, and make art seem to be "new" because it
utilises new technologies.
In mathematics and in science, perhaps, we can speak of progress, in art
it is totally absurd. Technology serves art in the same way as it serves
mathematics, but neither art nor mathematics are pure technology, pure
method, pure calculation. Creativity, invention, are essential both in art
and in mathematics.
Which surely does not mean that the task of "showing" the ties between art
and mathematics is a desperate one.
So the idea from which I started was to realise videos (and then
exhibitions, books, meetings), in which the "visual ideas" that artists and
mathematicians (and not only them, architects, biologists, musicians) used,
would be highlighted. Ideas that can be compared, "described" in some way,
always trying to use mostly a visual language.
And so, beside a number of mathematicians, from D. Coxeter to Roger
Penrose, from T. Banchoff to De Giorgi, I asked the collaboration of many
artists, from Max Bill to Luigi Veronesi, to De Rivera, to Bruno Munari and
In order to privilege the images, the spoken part, the explanations were
cut down to minimum, and these are not even "real" explanations. A typical
example is the film "Soap Bubbles" in which Jean Taylor and Fred Almgren
speak of the theory of minimal surfaces, in particular, of the result on
the singularities of minimal surfaces, but the video can be seen by
children, even if they are very small, and they will interpret it
differently from, for example, the students of the University of Princeton,
where the same film was shown.
Therefore art, artists, can be very useful to mathematics, as, in a certain
sense also mathematics, the images of mathematicians can be very useful to
art, to artists. Always bearing in mind that each one is doing his own job,
that even if creativity seems to have some features that are common in all
man's activities, however each discipline, both artistic and scientific,
has its own language, its own technical means of expression. Otherwise, one
risks making people believe that anyone can be an artist, anyone can be a
mathematician. It is not sufficient to know how to "play" with a computer
in order to become an artist, it is not sufficient to invent a new
technique. As in mathematics, there certainly must be intuition, creative
capacity, but there also must be the capacity to prove, to explain what
one is doing, right to the end. Given the above, I believe that artists
can be very useful in teaching mathematics, and also in making people
understand how mathematics is a discipline with its history, with its
evolution, with its mistakes and its successes, in conclusion, that
mathematics have given and continue to give a great contribution to Culture.
Without expecting, as faculty members always do, to teach the
school-teachers, from kindergarten to the high schools, what they must
teach and how. Those who do not have an experience in teaching in a
school, and I do not have it, should be very cautious in suggesting
solutions that seem to be the panacea for all the troubles of teaching.
Undoubtedly most faculty members always look from above, downwards upon the
teachers, and this attitude is not helpful. Also from this point of view,
artists can teach mathematicians a lot of things.