Art: what’s the point?

Photo by Ian Williams on Unsplash

Standing up for art often feels futile. It takes me back to twenty years ago, when I was at university studying for a degree in English Literature. Even taking into account time needed for reading set texts, research and writing essays, the old joke I often used to hear was probably well-deserved: “Why didn’t the arts student open his window in the morning? Because he’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

Somehow, reading books and talking about them never seemed as worthwhile as science or engineering. As us lit. students would emerge part-way through the day for a lecture on the narrative voices in the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, those studying medicine would be immersed in a course whose hours already resembled a full-time job. They’d be out in the real world following consultants round hospital wards, or dissecting cadavers, observing babies being born, and witnessing operations.

Similarly, it wasn’t hard to imagine those studying molecular biology or physics in their white coats, clustered around Bunsen burners, injecting bacteria into a petri dish or examining microscopic samples of slime scraped from the throat of a rare south American frog, simultaneously discovering and solving the mysteries of the universe.

These were the people, I figured, who would eventually go on to do impressive things, like those scientists currently drilling two miles below the earth’s surface in Antarctica. The things they may discover – new species, more knowledge about global warming – is stuff that really matters, that makes a difference to our existence.

As opposed to deconstructing a modernist poem or examining the chiaroscuro in a Mannerist painting. It was always so hard explaining why it was I doing English Literature – and more recently, Art History – other than because I loved reading and writing and was never any good at maths. Because really, what’s a novel or a painting – even if you do manage to produce one – when compared with eradicating disease or saving the environment?

And things haven’t changed in all the years since I was an undergraduate. Never does art have to justify its place in the world than in times of austerity: spiralling credit ratings, spending cuts, job losses, slashed benefits, general insecurity. Clearly, spare cash, if there is any, is better spent on things like social services, hospitals and schools, getting people back into work – the basic necessities of life – than, say, public art, more galleries, or saving a painting for the nation.

And so it should be. A vital piece of hospital apparatus – an incubator for keeping premature babies alive, for example – should win out over the arts every time. For fundamentally, art is unnecessary, inessential, often irrelevant and elitist, a luxury low down on the list of priorities.

But is it as clear-cut as that? For too long art has suffered from the “so-what” factor, making it a soft target that struggles to make itself relevant in the common polarisation of art and science. Pitted against each other like enemies, each one viewing the other with suspicion, as a threat, such a dichotomy – science=dull but worthwhile, art=fun but useless – can make itself obvious to children from an early age.

Which is sad because this wasn’t always the case. Throughout the ages the marriage of art and science was obvious in the design, building and decoration of sacred buildings, and I’m fairly sure the ladies and gentlemen of the renaissance never felt they could only be good at either one or the other, not both.

Exciting places where art and science intersected, the palazzos of Rome, Florence and Venice were sophisticated centres of innovation, attracting people who not only enjoyed abundant and opulent artistic lives, but who also took pleasure in exploring the material world with telescopes, microscopes, prisms and lenses. Such holisticism is evident in the use of the camera lucida or camera obscura, for example, in the paintings of Vermeer, Ingres and Van Eyck.

It’s obvious that much art would not be possible without science. The paper I write on, the pen I scribble with, the laptop I tap away at all help make creativity possible. Scientific apparatus also helps make the natural world accessible, and available to artistic potential. “We are all made of starstuff” said Carl Sagan, encapsulating art and science in one beautiful sentence.

It’s easy to forget too that art and science share skills and processes: formulating theses, assessing evidence, asserting ideas and backing them up with supportive data, moving debate forward. Writing an arts-related dissertation requires scientific detachment and objectivity, the adherence to rigorous scholarly protocol.

To compartmentalise art and science, to treat them as mutually exclusive, is to the detriment of our understanding of both. Or to put it another way, science is what we are; art is why we are.

If I get ill, the hospital with all its doctors and scientific equipment is where I want to be. Why? So I can get well enough to read, write, look at paintings, crochet, bake, sew...

Likewise, if my baby is born too early, it’ll be an incubator that she’ll need, not a trip to an art gallery. But as soon as she was able, I’d want her to know books, paintings, poems, music, theatre...

Because art is where we go at the end of the day when the work is done (or not done); indeed, art is what helps us get through the day. Because art helps takes fear away. It is a way of discussing and taking ownership of things that happen in our lives. It gives our feelings a safe place to go. If anything’s going to get us through this period of austerity, it’s art.

Art is where people go to escape, to forget, to survive, if not in a literal sense then emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.

Art builds community, social cohesion and national and individual identity, helping us to communicate and share values, to express our humanity. Who are you? In addition to a bundle of particles, atoms, cells, molecules and chemical processes, art can help you define, create and articulate your individuality. It’s where we go to be ourselves.

Art is the fundamental state of human existence. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” said Isaac Newton: even physics is based on the basic ingredients of storytelling, on narrative cause and effect, the elementary bases of art. What is evolution if not one grand narrative? While the Big Bang is the greatest “Once upon a time” of all time.

Ironically, there’s never been more public art, galleries and exhibitions all over the country, because it is in our natures to create something from nothing.

We are all artists. Even scientists.

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