Art / Science:
The Work of Jack Butler and a Perspective on Psychology

Emily Butler
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


In considering the art and science of my father, Jack Butler, I address issues of representation, the constructed nature of knowledge, and the inter-twining of subjective and culturally situated meaning. In engaging with my father's work I am undertaking an investigation of my own intellectual context and the ways in which it has and is currently shaping my emerging identity as a psychologist. In counterpoint to this subjective content, I present my father's work as a concrete example of the sort of knowledge product which results from an application of feminist and constructivist theories. In some senses his work can be seen as an experimental implementation and integration of those theories. As such it is possible to derive conclusions from his results which pertain to the practice of psychology.

Historical Narrative

An historical narrative provides an introduction to my father's work and presents a few of the influences on his thinking. He entered the public arena of the fine arts in the late 1950s in the eastern United States. At that time and place the art-world was dominated by modernism, an ideology which had much in common with scientific positivism. Just as the scientist was seen as an expert rationally investigating universal truths, so the artist was seen as a gifted, special individual with transcendent access to truths of visual aesthetic form. The modernist artist and the positivist scientist both agreed that their area of expertise involved no overlap with the other's. The modernist's truths were assumed to be ahistorical and acultural. It was common practice for white-male-New York artists to appropriate and de-contextualize non-western aesthetic values to produce 'timeless masterpieces' available for sale at exorbitant prices. My father's work has stood as a series of critiques of such positivist and modernist values and assumptions.

A well known criticism of positivist ideas is the work of Kuhn (1970). In analyzing the history and philosophy of science he emphasized the role that social construction plays in perception. He states,

...the route from stimulus to sensation is in part conditioned by education. Individuals raised in different societies behave on some occasions as though they saw different things. If we were not tempted to identify stimuli one-to-one with sensations, we might recognize that they actually do so. (1970, p. 193)

The implication that empirical truth is at least partially influenced by social processes was made concrete for my father when, in 1969, we moved to the Canadian Arctic due to an employment opportunity. Here our family was immersed in an alternate way of viewing the world, that being the vision of the Inuit. The Inuit do not differentiate between art, science, and technology. This conception of integrated knowledge matched my father's own partially articulated views and gave them force and expression. It is generally assumed that the Inuit are an unscientific, or pre-technological, people. But consider the technological accomplishment of surviving in one of the harshest environments in the world with no more than caribou to work with!! The fact that their version of technology is not the same as that of Western science does not make it less effective. Feyerabend states that, "prejudices are found by contrast, not by analysis" (1993, p. 22). Encountering the Inuit cosmology reinforced my father's understanding that the view from the margins is in some ways clearer than that from the center. He continues to work in collaboration with Inuit artists.

Other contemporary critiques of positivism and modernism are offered by many feminist writers. Feminism has played a large role in my father's thinking. He refers to himself as a `male feminist' and states, "I look to feminism for instruction in theoretical critical positions and practical strategies to address the imbalances of power built into life in Canada at this time." (1992, p. 3). Relative to other men of his generation he has tried to live accordingly by being involved in the parenting and domestic chores in our household.

After completing his work in the Arctic my father resumed an earlier interest in biological research. We moved to Winnipeg and in 1976 he was commissioned by the Children's Hospital of Winnipeg Research Foundation to conduct basic research into the normal development of the genitalia in the human embryo and to construct models representing the developmental changes that take place during normal maturation. It was assumed that Butler would survey the relevant literature and then simply apply his artistic modeling abilities to represent, in three-dimensional form, the knowledge available in the literature. He quickly discovered, however, that there was essentially no graphic or photographic information available. One set of photos existed, taken by the Czechoslovakian embryologist Jan Jirasek. Other than those, all that was available were schematic diagrams of theories, often containing inaccuracies.

At this point the School of Medicine of the University of Manitoba and the Health Sciences Centre of Winnipeg arranged for him to become a Research Associate at the university so that he could study aborted fetuses using a dissecting microscope. In 1983 research from abortices was discontinued and his subsequent work has been based on digital and video imaging of live fetuses in utero, MRI, Ultrasound, and Echo-planar cinematography.

