Science vs. Art

A little while ago some of the other writers and I had a conversation about the validity of art as a serious discipline when one of our writers encountered someone who completely dismissed the idea that science and art could both be asking the same questions.  The other writers and I agreed that science and art absolutely can be asking the same questions, and we were angered that this person was not open to even hearing an argument in favor of the opinion we share.

Even though it has been some time since we had this conversation, it has stuck with me.  It has stuck with me for a few reasons.  The most obvious is that I chose my field of study to be art, so of course I believe it to be a very serious, worthwhile discipline of study.  The other reason is that I know a lot of people do not share my belief, and that encounter one of our writers had brought that reality back to my attention.

One of the main arguments for valuing scientists, doctors, and engineers more than artists is that scientific fields require years of study, many more than most professions.  They are so intensively trained, and dedicated to attain those degrees, that not anyone can do it.  While in the mind of the public, theoretically anyone can decide to be an artist.  You do not even necessarily need to have a degree in art to become an artist.  Furthermore, STEM subjects have a more direct impact on the quality of everyone’s lives.  For example, advancements in medicine save more lives and new technology makes life easier and thus more enjoyable to live.  Since it is easier to see the direct benefits of STEM jobs, and it is clear those fields can only grow, as a society parents are more likely to push their children to pursue those fields, along with other jobs, such as lawyer, that are perceived to be stable and profitable.

Of course these are solid arguments, and there is a lot of truth to it.  It truly is a huge accomplishment to become a doctor or an aerospace engineer for example, and we as a society do need many of our young women and men to enter these fields.  I applaud everyone who succeeds in their efforts in STEM fields.

I do take issue with people actively discouraging others from exploring their creativity and the many potential opportunities the arts and humanities offer.  I take issue with people belittling the work of artists because they are not “highly trained.”  The best artists are highly skilled and hone their craft their entire life.  Also, to make truly compelling, impactful art, you have to be highly intelligent to encapsulate and question the human experience with nuance, subtlety, and a variety of layers.  Furthermore, I take issue with education systems cutting funding to the arts, and functionally forcing kids into STEM without allowing them the chance to explore and discover in what it is they are really interested.  All because “art is not practical” and it is more of a “fluffy hobby” than science, which is the “only” way to find truth about the world in which we live.

As it turns out, art can be remarkably practical.  Almost every object you interact with on a daily basis required some level of artistic design in its creation.  The car you drive required an artist to design the way it looks inside and out.  For every package for all the food and supplies you buy at the grocery store, there was an artist who decided the design, from the shape to the colors to the text arrangement on the label.  For every magazine or book you have ever picked up, there was an artist who worked on the cover and decided the layout of the pages to make it easy to read.  Behind every advertisement you see on the television is a team of artists coming up with new ideas and turning those concepts into content.  No movie would be possible to make without teams of artists working tirelessly behind the scenes and in post-production.  Even your computer, mp3 player, phone, and the website pages you visit required an artistic perspective to figure out what would look sleek and be comfortable and intuitive to use.

Even more important than the many practical applications of art are the questions fine art asks.  They are the same questions as science.  Both science and art are trying to discover truth.  Truth about us as humans and about the world we inhabit.  The main difference is the methods in which they both seek these truths.  Science experiments methodically to determine cold, hard, theoretically indisputable facts and answers.  Art explores our humanity and emotions through music, dance, literature, and visual imagery, but leaves the questions and answers it presents open to interpretation.

By insisting on promoting STEM at the expense of the arts and humanities, we are depriving ourselves.  We are depriving half of our brains of the creativity they need.  By sacrificing art, we are depriving ourselves of the richness of life and culture that defines, questions, and reminds us of our humanity.  The production of art is unique to humans.  It re-tunes us to our emotions and our personal connections.  It reveals our flaws and mistakes.  It exposes our capability for cruelness and kindness.  It reminds us how similar we really are to each other, while also raising issues of social justice.  Art proposes numerous possibilities for the future.  By baring hard truths about ourselves and questioning why our existence is the way it is and what it would be like if it were different, art has the potential to make us better people.

Not only that, but stimulating our creative side makes the logical side of our brains work better.  First year Harvard medical students are taken to a museum to study art to make them better doctors.  By studying art, they learn that even the smallest detail in the context of the whole image can change the interpretation of a piece.  This skill of perception directly translates to practicing medicine, since even a small symptom or detail about a patient could change a diagnosis.  Furthermore, the most innovative minds in history had to be creative to think about a problem in a novel way and dream of what could be instead of be confined by what had only been up to that point.

So, fostering creativity and artistic talent can only benefit us.  We should not value science over art, or place one on a higher pedestal by putting the other down.  Both science and art search for truth, and both have equal, yet different, worth.  Working together, they can provide a more complete picture of the truths of the human condition.

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2 comments on “Science vs. Art

  1. Yes, absolutely and positively, I could not agree more with your essay.

    Is anyone actually going to assert that, say, “The Brothers Karamazov” has no real bearing on reality because such a family never actuallly existed, and the whole thing expressed a certain way of looking at life that doesn’t happen to rely upon tangible, measurable phenomenon? I somehow doubt it.

    You are a fine writer. And this essay is a spirited defense of aesthetic sensibilities as a completely legitimate way of engaging “reality” (by which everyone seems to mean the world encountered “out there” in the form of a concrete, controllable materialist entity).

    Sigmund Freud once commented that we don’t really understand what beauty is, but he couldn’t escape the fact that we could not survive in the world without it.

    I am also reminded of some of 20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens’ musing on whether or not poetry is “real”. I wish I had a copy of his speech in which he made the following bold assertion about the nature of the relationship of the imagination to external reality.

    I will summarize from memory: Stevens proposed that the creative imagination does not “view” the world from a distance, as some object upon which it then acts; rather, said Stevens, it IS that world, just as surely as a blade of grass or the forest. He called this the “supreme fiction”. He also insisted that the actual words used to create a poem are exist as truly as any physical reality, because they have the ability to actively propel or repel us in certain ACTUAL directions towards all manner of problems, persons, and things.

    What’s more real than that?

    Here’s a couple of lines from Stevens’ poem “The Man With the Blue Guitar”, which he write upon seeing Pablo Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist”. You can relate, after having argued with the uber-rational “someone”:

    They said, “You have a blue guitar
    “You do not play things as they are”

    The man replied “Things as they are
    Are changed upon the blue guitar”.

    One of the many functions of art is to remind us of the underlying union of self and other, and self and world. That we are connected to or embedded with existence, and are therefore responsible to nurture it as surely as we would care for our own homes. Stevens settled on the term the “supreme fiction” to describe this state of being, because our being-in-the-world means that we are constantly transforming and being transformed by life.

    The “supreme fictions” that we hold in our minds and hearts will always determine our most fundamental attitude toward life in this world – whether we should pollute it, murder those different from us, empathically seek commonalities between the”us” and “them”…etc.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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