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Thursday 22 July 2021

Arts Aplenty. Or Rather, Not

 “Get the scientists working on the tube technology immediately”Tenacious D, City Hall

I haven’t known many Politics graduates, but daily observation suggests a political class to whom science is a house servant, to be instructed or overruled as required, while the arts are a hobby like your cousin’s am dram or your widowed uncle’s watercolours. This is further borne out by the fact that we’re about to see a generation discouraged and diverted away from an essential sector of our society and economy.

One of the supposed aims of this government’s suppression of arts education is to drive students toward STEM subjects, which isn’t how it works. I’ve spent a life in the arts but I’ve engaged with scientists almost from the beginning and here’s what I’ve observed; they’re at home in my world but I’m a stranger in theirs, constantly challenged to rise to science’s rigorous way of processing information. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I couldn’t be doing what they’re doing.

Which is not to say we've no common ground. Every science grad I’ve known has had a keen off-duty interest in the humanities; widely read, music lovers, theatregoers—amateur magicians, even, and many have kept up with the instruments they learned at school. And unless I’ve repeatedly misread the room, they appreciate and respect those who practice the arts for a living.

(That said I’ve never met Richard Dawkins, whose outrage at any value placed on subtext, metaphor and mystery seems exceptional.)

It’s just that it's a different dynamic going the other way. We’re consumers of science every time we switch on a light or get onto a plane, but few people in the arts are scientists manqués. Most of us don’t have the maths. In worst-case scenarios you get those arts grads absurdly proud of their ignorance, much like Amanda Holden at a song contest; such people tend to equate personal opinion with scientific opinion, which leads to all kinds of problems.

But it’s really a difference in focus. Science puts the plane in the air while the arts give us Icarus, an unreliable treatise on solar radiation but a profound insight into eternal human folly. Science is a search for what things are, the arts are a search for what they mean. Those aren’t alternatives. Neither can thrive without the other.

These days it's possible to skip the arts and sciences and study for a political career. In his famous lecture on The Two Cultures C P Snow complained that our educational system's favouring of the humanities produced a ruling elite ill-equipped to deal with a science-driven world. That was in 1959. Progress since then; now they've no grasp of the value of the humanities either.