The resulting models were published in the form of a film, The Child with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) which was produced in collaboration with Dr. J. Winter, endocrinologist, Dr. A. Decter, urological surgeon, and consultants in pediatrics, neonatology, and embryology. CAH is a condition in which genetic females are born with masculinized genitalia due to adrenal gland malfunction. The film was designed to demonstrate Dr. Decter's surgical procedure for reconstructing functional female genitalia in these infants.

My father's subsequent embryological work has included modeling the fetal lung and heart, and most recently he has been involved in a project investigating the first moments of the brain. Immediately following conception the embryo is composed of undifferentiated cells which rapidly propagate. Suddenly these cells begin to differentiate into neural, epithelial, and mesodermic cells. This differentiation is marked, and perhaps caused by, the ectoderm contraction wave, a physical wave that crosses the embryonic sphere. He has been involved with researchers at the University of Manitoba in an investigation of this wave and its effects.

Interpretation and Implications for Psychology

I turn now to a consideration of Butler's art and the intellectual content of his scientific work. I have relied heavily on his own interpretation of his work, believing that stated intent is an integral element in the meaning of a knowledge construct. In addition to this interpretation I employ my own perspective in an evaluation of the implications of his work for psychology.

Central to Butler's ideas is the issue of representation and its relation to truth. This topic encompasses all of cultural history, but Butler's work in scientific modeling provides a locus for manageable discussion. There are two traditional methods in the field of embryology for representing information in three-dimensions. The first is the reconstruction. This process involves rebuilding an original specimen on a larger scale in permanent materials. It is generally assumed that this process is theoretically neutral, but this is a false assumption. Choices must be made at every step of the process. For example: which specimen to use, how to slice it up, what features to include, and which subtle details are relevant and which can be ignored. The second method used is the model. This approach is exemplified by Butler's work. The model is purposefully abstracted in an attempt to distill the essential information for understanding the object. In Butler's words, "The candid relationship between the abstract model and the theory that lies behind its creation is the source of the model's usefulness to science and its link with the visual arts" (1993, p. 194).

It was assumed by the medical community that Butler could produce models that were theoretically neutral. Butler discusses these cultural assumptions in terms of the relationships between the icon, the index, and the fetish. An icon stands for its referent by virtue of its resemblance or analogy to it. An index is the result of a direct physical trace of its object. Examples include x-rays, photographs, and fingerprints. The fetish goes beyond representation and becomes a, "a closed object with magical 'truth' powers" (Butler, 1995, p. 2). No representation is entirely iconic or indexical. Every representation involves some cultural mediation as well as sharing some elements with its referent (Ellis, 1991). In this sense Butler's models involve both iconic and indexical aspects, but in assuming that they could be theoretically neutral the medical community turned them into fetishes.

There is an obvious connection here with psychological tests. We create a personality scale, or an intelligence test, and assume that it is purely indexical, that the score a person receives is a direct trace of some aspect of that person. We ignore the iconic elements, the fact that extroversion, or whatever we are trying to measure, involves a large degree of cultural mediation. Furthermore, we tend to go on to attribute to that score some measure of truth above and beyond its value as a representation of the person's behavior in the testing situation. Scientific psychologists `naivet' concerning the nature of representation has drastically undermined many of their knowledge claims.

This discussion of representation has already touched upon the socially constructed aspects of knowledge. Butler's work emphasizes that these aspects cannot be ignored if we wish to approach an empirically accurate, and ethically humane, model of the world. The construction of gender, in the western tradition, has been assumed to be grounded in biological fact. Differences in sexual anatomy have been used to substantiate claims of male superiority. Echoing feminist writers, Butler writes that the external genitals were traditionally presented as ".... a binary dichotomy, Male and Not-Male, an inherently nonreversible, nonreciprocal hierarchy, a system of domination" (1993, p. 195). One result of the genital embryogenesis research was the realization that the initial stage in genital development is one in which male and female could be understood to be undifferentiated and that the external genitalia have the bipotential to develop in either direction. It became obvious that an alternate reading of the empirical evidence concerning sexual difference was possible.

