Art and science: a love story

Posted on: December 7, 2009

I got a chance to visit the inspiring Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at MOSI a few days ago. The word polymath is perhaps over-used these days – certainly a man of da Vinci’s incredibly diverse talents still puts most of the human race into the shade.

He believed, absolutely, that there is no art without science. His intense curiosity about the world around him led him to be a painter, engineer, inventor, musician, scientist and mathematician.

Leonardo da vinci

Leonardo da vinci

I think that is more difficult today. A few hundred years ago, different branches of science and philosophy were more closely intertwined, and scholars often crossed over between what we would now consider to be disparate branches of knowledge. As world knowledge grew, specialisms developed and the sciences (what we would now broadly distinguish as biology, chemistry & physics) grew apart from each other and from the arts and humanities.

With this came culture change – and not in a good way. In the national mindset, arts and sciences became two foreign lands: arts people would perfectly happily confess their ignorance of scientific matters, and scientists would do likewise with art and philosophy. It became OK to be selectively ignorant.

This led to the novelist and scientist CP Snow to give his famous “Two Cultures” lecture in 1959, out of pure frustration with the way that otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people would put up imaginary barriers to their wider learning.

Innovation often happens ‘at the edges’ – the interface between different groups or sectors or disciplines – but we often have to achieve this despite of our standard school curriculum and national culture.  I generalise of course. But there’s much more we could do to bring different arts and science disciplines together. I vote that as a nation we start mixing things up a lot more. It’ll be fun, educational and productive – what more could you ask?


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