By Rina Kaur
Growing up — especially in a relatively conservative society as I have — it’s likely you’ve heard the “pragmatist” view that the arts have no place in our world. It’s thought to be useless, impractical, and unnecessary. It’s seen as a waste of time and resources. Instead, only science and business serve to be the true saviours of humanity. Yes, science is absolutely important in the progression of mankind – after all, it has only been in these last few centuries that the Age of Enlightenment occured, and where scientists have not been persecuted for their observations. It has resulted in the discovery of things like penicillin and the importance of hand washing by doctors and surgeons, which in turn have all played their part in the doubling of the average human lifespan.
However, the arts also have a significant and indispensable place amongst us. Brushing it off only reflects the lack of awareness one has of how omnipresent its impact is. Contrary to popular belief, art is just as important as science. Here are some reasons why.
The place you’re sitting in right now necessitated the work of an artist.
You might be sitting at home snuggled up against your couch reading this, or in a cafe sipping your favourite cup of coffee, or maybe in the office. In order to sit wherever you are right now, bonafide artists had to create and design this space. An architect had to envision the structure, sketch a layout, and sort out its intricacies. An interior designer picked out the colours, the textures, and the palettes that neatly tie together into an environment that fulfils your wishes.
And this environment has an impact on your well-being. If you have ever payed a visit to an interior designer, you would know that they ask you what you are looking for – what colours you want, what style you desire, what feel you wish to have in your home. Now why do they do this? Why not just create what the designer envisions? Why not even ignore colours and the like and just give you a plain concrete box to live in? Well, it’s because art has an effect on our mood. Just being in an environment that is tailored to your every need can lift your spirits and remove any semblance of stress within you. Depending on one’s preferences, a room can range anywhere from being a sanctuary of peace to a village of vibrancy. Imagine yourself living in a dark, enclosed room with only grey concrete walls surrounding you. What effect do you think it would have on you?
According to science, it’d have pretty bad consequences on you. Research by Stephanie Liddicoat of the Melbourne School of Design, who visited several therapeautic spaces in Australia and New Zealand, found that spaces that contained a lot of concrete and limited natural light often increased anxiety in patients. Another study, published by The Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society in 2002, showed how the presence of daylight in a shop motivated buyers to shop, thereby showing the influence an environment can have on human behaviour. Aspects like space and colour are important too. Space gives us a sense of freedom. Colours influence our mood – evidenced by the fact that companies use specific colours to elicit specific emotions from you so that you’re more likely to pay for their products and services.
The ancient traditions of Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra have long valued the influence of art on our psyches, and scientific research today is increasingly supporting this idea. It’s not one to be skeptical of, really – the cold and colourless environment of prisons is depressing evidence of the impact our surroundings have on us.
Art defines society.
If you are familiar with the innumerable cultures of our planet, you might be able to identify the above pattern as being of Indian/Persian origin. The Paisley pattern originates from Ancient Persia, and today can be found in designs conjured by present-day Middle Eastern and Indian societies. Similarly, you would recognise Chinese art by its frequent use of water colours in its paintings, or Greek architecture by its iconic Grecian columns. The same could be said of music styles – you would undoubtedly recognise the sound of a Scottish bagpipe as being, well, Scottish. Art defines society. Without it, society is crippled with an identity crisis and rendered lifeless.
Philosophy, another form of art, greatly influences how a society functions, how its people behave, how they are governed, etc. For example, individuality is a value held in high esteem by American society. An individual’s personal goals and ambitions are held dear, and it’s this American ambition of achieving your dreams that has led to the proliferation of globally recognised pop stars like Madonna and business magnates like Bill Gates. While there remains much debate and controversy on whether such ambition can still be pursued by every American today (given the rising inequality), the successes of celebrities like Tom Cruise and even transgender actress Laverne Cox are illustrations that some opportunity exists. Contrasting American individuality is the collectivist culture of China. In China, the individual is seen as part of a bigger whole that is the community. Group harmony is prioritised over the individual’s needs and desires. One’s persistent pursuit of his dreams over the wishes of society may be interpreted as selfish behaviour, recklessly endangering the cooperation of all. Such contrasting values and behaviours between the two societies exemplifies the notion that art has a strong, if not fundamental, presence amongst us.
Art allows us to connect and collaborate.
Language – how would we communicate without it? It is through language that we have been able to share thoughts and ideas that help us progress together. Communication facilitates collaboration, which in turn facilitates group survival. In order for a scientist to make a discovery – and share that discovery – he or she needs to be able to write or speak about it. This very process of written and spoken communication is an art itself. One could argue that art is a tool of science – a sentiment shared by none other than Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman:
“In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference, and it’s a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself,”
Creator of the Feynman technique – a method of teaching and communication that simplifies concepts for you to understand – Richard Feynman often imparted his knowledge through spoken discourse, and he believed that language has a big role to play in our relaying of knowledge to others.
Interestingly, language not only helps in simplifying information, but in addressing its complexities too. Certain words are invented for certain fields of work and academia so that ideas and explanations can be accurately conveyed. For example, there is legalese. Legalese refers to the technical language used in legal documents. Phrases like habeas corpus are ones you wouldn’t find in the average novel, but instead frequently found in the domain of law.
Not only does language help in the realm of facts and science, but in conveying our emotions too. Through mediums of art like literature and poetry, we are able to express what we think and feel. Aside from language, art forms like painting and music allow us to experience catharsis.
Art and science are interrelated.
Art and science go hand in hand. Both concern themselves with the patterns of our world. Both also help us get closer to the truth. For example, literature like George Orwell’s ‘1984’ explores numerous political themes and predicts grim political outcomes, of which many have come true or are coming true today. Issues like state surveillance (“Big Brother is watching you”) and political correctness gone awry (the “Thought Police”) are present-day dilemmas our world is facing. The same can be said for numerous works of art, which often not only have aesthetic purposes, but also the desire to share views and perspectives that reveal truths about ourselves and the world we live in – truths we sometimes have been blind to.
Concrete examples of science and art crossing paths would be ergonomics and art therapy. Ergonomics involves the employment of design to shape a product that promotes psychological and physiological health. Ergonomic chairs, ergonomic keyboards, etc – they are products manifested from the blending of science and art. Art therapy teaches its patients to express themselves through art like painting and sculpting. By doing so, a variety of health benefits are produced, like mood regulation and increased focus. We also see this mixing of art and science when it comes to industrial design, where products need to be engineered to perfection.
If you’re ever been inclined to dismiss the importance of the arts, look around you. Recognize that the creation of so many things around you involved the genius of artists. The chair you’re sitting in, the book you’re reading, or the music playing over the radio – they are all manifestations of art. They have a necessary place in society. Art is just as important as science.