Butler stresses that any description of the development of the external genitals is colored by the context and by who is providing that description. Whether one emphasizes difference or similarity, masculinization or feminization, will depend upon one's presuppositions and political investments. While presumably the morphology of the genital organs has not changed in the last hundred years our interpretation of the empirical evidence has. We have gone from Freud's penis envy to discussions in biopsychology textbooks of the evidence that the fetus proceeds towards female development in the absence of hormonal influence; that in effect female is the primary form (Pinel, 1994). Our empirical reality is inextricably linked to our social reality. Butler is very aware of his own social position and attempts to be self-critical of his cultural biases. We may be unable to transcend our contextual biases, but if we are aware and self critical of them we may minimize their impact and achieve greater objectivity.

Another parallel in the field of psychology is easy to find. The well known debate in the literature between Kohlberg and Gilligan as to the nature of moral development demonstrates the influence of cultural values on knowledge production. Is morality essentially an analytical, rational entity or one built on empathy and caring? Kohlberg, a white male, used all-male samples and discovered that morality is rationally driven. Gilligan, a woman a generation younger than Kohlberg, extended his work to more diverse samples and situations and demonstrated that care and empathy play a role at least equal to that of reason in guiding moral actions. This research, and Butler's work on genital embryogenesis, both suggest that the world is often more complex than our cultural assumptions allow.

In his practice as an artist Butler has reworked the genital embryogenesis imagery and has presented it in the traditional context of the art gallery. In this situation the work has been labeled pornographic by some groups. The power of context to influence meaning can be seen in Butler's solution to these accusations. Originally he presented his images of genital development in the same format as that utilized by every other textbook or journal illustration. The standard is to display the fetus on its back. In attempting to understand his accusers Butler experimented with inverting the images in relation to their frame, thus presenting the genitals to the viewer in the same position that they would occur in the womb. This dramatically shifted the connotations of the images. The fetus on-its-back is in the position it would be for intrusive research purposes. Furthermore, displaying the genitals in this way is the standard format in adult pornography. By placing the genitals in the context of a living fetus, which would usually be head down in the womb, the images lose their invasive, objectifying quality.

The Meaning and Integration of Art and Science

I turn now to a salient procedural aspect of Butler's work, that being the integration of art and science. The production of meaning, or knowledge, is essentially a creative process and this provides the main connection between art and science. The Inuit model of integrated knowledge production has already been mentioned, but we do not need to go outside our own culture to find such a precedent. The Renaissance tradition also sanctioned the practice of one person being both an artist and a scientific researcher. This individual was understood to be engaged in an attempt to understand and explain the world. Leonardo da Vinci is the classic example of an artist/scientist combining differing methodologies to converge on representations of the world, including scientific theories as well as paintings.

Positivism and modernism have discarded such a model and firmly drawn lines between art and science. According to Danziger, "In more recent times the well-known contrast between 'context of discovery' and 'context of justification' gave expression to a pervasive tendency to relegate the necessary subjective component in scientific activity to a mysterious underworld that was not susceptible to logical analysis" (1990, p. 2). He goes on to identify the "context of discovery" as actually being a "context of construction". It is in this realm of induction and knowledge construction that Butler sees the link between the practice of art and science. The creative act of generating an idea, and elaborating it into an effective form, is shared by art and science. Allowing for justification in art and creative construction in science could strengthen both endeavors.

To look at the same issue from a slightly different angle, one can consider that the modern artists of the 50s and 60s embraced the divorce of art and science and claimed the realm of pure form for artists, leaving the realm of pure reason to positivistic scientists. But these dogmatic claims to truth are much too rigid and simplistic to effectively engage with the complexity of the world. As Feyerabend (1993) points out, such inflexibility is not adaptive in a constantly changing world. Truth is also easily abused if it is unitary. If one assumes that one has the truth it becomes a natural thing to enforce it on everyone else. If we are as a culture to approach a more complex, flexible vision of the world we need to incorporate intellectual content in art and formal understanding in science.

