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Some thoughts about where science and art come from (and about why governments don’t need to pay for either of them)

One many significant dividing lines between, on the one hand, enthusiasts for free economies and free societies, and on the other hand those who favour a large role for the state in directing and energising society, concerns where you think art and science come from.

Those looking for an excuse to expand the role of the state tend to assume that art and science come from the thoughts and actions of an educated and powerful elite, and then flow downwards, bestowing their blessings upon the worlds of technology and entertainment, and upon the world generally. Science gives rise to new technology. Art likewise leads the way in new forms of entertainment, communication, and so on.

While channel surfing a while back, I heard Dr Sheldon Cooper, the presiding monster of the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, describe engineering as the “dull younger brother” (or some such dismissive phrase) of physics. The BBT gang were trying to improve their fighting robot, and in the absence of the one true engineer in their group (Howard Wolowitz), Sheldon tries to seize the initiative. “Watch and learn” says Sheldon. Sheldon’s attitude concerning the relationship between science and technology is the dominant one these days, because it explains why the government must pay for science on the scale that it now does. Either governments fund science, or science will stop. Luckily governments do now fund science, so science proceeds, and technology trundles along in its wake. Hence modern industrial civilisation.

If the above model of how science and art work was completely wrong, it would not be so widely believed in. There is some truth to it. Science does often give rise to new technology, especially nowadays. Some artists are indeed pioneers in more than art. But how do science and art arise in the first place?

Howard Wolowitz is the only one of The Big Bang Theory gang of four who does not have a “Dr” at the front of his name. But he is the one who goes into space. He builds space toilets. He was the one who actually built the fighting robot. Dr Sheldon Cooper, though very clever about physics, is wrong about technology, and it was good to see a bunch of comedy sitcom writers acknowledging this. After “Watch and learn”, Sheldon Cooper’s next words, greeted by much studio audience mirth, are “Does anyone know how to open this toolbox?”

Perhaps the writings of Terence Kealey are starting to have some effect upon the popular culture. A scientist himself, Kealey is now one of the more prominent writers who has confronted this Science Causes Technology equation by pointing out that the truth is almost entirely the other way around. Technology, Kealey asserts, is the foundation upon which the best science tends to be built, technology itself quite often having been developed in defiance of rather than in accordance with existing scientific doctrines, with science only later catching up. Only when some particular sort of technology becomes very widespread, and a supply of people is needed who understand the principles upon which it is based, does the relevant new scientific “discipline” get established, paid for by those commanding the technology that the techno-workers now need to understand. Primitive steam engines preceded the correct scientific understanding of gases under pressure. Germ theory began as an exercise in chasing germs and saving lives, not in the brains of already established scientists applying their grade A scientific education to a real world problem only after they had obtained that education. Historically, technology had been jogging along quite impressively for many centuries before science, of the sort we would recognise as such now, got into its stride. And even today’s university-based scientist-entrepreneurs are often really load-fire-take-aim, suck-it-and-see technologist/go-getters, who treat university science faculties more like mad-inventor garden sheds than regular academic venues. They prove their science to be science by making it work, by making it do something useful.

None of which requires government funding. Just venture capitalists, crowdfunders, generous aunts and uncles, or just hobbyists with time and money to spare paying their own way. One of Kealey’s central points is that an economy’s total science spending is not dependant at all on how much the mere government puts into the pot. As political money gets ever tighter in the years to come, Kealey’s argument, despite him being, academically speaking, in a minority of approximately one, will be sucked into greater prominence, by politicians looking for an excuse to cut funding for science, and for everything else.

And what of art? Let me again quote from that book about medieval English history, Nicholas Vincent’s A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485), that I have recently been reading, because he happens to describe where art comes from rather well, in this passage on page 362, about a notable maker of church bells:

The London bell-maker, Richard of Wimbish … was so well regarded that at least seven of his bells still survive to be rung today in parish churches from Devon to Kent and from Oxfordshire to Suffolk. We know this because, like some glass-painters and a few of the more exceptional masons and skilled artisans, Wimbish ‘signed’ his work. From the ranks of anonymous labour, the artist had been born.

Almost anything, if done really well and if done repeatedly, can be art. Having an eye, and in this case also an ear, for aesthetic considerations goes hand in hand with profit, providing whatever it is that is being contrived so artistically has a foundation in continuing usefulness. The useful arts mutate into Art.

Vincent’s next paragraph is about big guns, then typically made by the same kind of people and with the same metallurgical skills as those who made big bells. The Chinese, Vincent notes, may have invented gunpowder, but gunpowder is no good for anything besides fireworks if you can’t make guns that can accommodate and direct the resulting explosions without themselves flying into lethal fragments. I dare say that the development of those early artillery pieces was accompanied by pompous proclamations from the official “scientists” of the day that the laws of science, or God, or whoever, ordained that such devices could never work, and certainly never in the way that people of the Richard Wimbish (and Howard Wolowitz) sort were actually getting them to work. And then, when the Wimbish-Wolowitz tendency had proved that particular sort of science wrong, science was amended.

