No-one doubts that science and the arts are two different fields of study.
CP Snow described the relationship between them as the ‘two cultures‘ – and it’s fair to say the extent to which that definition has stuck demonstrates how pervasive the idea continues to be of two disciplines, each stuck in its own sphere, set in opposition to each other.
And there even persists some notion of the two doing ‘battle’. Proponents of – often also students of – each discipline as the ‘best’ tend to get sucked into the argument, the victor supposedly the one that can demonstrate its utility, its benefit to society, and its contribution to the onward march of western progress. And often it’s science, largely because of its supposed measurability, that wins out.
Witness, for example, how much easier it is for the coalition government to ringfence education spending on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), while decimating the investment in Arts funding.
And yet, obviously, both have massive value, and particularly where innovation is concerned. In a brilliant interview in the Guardian today, John Maeda, a graphic designer and computer scientist, says that a condition of innovation is the presence of both divergent thinking (arts, design) and convergent thinking (science).
Put crudely, this means an artistic mindset to find new ways of seeing a problem, and a deductive one to get things done.
Alfred North Whitehead, a 19th century mathematician and philosopher, said one of my favourite things about the need for both impulses: “Ideas won’t keep. Something needs to be done about them.”
It’s much more complicated than that, of course, but the point is innovation happens at the crossover between the two. Indeed he makes the point that much of what we think of as technological innovation is in fact design-led thinking – he cites the iPod and mint.com as two pretty strong examples.
The symbiosis between science and art is a given, to my mind. As a final irony, Maeda points out in the Guardian article that the government’s messages about the prioritisation of science are being communicated with the use of some of art’s most powerful tools – such as images and the written word – that exist in most of our minds as givens.