Similarly, psychology can be conceptualized as a creative process. It involves the creation of representations of human behavior and experience. Those representations have generally taken the forms of theories and statistical results, although more qualitative models are starting to gain some credence. Unfortunately we usually forget that we are modeling reality, and that all empirical discoveries involve cultural mediation. We forget that when using a statistical methodology we are literally applying a "general linear model" based on matrices and linear equations and assuming that the model provides an optimal representation of human behavior and experience. Sometimes analyzing sources of variance may be the best method to address the questions we are asking, and sometimes it might not be. Danziger (1990) analyzes the idolatry of specific methods which has been rampant in psychology. It seems to me that such methodolatry cannot be continued if psychology is to remain a viable intellectual discipline.

This leads me to a discussion of Butler's choice of technologies. Similar to Feyerabend (1993), Butler stresses that technology has been reified in our culture. It has been assumed that the appropriate technology can solve anything and it has been used as a form of control over the world. It has also become a source of social power because one must be in the educated, relatively wealthy class of society to produce, run, make use of, or administrate high-tech toys. It has been claimed, especially in relation to virtual realities, that there is a difference in kind between traditional representational mediums and computer based ones. Butler argues that it is only a difference in quality and that all representational tools are just that, tools.

Following this tenet Butler utilizes a wide range of mediums, from traditional woodcuts, performance, and body art to computer animation, video, and electronic reproduction technologies such as photocopy and fax. Such diversity underlines the fact that no single tool is appropriate for every situation. A hammer is most effective for some problems, but a skin tent is better for others. The challenge is in identifying the qualities of the problem at hand, and picking or creating the most appropriate tool. One useful aspect of computer technology is that, if one is privileged enough to have the use of a computer connected to the Internet, information can be accessed at a distance. If readers are interested they can engage with Butler's work on the embryogenesis of breath.

Objective Methodology and Critical Subjectivism

Psychologists' methodolatry of statistics and quantification has already been mentioned. A repercussion of this dogmatic approach to the tools available is the poor craftsmanship that is sometimes evident in the practice of psychological research. Many psychologists adopt a scientific, quantification based method while not actually applying such an approach with any rigor. The abuse of statistics in the social science literature is notorious amongst statisticians and mathematicians. This may be a reflection of psychologists' realization that such an approach is not really that useful to them in many situations. Yet, because that is the only method sanctioned, a half hearted implementation of an experimental approach seems preferable, rather than risking the creation of a more sophisticated method which may not be accepted by one's peers.

This is obviously a sweeping generalization, but I feel it warrants some consideration if only because it is becoming a stereotype. I have encountered this negative view in my role as a student of psychology. In an academic setting, science majors laugh at psychology's micky-mouse experimental courses, and arts students find the presentation of our humanistic approaches pathetically uncritical. Human behavior and experience are complicated, and this should be embraced in our research and education. Perhaps we need to apply more elaborate, creative models than are available within what has been defined as a scientific psychological methodology. In my experience there are many practitioners rising to this challenge and I have received excellent, stimulating instruction from several professors who proceed in creative yet rigorous ways towards understanding and explaining humanity. I have also, unfortunately, sat through the sort of psychology course which provokes derogatory comments. I was recently appalled to discover that the text for a third year course had been progressively simplified each year for five years as the content was deemed to be too challenging. It has been reduced to a pamphlet written at a grade ten reading level. Why should anyone value psychology as a discipline if it has been reduced to intellectual mediocrity?

