Scientific and Artistic Paradigm Change: A Brief Review of Thomas Kuhn and Orson Welles

So I wrote a small paper for my Philosophy of Science class. My professor, Dr. Ronnie Hawkins, didn’t want the paper any longer than four, double spaced, pages. It wasn’t necessary but would help elevate my grade. I’m doing well in the class so far, yet any additional credit can’t hurt. I wrote my paper on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Orson Welles’ film F for Fake. I feel I could have written much more on the subject; limited space permitted only a brief survey. Below is my paper, which I, and a few others I showed it to, thought wasn’t that bad. Thanks for reading.

Scientific and Artistic Paradigm Change: A Brief Review of Thomas Kuhn and Orson Welles

In Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions the author discusses the similarities between scientific and political revolutions: “Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense…that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately” (92).  However, Kuhn’s exploration of paradigm shifts – the periods prior and afterwards – doesn’t consider the parallels between the various phases of movements and other human endeavors. His book limits itself to politics and science, disregarding other aspects of the human experience, namely the humanities. I agree wholeheartedly with Kuhn’s observations and his blueprint transfers sufficiently to art, especially the role experts and critics fill. Filmmaker Orson Welles’ 1975 cinematic essay, F for Fake, investigates the role critics and experts play in the art world. Following the notorious charlatan Elmyr de Hory, Welles’ experimental picture playfully shatters any validity the gatekeepers of artistic credibility maintain. De Hory, a famous art counterfeiter whose forgeries hang in various museums worldwide, is Welles’ example of credibility gone askew. This paintbrush wielding pirate mirrors the scientific men and women ushering in a new paradigm, invalidating the beliefs and credibility of those defending a dying paradigm. De Hory’s actions are akin to the fresh faces voiding previously held scientific beliefs, ushering in a new perspective and eradicating the world of old.

Kuhn argues that textbooks are, “pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science,” acting as a sort of holy text for the field (137). Just like the art critic or expert’s knowledge, the science textbook is the definitive source for a prevailing paradigm, doling out accepted information. Both sources have flaws, which Welles and Kuhn point out. Both the scientist adhering to an old paradigm and the art expert safeguard the authority of the specialist in both fields – maintaining themselves inside ivory towers. For science, the “opponents eventually die,” taking with them their antiquated stances, deeply settled in by decades of reverence for a paradigm now devoid of legitimacy (Kuhn 151). Unfortunately, for art this is not the case; the standards which perpetuate the art critic or expert pass from generation to generation, absorbing new movements into the same paradigm instead of invalidating the old ways. The experts continue maintaining authority, imposing artistic hegemony over the art world.  In essence, the expert keeps art criticism in stasis, like Sisyphus and his boulder, locked in a continuous feedback loop.

Welles maintains, “Experts are the new oracles; they speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer and we bow down before them” (F for Fake). How is this different than a scientist holding onto an outdated paradigm or citing a science textbook as the custodian of absolutes? Kuhn believes a science textbook aims at, “truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history,” reducing the professional struggles leading to the current paradigm to a smaller instance (137). In short, the science textbook voids out the history of science, allowing the caretakers of the current paradigm to negate any information that would damage scientific stasis. Many scientists responsible for paradigm change, it seems, fall into the same trap as their predecessors: they create and work within a paradigm only to maintain it at the cost of scientific advancement. They’ve become the enemy they sought to defeat. Like the art professional, their expertise becomes more important than the process. It’s here that people like de Hory prove valuable by shining a light of the fallacies of this practice. I am not defending de Hory’s crimes; he’s known for forging paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and other seminal painters that hang in world famous museums. When Welles made F for Fake, knowing which paintings were fraudulent or authentic was impossible. Yet, de Hory’s rebellious actions loosen the noose the experts place around art’s neck, much like young scientists finding new puzzles and discovering new methods responsible for drastically altering the scientific landscape. His methods may seem suspect, but the sentiment is valid, parallel with those of the scientist working towards paradigm change.

Shopenhauer’s outlook in the third book of The World as Will and Representation argues clearly how art should be viewed: “We lose ourselves entirely in this object…we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject” (195). This is the exact opposite of the art expert’s function – to perceive art entirely on objective grounds and determine its value in a capitalist marketplace. Welles, and ultimately de Hory, argues heavily against art as commodity, with Welles’ film critiquing this institution and de Hory’s actions openly defying its existence. The scientist engaged in paradigm change embodies this sentiment to the letter, working against the grain, against the prevailing order and creating a new set of rules. To the prevailing order these actions are reprehensible. However, they are necessary for science to avoid stagnation. Not every paradigm change brings positive advancement with it, but is necessary nonetheless. At the moment the whole world is in Kuhn’s crisis state (art and science included) and hopefully actions mimicking those of Kuhn’s young scientist and Welles’ protagonist will push the revolution towards a paradigm beneficial to humanity, saving it from potential annihilation – both bodily and creatively.

Works Cited

F for Fake. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles, Elmyr De Hory. Criterion Collection, 1975. DVD.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996.

Shopenhauer, Arthur. “The World and Will as Representation.” Aesthetics: a Comprehensive Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 193-216.

Here’s the trailer for Welles’ F for Fake


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