Is this math?

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Master of the Die

Look at those lines, that perspective, the symmetry…there is a clear sense of geometry in this picture, and if geometry is math (it is) then there’s a case to be made that this picture is mathematical. Hence the artist is a mathematician. So the picture is math.

Except that’s not quite right, is it? It’s not fair to this piece of art to see it as essentially mathematical. That’s not what the human person who created it was going for. Math doesn’t get to make a claim on any use of parallel lines. Back off, math! Art gets to be art.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what counts as math, and what it means to expand what counts as mathematical. Certainly, if you think math is just what’s covered at school, you’re wrong. But then we make these expansions — kids are doing math when they’re playing, they’re doing math when they’re drawing, when they’re braiding hair, when they’re building…

Maybe the issue is in thinking of mathematics as a field or a single subject, as opposed to a mode of thinking that is used by artists, philosophers, lawyers, Wall Street, cashiers, kids, hair-braiders, engravers, everyone. Mathematics isn’t a distinctive activity that you do, it’s a certain way of doing other things.

But then what is that certain way of doing things? Probably not a clear set of criteria, but a kind of family relation: if you’re using numbers, if you’re paying attention to repetition, using the properties of shapes to create something new — you’re not necessarily doing mathematics, but you’re doing whatever it is you are doing in a mathematical way.

But math doesn’t get to claim art.