I turn now to another critique which has been aimed at positivist approaches to psychology. Humanistic psychologists, Rogers in particular, have pointed to the impossibility of a completely objective, depersonalized method. Rogers states, " exists only in people. Each scientific project has its creative inception, its process, and its tentative conclusion, in a person or persons. Knowledge - even scientific knowledge - is that which is subjectively acceptable" (1965, p. 164). At this point Butler's use of body art warrants some elaboration. The tradition of body art which he draws upon includes ceremonial face and body painting, tattooing, scarification, piercing, make up, and any other process which alters the body in the context of a cultural practice. Butler's use of such methods acknowledges the subjective element of knowledge. It involves the lived experience of knowing. It is related to the participatory knowledge of Shotter (1993), or the tacit knowledge of Kuhn (1970). Body art is the physical, subjective experience of cultural meanings. Although one may pierce one's ears on the basis of cultural motivations, the cultural meaning of ear piercing only exists in all the lived experiences of having done so. Similarly, the conclusions of scientific psychology are cultural products, but they are also partially determined by the human experiences of its practitioners. The humanists' claims of the centrality of individual experience warrant consideration despite the fact that experience is a difficult thing to deal with scientifically.

In Butler's words, "[b]y drawing directly on the naked skin, I am attempting to engage a sensuously grounded antitheoretical subjectivity that remains as a fact of personal experience underlying the psycho-social construction of sexuality and theories of sexual development" (1993, pp. 198-199). It may not be necessary for psychologists to draw on their faces, but this subjectivity is a force which could aid in the rejuvenation of the discipline. Psychologists have attempted to be objective and have followed the model of science established in physics. It has been argued by Shotter (1993) that complete scientific objectivity is impossible in any discipline. The knower both creates, and is created by, the known. Furthermore, this process cannot be separated from the context of knowing. It seems evident that psychology is even more susceptible to these contextual factors than physics due to the fact that people (and animals) are not in the same category as inanimate objects. Psychologists are in the position of trying to objectively look at something which is looking at them. Consciousness complicates everything. It is not an oversight that has prevented physicists from extending their explanations to human behavior. Over and above these considerations, it is the richness of subjective experience which provides the source for imagining and refining effective means of understanding and explaining the world. The `context of discovery' must be allowed back into the practice of psychology in order to create theories and methods sophisticated enough to address the complex nature of our subject matter.

A ubiquitous over-simplification in human thought is the reduction of complex phenomena to mutually exclusive polarities, such as subjective/objective or art/science. In an attempt to go beyond dichotomies Butler has conceptualized his work in terms of the metaphor of the `Skin Ego'. This concept was proposed by the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu. He suggested that the ego can be identified with the body and can be experienced in terms of the skin, especially in terms of fantasy body representations. The notion is manifested in two variables on the Rorshach test that were identified by Fisher and Cleveland in 1958. These variables are the "Barrier" and "Penetration of the boundary". Responses are scored as a Barrier variable when they imply a symbolic relation to the boundaries of the bodily image. Similarly, responses are scored as a Penetration variable when they can be seen as a symbolic expression of the body as an easily penetrated entity.

Extending upon this metaphor Butler graphically envisions the ego as composed of two layers of skin. The inner layer is represented by the physical body, a container which makes introjection possible. The second layer is an imaginary, or psychical body surface, capable of expansion and contraction. It is this psychical layer which allows for the inscription of meanings. It is an idea skin which is permeable, allowing exchanges. Butler utilizes the tense space between the containing and permeable aspects of the body-self as a site for the synthesis of opposites. Scientific research practice is representative of an intrusive practice, penetrating the self. Art acts as a unifying, integrating process which reconstructs the skin-ego or surface. The space between bodily and psychical egos is a space between art and science, between subjective and cultural meaning, between male and female. The extremes of these polarities become transparent, making one visible through the other, allowing a collapse of singularities into a more complex, layered view of the world.

The study of human experience and behavior has forced psychologists into a confrontation with these extremes. Are people to be represented by the computer, the animal, or the spirit? Are we primarily rational or irrational? Are we predictable or not? Each extreme has given rise to a branch of psychology. These crowd together as an academic discipline (are the clinicians in or out?) leaving most of those involved with a sense of angst over the lack of unity. A `space-between' is required in which to synthesize these polarities.