Notice how, in attempting to change my subject from science to art, I found myself veering back to science again. This is because both science and art spring from the same soil. They are different ways of thinking about things, different ways of making and appreciating stuff. Does it do the job? How and why does it do the job? What’s going on here? And: Is it a thing of beauty? What’s so beautiful about it? Would having one in my house or my garden or my church impress my friends or my subjects? Questions like that are asked of the same things, again and again down the ages.

Bringing the story towards our own time, when people now speak about “art” they typically mean painting pictures or making sculptures. But such activities did not begin as “art”, in the sense we now mean by the word, when speaking of art galleries and such. They began as attempts to impress, and later to record likenesses.

So it was that the invention of photography had a profound effect on “art”. Picture making having been going on for so long that it had become thoroughly accepted as art (as well as just something that was useful to advertise and to record likenesses), what were all the “artists” to do with themselves when the economic foundations of their trade were snatched out from under them? Many painters became photographers, keeping their clientele while changing their techniques. But what of the rest?

Recently there was a comment thread here about modern art, about how ghastly it is, how badly it bodes for Western Civilisation, etc. etc. But I believe that to be as pessimistic about the future of the West as some of those pessimistic commenters were, merely because of a lot of stupid abstract paintings, is to fall into the trap of regarding artists in the way they like to regard themselves, as a vanguard of civilisation (an “avant guarde”), rather than as mostly a rearguard. You simply cannot understand Modern Art without appreciating that it takes place in a technological space first developed by, and then abandoned by, the industry of making pictorial likenesses. Abstract art is, in many ways, a rationalisation of the fact that likenesses are now no longer demanded, on the scale of former times, from “artists”. It is primitive picture making, done in a part of town that used to be very grand but is now either stuck in genteel poverty, or in the other kind of poverty: a slum.

Old school art was a business as well as an “art”. “Modern Art” became like a bunch of children who are now mostly ignored, except when they misbehave. So, to keep on getting attention, guess what they have kept on doing. It’s something of a digression, but I can’t resist noting here that the resulting publicity machine that tells the world of all this foolishness is itself heavily dependant upon … photography. Could Modern Art be even as big as it is (and hence a source of such angst to those who are anxious about how stupid a lot of it is), without photographs to spread the news of what the Modern Artists have been getting up to?

As all that Modern Art misbehaviour becomes ever more tedious, degenerating from Outrage to mere irritation, I and many others have for some time now been detecting a distinct trend in Modern Art away from Outrage and towards the Fun of the Fair. (That’s part of what Mick Hartley was saying about Roy Lichtenstein, in the earlier piece the comments on which were linked to above, which linked to this.) Many Arts enterprises are now mutating from Art Temples to “visitor attractions”, or at least they are trying to. It is no coincidence that this trend away from the pomposities of High Art towards entertainment, visitor attraction, bums on seats, bodies in galleries, is associated with a time when political money for the arts is getting tighter, and you either get some paying customers or go out of business. Art, now getting somewhat less from the politicians, and maybe in the nearish future quite a lot less, has for some time now been switching back to trying to make itself useful, by at least being entertaining, and by such related means as attracting more visitors to nearby restaurants and shops, and more eyeballs to adverts.

The danger for the many “artists” who still depend upon public subsidy for their useless activities is that if art goes on reverting to being more useful and more entertaining, the question inevitably arises: Why does the government need to pay for any of this? Clearly art will survive no matter what, and indeed it will. In a world in which entrepreneurs and then contented viewers will happily pay for high class entertainment (like such things as The Big Bang Theory), why do you need arts subsidies, for second-rate, amateur entertainers who can’t cut it as real entertainers? No wonder many arts-ists are worried by this trend from Art towards mere fun.

This has been quite a long posting, and you might think that it ought to have been two separate postings, one about government funding for science (no need) and then another one about government funding for art (ditto). But I wanted to lump these two topics together, because in a very basic sense, I think that they are the same topic. Both science and art (especially good science and good art – and that really is another posting) spring from a vibrant, progressive, progressing, go-getting, acquisitive, inquisitive, life-affirming, life-enjoying world. Is a church bell science, or art? Both.

If the politicians really want to encourage art and science, let them stop fretting about these things by trying to micro-manage them, and focus instead upon a much smaller core curriculum, that really will make the world a better place by them doing much less to prevent the good life for everyone, and hence also much less to prevent the progress of art and science. If they want to get personally involved in such things as art and science, let it be at their own personal expense.

16 comments to Some thoughts about where science and art come from (and about why governments don’t need to pay for either of them)

  • RRS

    The commentary about the support of art is somewhat redolent of the essay The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art in Jaques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve (1989).

    However, the issue of “Government Funding” as the source of support for Science or Art leads to the much deeper issue of the question: What Is Government?

