Science and art. All too often these worlds are seen as conflicting, with little or nothing to offer each other.
The standard, stereotypical picture is of the artist as a creative creature, governed by raw emotion vs the scientist as an entirely data-driven being, objective and unemotional. But the stereotype has few roots in reality and this divisive approach weakens all sides at a time when both camps are under increasing attack and need to come together more than ever.
The Science vs Art mentality stems from early exposure to a school system that forces us to specialize, segregating scientists from artists and coercing students into making decisions that will disassociate them from one world or the other, often for the rest of their lives.
It’s an approach that does no favours to either side and far more needs to be done to highlight the great many things that both disciplines and their practitioners share. Scientists and artists are both, by their very nature, open-minded and curious and, ultimately, they are asking the same questions about life, the world around us, and how we fit into it. It’s just that they tackle those questions from different angles, using different methods.
“Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. ”
- Leonardo da Vinci
So it was with great excitement that I heard about an event late last year, called Culture Shock, celebrating the coming together of science and other areas of our culture. The day, organized by Fun Palaces and the British Science Association, saw talks and conversations with an eclectic array of speakers, all of whom extolled the virtues of breaking down barriers and forging collaborative partnerships that span the artificial divide between science and the arts.
It was a fantastic day; energizing and inspiring.
The conversations kicked off with Deborah Bull, former creative director of the Royal Opera House and currently Assistant Principal (Culture and Engagement) at King’s College London, who stressed how important it is to take risks, pointing out that, not only do they help you push boundaries but that, neurologically speaking, it is failure caused by risk-taking that creates the neural pathways that enable learning.
Colin Grant, radio producer and author of ‘The Smell of Burning’, a popular science book about epilepsy, spoke about storytelling, emphasizing that you don’t need specialist knowledge to tell a story well, that it's possible to convey a specialism off the back of some focused research. And when it comes to judging how you should frame a story for your audience Colin recommended an approach that he used when working for BBC Radio: assume that your audience is intelligent but ignorant and guide them through the story.
Psychotherapist, Philippa Perry, addressed the anxiety that can come with venturing into worlds that we’re unfamiliar with and elaborated on how to overcome those fears, stressing the need to accept your ignorance and ask lots of questions, catchily encapsulated by her exhortation to turn ‘What if?’ into ‘So what?’
Finally writer, Shelley Silas, and biomedical researcher, Lizzie Glennon, spoke about the positive effects of collaboration on those who take part in culture clashing projects. The pair discussed how cross-disciplinary partnerships not only encourage an exchange of knowledge but of mindset, approach and attitude. They experienced this directly when working together on a Fun Palaces event in Brixton, a collaboration that sparked a lasting friendship between the two.
Excitingly, this Culture Shock event was entitled ‘Chapter 1’ with the promise of more events to come. Keep your eyes peeled.
And this collaboration is by no means the only effort being made to build bridges between science and the arts in the UK. The work of organisations like Fun Palaces, the Science Gallery and the Wellcome Trust, all show that appreciation is growing for the ways in which science and the arts can enrich each other. Everybody involved in public engagement should embrace this growing understanding and help to nurture it whenever possible.
At Orinoco Communications we’ll be playing our part, helping to encourage and promote cross cultural collaborations.
Do let us know if you’re aware of any sci-art projects that deserve to be publicized and let’s make 2017 a year of cross-cultural productivity!
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in helping research groups from science, the social sciences and the humanities to bring their research alive and engage with the public.