One possibility for such a space exists in cross-disciplinary methods and collaborations. It is in dialogue and eclectic approaches that psychologists can hope to find the synthesis of their disparate views and methods. At present many of the exchanges between areas of expertise within the field tend to be adversarial. Similarly, researchers tend to adopt one methodology and defend it as the right one. This may arise from the widely held assumption that if two people do not see exactly the same thing then one of them is wrong. If we can acknowledge that the world is complex enough to support multiple representations then perhaps we can also, through dialogue and creativity, begin to elaborate more subtle views of it. One can hope that such open exchanges across disciplinary, cultural, and gender boundaries will lead to a broader understanding. If the cognitive researcher discusses language with the computer scientist, the developmental psychologist, and the novelist they may all gain insights into their own limiting biases and produce a richer, more humane, and more scientifically accurate knowledge construct.

One risk of cross-disciplinary practice is that of being marginalized. Butler has found it difficult to find funding as an artist because his work is too scientific. Similarly scientific funding has not been readily forthcoming because his work is too artistic. Psychology faces the same problem. As a discipline psychology has gained credibility, and hence financial support, by proclaiming itself a science. This was successful initially, but its effectiveness is waning. Cuts in funding, as compared to engineering or computer science, bear witness to the fact that society does not value psychology as a science. Research positions are not the most likely future employment of psychology graduates. It is as clinicians, or consultants in educational, business, and legal settings that we are valued. Employers are not strictly concerned with our scientific credibility but with our effectiveness. A general rule for effective problem solving is to consider the issue as broadly as possible before proceeding. This involves taking into account as much information, and as many possible approaches, as one can generate in the amount of time available. Encouraging communication amongst the isolated factions of psychology, and giving the 'arts' oriented groups within the discipline a voice, would enable psychologists to consider more aspects of the problems facing them and give them recourse to a larger arsenal of approaches, hence increasing their effectiveness in the world.

Although cross-disciplinary approaches are not overwhelmingly valued at the present time there is evidence that they will be in the future. The various subspecialties within any discipline have too narrow a view to be really useful on their own. The trend towards cross-disciplinary collaboration is already quite evident in medical journals. Most articles have at least six authors. The endocrinologist, neurological anatomist, CAT scan technician, neurochemical specialist, and clinical psychiatrist are together able to address an issue like schizophrenia, although any one of them would be able to say very little. A specialist's expertise is of great value. It becomes even more valuable when integrated into a broader view. Butler states, "My language is a semi-scientific, semi-poetic personal language from many sources, a language that attempts the impossible; to be self-critical, subjectively responsible, and scientifically objective" (1995, p. 5). Perhaps such complexity is impossible in the work of one person, but for a community of individuals trying to understand and explain humanity the creation of such a language, which would then be available to all, should be conceivable. That is, if we are willing to talk to each other.


Butler, K. J. (1991). Art/sex/race/power. Unpubished notes from a series of performances.

Butler, K. J. (1993). Before sexual difference: The art and science of genital embryogenesis. Leonardo, 26, 3, 193-200.

Butler, K. J. (1995). All our bodies start in a state of sexual indifference: Modeling genital differentiation in the embryo. Paper presented at the International Colloquium on Scientific Discourse as Prejudice-Carrier. University of Western Ontario, London.

Danziger, K. (1990). Constructing the subject: Historical origins of psychological research. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, S. (1991). Genital embryogenesis. C Magazine, Winter, 21-23.

Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method (third edition). New York, NY: Verso.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (second edition). Chicago, Ohio: The University of Chicago Press.

Pinel, J. P. (1993). Biopsychology (second edition). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Rogers, C. R. (1965). Persons or science? In F. T. Severin (Ed.), Humanistic viewpoints in psychology (pp. 163-170). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shotter, J. (1993). Cultural politics of everyday life: Social constructionism, rhetoric, and knowing of the third kind. Buckingham: Open University Press.