In his renowned 1959 Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” C. P. Snow ruminated upon the way in which Western culture is divided into people that define themselves as “artists” and people that identify as “scientists.” According to Snow, despite being “comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes,” these two cultures are separated by a “gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
While both cultures are generally concerned with the bigger picture – often the human condition – many scientists fail to understand how art can be as beneficial to humanity as science. This widespread prejudice against the study of the arts and the seemingly higher value of “academic” STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is founded on the notion that the latter hold greater significance within society and produce stable, lucrative careers. With rising tuition fees, many young adults who desire to enter the field of humanities are encouraged either to forego university or substitute their study of art, drama, or literature, for example, with that of mathematics, chemistry, or engineering.
There is no doubt that the study and application of these STEM subjects has facilitated great progress: computers, tablets and phones have become part of everyday life for many people, the development of renewable energies and electric vehicles represent key environmental breakthroughs, and to list just one medical statistic, infant mortality rates have fallen by over 50 percent in the last thirty years alone (per WHO).
It is not true, however, to say that the arts and humanities have not made a sizeable contribution to our societies. In times of international hardship, art has the ability to aid humanitarian crises. Concerts such as Live Aid in 1985 and America: A Tribute to Heroes in 2011 raised huge amounts of money for African famine victims and the families of the 9/11 victims respectively, whilst charity singles such as Sun City which opposed apartheid in 1985 and the many Comic Relief singles over the years support a myriad of different causes.
Music also directly benefits suffering individuals, such as those in migrant camps, for whom singing and dancing has the ability to act as a distraction from suffering, empower and establish community bonds. In Botswana, an initiative founded by UNICEF called Wise Up uses drama and performance as a way to raise awareness and facilitate discussion of HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, elements of photography and filmmaking are necessary for the effective communication of complicated subject matter in news reels, without which we would be uniformed. Michael Buerk’s images of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 demonstrate the importance of this aspect of journalism, as they inspired Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid the following year.
Music and drama, visual art and literature all often promote and aid self-expression and cultural understanding. Various forms of art have also been proven to reduce stress. A recent study (Kaimal, Ray & Muniz, 2016) has shown that after just 45 minutes of art-making, seventy-five percent of study participants experience significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Art therefore perhaps holds the key to combat the growing problems with stress in the modern world.
Let us not forget that art and science are often mutually dependent. Creative producers in radio and cinema for example rely on technology to create and distribute their projects. In an article in the Evening Standard, Professor Louise Archer at King’s College London states that “art helps us to think about big issues such as climate change and genetic modification” while Maggie Philbin, TeenTech CEO, asserts that “maths and science are at the core of computer programs that allow countless people to be artistic in ways they could not possibly have imagined.”
Perhaps the fact that art is ostensibly more accessible while science is largely removed from everyday experience and often requires a formal qualification is the reason for the widespread denigration of the former. Whilst Marc Quinn suggests that fundamentally “science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions” (The Guardian) we must recognise that both have demonstrated their potential to benefit society, not only independently, but combined.
Words: Alice Tuffery
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu
Cover Image: They Watch the Moon, 2010 by Trevor Paglen.