To mention art and science together invites a comparison, one that is intrinsically unbalanced. Not only are they in essence diametrically opposed, but the impact of one on society is ubiquitous and profound, whereas that of the other is decidedly less so. This distinction is made most clear when considering the role of each in society and its influence, on a personal level, on the ordinary citizen of the planet.
Science as a way of thinking and problem solving, and its application toward technological innovation, has a predominance today that is unprecedented and steadily increasing. We endow science with enormous cultural authority because it has revolutionized the way we communicate, access information, do commerce, travel, entertain ourselves, receive medical care, and on and on…
Conversely, art’s accessibility and capacity to have meaning for the majority of people has appeared to lose ground—and with precious little ground to lose to begin with. Audiences crowd into art museums, but whether this is in pursuit of truly meaningful art experiences or an opportunity for cool selfies is debatable. Here in the center of the art world many artists and galleries struggle merely to survive. Answering the query of what art actually does for society, beyond being an investment opportunity for those able to invest, is not so easy. The notion that market success is an indicator of quality in art is an exceedingly fragile one, especially when considering the general lack of art education in society. Currently, art is a luxury, not a necessity, and as such is the first to be cut in schools or for funding. This lack of art education is a very difficult problem to solve, because it is not a standard we are merely trying to re-establish, but one we have perhaps never had. Those of us who have devoted our lives to art know its unquestionable value, but in a society changing extremely quickly with exponential growth in technology, art must consider ways to recontextualize itself to be more accessible and meaningful to a wider audience.
As an artist, I have largely embraced the connection to science, perhaps because when I was in art school the zeitgeist was that if art was beautiful, it could not also be conceptual; and that era’s conceptual art was aesthetically less interesting to me. As a science-minded person, this was an affront to me, for I see the structures of the natural world and the description of the forces of the universe to be aesthetically unparalleled, and the scientific concepts that describe them to be intellectually challenging and awe-inspiring. The result of a rigorous thought process and method, science is the pinnacle of aesthetics yoked with the ultimate conceptual adventure. But perhaps most importantly, these ideas are linked to a truth that is true whether anyone understands or believes it or not. This truth is independent of, and therefore transcends, all obstacles of social class, race, gender, and other compartmental descriptions of ourselves and is free for everyone to access: all one need do is make efficient use of one’s brain capacity given upon birth.
The overwhelming influence of science when compared to art pressures the art part of the art/science connection to present results that are somehow scientific. But this is unbalanced, and undermines the real strengths of art in the potential partnership. The role of art in disseminating ideas, awareness, and philosophical positions, as well as fueling a palpable sense of inspiration and discovery, is an extremely important role that needs to be nourished. Great art does not come from nowhere. It needs an ecology of ideas to take root and flower to inspire or impart truths about ourselves as a species and as individuals, truths that can be at once objective and subjective—a simulation of the fullest spectrum of the human experience. In this sense, a society in greater possession of aesthetic intelligence is one better equipped to transcend the psychological obstacles that hold our current society in a state of paralysis. Art holds license to speculate freely, and when paired with select components of scientific inquiry has immense potential not in serving science, but in taking on a more relevant role in serving society. Science has brought us to an age where religion increasingly makes less sense, but while providing the means to make nuclear weapons or artificial intelligence, it says little about how best to use our newfound powers. The arts are essential and necessary not only because they educate and inspire, but crucially, because they are the very conscience of our species—and its repository of wisdom. The juggernaut that is science is the center of human society, and if art can further its reach with a bit of help from a distant cousin, we lose little in the investment.
Daniel Hill is an artist and curator based in New York City.