Vice President’s Welcome: Science and Art

By Professor Clive Barstow

Society allows artists to explore what we don’t know in ways that are distinct from the approaches of science, religion and philosophy. As a result, art bears a unique responsibility in the search for truth. 

Ai Weiwei 2013[i].

Welcome to the 8th edition of NiTRO, in which we revisit the ongoing art-science debate both within academia and as a way of expanding our understanding of the world. As Ai Weiwei suggests, art offers a particular approach to knowledge that is distinct from the sciences, but the notion of ‘two cultures’[ii] is a phenomenon that perhaps best suits the politics of division than the actualities of our inter-related disciplines, and their collective contribution to a rounded and more informed modern society.

C.P. Snow, who was a seminal figure in my own art school education in the late 1970’s, pointed to the dangers of this division in our quest to gain wisdom[iii]. Yet, it could be said that Universities have played their part in the separation of the arts and sciences through, among other things, competitive research funding priorities, which in turn have driven a siloing of faculties as part of our natural evolution. Although Darwin might have been proud of our very survival, separation is now the norm, and like a Cartesian separation of mind and body, Universities perhaps no longer reflect an embodied approach to knowledge in which the arts and sciences should be, and once were, conjoined.

In Australia, our ongoing obsession with categorisation and measurement has served to further isolate the arts from the sciences, playing into the hands of the politicians who might seek to pander to the populist views of the use of science and the value of the arts. Even within the arts, we often chose to define Australian art as Indigenous and Non Indigenous, a sub definition that with all the best intentions only serves to polarise culture and separate it from everyday life, no longer representing our multi-dimensional and complex society. One might wonder if we are asked to differentiate the arts from the humanities, how this leaves our art schools as generators of much needed talent in a political climate where STEM, with a growing recognition of the social sciences, is being highly prioritised often it seems at the expense of the arts.

In the discussions about a post resources economy, the rhetoric around our smart country and the newly packaged innovation nation[iv] seeks to establish a language around business and entrepreneurial venture as the new creative black, a black based on a formula of applied corporate and scientific innovation but where open creativity and expression once played a central role. I suspect from the way that arts courses in the VET sector are proposed to be removed from access to support[v], that the innovation agenda will focus wholly on the vocation of science while ignoring the creative arts, as if the two were never co-dependent. Even though there is growing recognition of the contribution of the arts to the national GDP, are we still choosing to ignore a future in which robotics will replace much of our manual work? Our future world might only require employment for those involved in creativity and invention, for those who have been trained to care for one another, and for those with a strong social conscience to make our world better and more sustainable for everyone.[vi] In this post apocalyptic world, where will the artists be when we most need them?

There are so many questions: Does western culture accept truth only when science can explain it? Have we created a new black monster in which the arts are seen simply as a lifestyle choice[vii], and worse: dispensable? Is the STEAM agenda simply about recognition and legitimacy within our Universities? Is the focus on the impact of the arts within ERA measurable using scientific tools? Finally, as Ann Moyal suggests, should we have some new mechanism to advise the government about value and about balance?

I hope you enjoy the contributions to this ongoing debate at a time when the arts and sciences seem more separated than ever, but at a time when politically at least, a more inclusive and more cohesive language needs to be proposed.


[i] Weiwei, Ai. 2003. Quote from the sculpture Iron Tree. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK. https://www.ysp.co.uk/ysp-media/press-releases/new-exhibition-by-ai-weiwei-opening-in-the-parks-newly-refurbished-18th-century-chapel

[ii] Moyal, Ann. 2017. The Need for a Chief Social Scientist in Australia. In Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences: It’s Everyone’s Business. CHASS. Edited by Joseph M. Siracusa. Routledge UK. 62-72.

[iii] Snow. C.P. 1964. A Second Look. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, UK.

[iv] https://www.innovation.gov.au/page/agenda

[v] https://theconversation.com/arts-training-is-an-essential-part-of-an-innovative-nation-67303 

[vi] American Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich keynote address at the Universities Australia conference 2017. https://vimeo.com/207189940

[vii] http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/are-the-creative-arts-a-lifestyle-choice/7964662