Art – Science’s Poor Cousin?

Art, glamorous as its image may seem, struggles to be taken seriously as an academic discipline in universities. Perhaps as a consequence, there is the constant shortage of funding for arts education.

Marjorie Garber, Professor of English and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, and served as Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts lamented in her essay Patronizing the Arts:

The arts are often still consigned to a secondary role within universities, sometimes viewed as not intrinsically intellectual, or not intrinsically academic. Even when a university invests significantly in the creative arts … many scholars and academic administrators remain unconvinced: Arts do not seem to lend themselves easily to the “tenurable” standards of other university subjects.

She goes on to describe arts program in a modern university as ‘what business calls a “loss leader” – an appealing product offered at a nonprofit-making price in order to attract buyers.’

What is her remedy? She would like to see the arts adopt some science strategies. She wants art to be “Big Art”, like how “Big Science” came into being after the second world war – with massive government funding and public adoration.* To achieve this, she wants the arts to subscribe to academic traditions of judgement and peer review and thinks today’s artists need education in physics and chemistry as well as history, philosophy and literary theory.

She’s not alone. James Cuno, the President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, recently wrote in Daily Dot about How Art History Is Failing at the Internet . Cuno’s argument is that art historians are not making the most use of internet technology and sharing enough of their findings – but rather holding on to information until a piece is ‘fully baked’ and can publish to the writer’s sole credit. He suggests that art historians should freely share their research as it occurs and working collaboratively to develop the material, like scientists do.

Both Cuno and Garber I think aim to inject a bit of the scientific process into art. I am just not sure if art will be the same after.

But then, just what exactly is art? ** I guess its definition evolves, if there really can be one.


*   “Big Science”came after its spectacular success in developing the atomic bomb to end the war, bringing about the massive government-military-industrial complex. Not all scientists consider it a blessing. Even Eisenhower, in his final speech to the Nation as president in 1961, observed: Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.
**   The question is really at the core of this website – I will have a future post on the very scientific nature of our visual, physiological process, our act of seeing and learning.

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