“Contemporary art’s obsession with science”

The other day, I went to the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture at the Royal Society.

Siân Ede (Arts Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) was the lecturer, and it was rather disappointing on the whole. She’s clearly very heavily invested in Big Art, as I suppose you’d expect, and seemed to extend that to Big Science too. Her thesis – as the blurb for the lecture suggests, I suppose – was that Artists are inspired by Science, and occasionally Scientists are inspired by Art. Well… yes. This isn’t exactly news.

New technologies make new kinds of art possible, and new ideas in society inspire artists to comment on them or reflect them, by cheerleading, perversion, or polemic. This is because artists are people, and generally smart people at that – the kind of people who can see something and fall in love with it. Who want to make it the best it can possibly be, or who can’t help but prod and poke it obsessively till all the flaws and failings are out in the open.

And you know what? So are an awful lot of scientists.

I did ask, at the end, about that – “You’ve spoken a lot about artists who work with scientists, and vice versa. What about artists who are scientists themselves?” and her response was pretty unencouraging. It’s not possible to be both, it seems – though she did say there were a few rare exceptions, probably because I’d introduced myself as an artist who used to work in nanomaterials engineering and computer modelling. Being a scientist takes up so much of your time – writing papers, putting in grant proposals, and so on – and so does being an artist.

Bollocks it does. Those aren’t science, or art – those are paperwork. The annoying crap that people like her make you do so you can do the fun wonderful socially useful bit.

And art isn’t solely, or even mostly, Big Art. It’s thousands, millions, of people doing their thing, obsessing over some element of the world in their own way, informed by their own history and experience and knowledge. Big Art does some amazing things, but also some complete lemons (I’m thinking Angel of the North versus Hirst’s diamond skull here – your mileage may differ) and I don’t believe the proportion’s any different there to the rest of art. Big Science (and here I’m including Engineering and Technology, because they all fall into the category of People Doing Wonderfully Cool Things That Never Existed Before) is about the same.

Oh, and speaking of the Angel of the North – if that isn’t art’s response to technology, not much is. Hirst I’ll have to write about some more – she did explain some really interesting things about his work I hadn’t considered before.


Leave a Reply