Is Starry Night the discovery, or the experiment?

Maria Popova quotes Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the difference between originality in science and in art:

If I discover a scientific idea, surely someone else would’ve discovered the same idea had I not done so. Whereas, look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — if he didn’t paint “Starry Night,” nobody’s gonna paint “Starry Night.” So, in that regard, the arts are more individual to the creative person than a scientific idea is to the one who comes up with it — but, nonetheless, they are both human activities.

Hmmm. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of putting it. Van Gogh wasn’t trying to discover or capture “Starry Night,” the painting. He was trying to discover or capture something intangible by painting Starry Night: a particular aspect of motion, or light, or vastness, or awe, or silence, or delight: who knows? But the painting is the vehicle for the discovery, not the discovery itself; the painting is an experiment, an approximation, a model. And experiments, approximations, and models are personal expressions of a given scientist’s experience and worldview, as well as their historical and cultural context.

Each scientist arrives at a discovery through his or her own circuitous, and original, path. Neither the fact that the natural phenomenon they seek to describe and represent is not “original,” nor that someone else would have gotten there by a different path, should devalue that individual path — any more than the fact that the emotion of delight is not original to, nor solely elicited by, Starry Night should devalue the painting.

Artists certainly have much more room for creativity in their paths than scientists do. But speaking of originality in one vs. originality in the other is to me a red herring, inviting the wrong sorts of comparisons: we shouldn’t expect science to be exactly like art, or exactly not like art. And while I love all the science-art crosstalk going on, sometimes I feel it’s a little too tempting to make analogies that aren’t all that helpful.

But anyway, speaking of Starry Night. . .

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