    If “Government” is to be perceived as a mechanism through which humans conduct certain of their relationships (rather than some imaginary entity that “does things”), we move to the next issue: How, by whom, why, and to what ends are particular relationships determined for conduct through that mechanism?

    There is empirical evidence of the varying results (some so unfavorable as to commend investigation) of those determinations and the ways of their being made.

    Instead, we generally flail at the results.

  • JohnB

    Yes, The Big Bang Theory is one of the few bits of television discovered recently that I can bear to watch.
    Quite refreshing to find something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

  • Fred the Fourth

    Re: experts vs “do-ers”, there’s the old (fake confucian) saying:
    Man who say it can’t be done should not get in way of man doing it.

  • veryretired

    My wife’s mother, a very fine lady in every way, was diagnosed about this time last year with some serious cancer. After a year of treatments involving both chemo and radiation therapies, she has returned to a near normal life, although the cancer is considered “in remission”, not cured or eliminated.

    The science involved in this story is so remarkably different, and so much more effective, than the largely ineffective steps that my grandmother’s doctors had at their disposal fifty years ago.

    As is so often the case, much of what the medical establishment believed then was shown to be wrong, and new therapies and surgical techniques have been developed which have altered our entire perception of what cancer is and how to deal with it.

    As in so many other topics, what everyone knew to be true in any numbers of scientific areas was not only incorrect, but spectacularly wrong. My favorite example of this was the scientific concensus that existed for a very long time that the earth was static, and the continents fixed in their positions, which was completely overturned by the evidence of tectonic plates and continental drift that was proven in the mid 20th century.

    All of this is a round-about way of saying that big, established science, like big, established art, is often the recipient of lavish funding and support from society, even as it proves to be backwards, or utterly sterile.

    The reason I oppose state science, or state art, is the same fundamental reason I oppose state industry, or state agriculture, or state education—whenever the pols climb on the bandwagon, the sheer weight of their ignorance causes the wheels to fall off.

    Let’s not forget that the pols, and their pet scientists, put all sorts of restrictions on early trains because of their considered opinion that speeds in excess of 20 mph would cause the blood to pool in the abdomen, causing the painful death of any passengers.

    They don’t know what they’re doing, and never did.

  • veryretired

    Very interesting, and somewhat related, article at the Weekly Standard about the ongoing fuss over a new book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

  • In my experience, engineers and physicists tend to hold one another in high regard. Making dismissive jokes about one another is part of that, though.

  • veryretired: All this is true. Huge strides have been made in cancer research, and bigger ones are around the corner. With individually tailored treatments for specific cancers and specific individuals, I think a situation in which most cancers, if not all, can be cured completely is no more than a few decades off.

    That said, I have seen too many people get cancer, receive long periods of treatment involving chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and other high tech treatment that has prolonged their life, but ultimately the cancer has still won in the end. The treatment itself has been horribly painful and has had horrendously unpleasant side effects, so the quality of that additional life has not always been very good. Of course, the only thing to do is to find better treatments without these side effects and in which the cancer does not win in the end.

    I’m not really making any point contributing to the argument here, other than that cancer is vile. Just a side observation.

  • Thanks for the tip, VR – indeed, excellent.

  • George Mulberry

    Sheldon Cooper is a typical very smart guy who thinks that because he is an expert in one field, he therefore knows everything about all other subjects as well. I suspect that he would be quite a fan of a centrally planned society, provided he was the one doing the planning.

  • llamas

    Trust me in this, there are plenty of engineers who think like Sheldon too. Plenty.

    There are also plenty of theoretical specialists who think like Howard. It’s not an ‘either-or’. Think Feynman – a name that has cropped up on TBBT more than once, and a personalty they all revere.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Yes – “modern art” is a form of skeuomorphism, preserving the way that people used to produce and look at art (galleries, hanging on walls) despite the fact that we created new technologies to produce art that don’t need that and allow for mass distribution.

    If Manet were alive today, he’d be working in cinema or advertising.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Feynman’s comments on one occasion about how he would trust himself over a group of 100 experts any time – because the average view of 100 experts could not possibly be profound – was pretty astute too. (It’s in one of his books – I’m not sure which one). I’d love to hear Feynman’s views on Climate Change. I have no idea what they would be – I’m not Feynman, and he was such an original thinker than any guess might well be wrong – but I’d love to hear them.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Michael

    There’s a TV movie about Feynman’s investigation of the Challenger disaster coming up tomorrow night, BBC2: The Challenger.

    Presumably already seen in the USA.

  • llamas

    “The Challenger” has not yet aired in the US. It is a co-production of the BBC and the US-based Science Channel,and apparently, the BBC got first dibs. I anxiously await its release. The short snippet of film that shows Feynman doing the ice-water demo at the Commission’s public hearings are about the only film record there is of his work on the investigation, I look forward very much to seeing a fuller depiction, even if it is dramatized.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Yes, I think we will all be watching it.

  • […] (in this case literally that) technology-stroke-science, of just the sort I was writing about in this earlier posting here about where science (and art) come from. It really is very striking how very much, in this […]