Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Good or Misunderstood?: The Wicked Witches of Art and Science

by Kate Hudson

As someone who works in public engagement across research subjects, the boundaries and gateways between disciplines fascinate me, and it was the simple and complex connections between art and science that interested me in the Celebrate Science Author in Residence project. Now called upon to articulate this interest, I have turned the subject over in my mind for several weeks, not quite understanding exactly what I find so challenging about art and science. Of the two areas of expertise, I sit firmly in the arts camp. I studied art and literature, worked for a while in design and continue to write and produce work in my own time, for the pure thrill of feeling creative. Yet I am somewhat turned on by science. There, I said it.

Creativity grounds me; it allows me to make sense on my own world, ensures I don't fall down too often by my own doing. Yet science awakens me; it allows me to understand far more about life than just my own perspectives, and for that I am ridiculously grateful.

So you would think then, that I would be able to wax lyrical about the intertwining worlds of art and science, yet somehow the subject was escaping me, as if there were two characters on a stage, poking and provoking one another, deftly skirting around the truth of their relationship.

It was the world of arts that broke through and inspired me on this occasion, a lyric from a musical in fact. In Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, we see two unlikely friends grow to become the characters we already know as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North, famous from L. Frank Baum’s stories of Oz. The characters struggle through personality clashes and opposing viewpoints, not least their responses to the Wizard's corrupt government, and ultimately, the story sees one of them suffer a very public fall from grace. The lyric that struck me was one made famous by Idina Menzel, who originally played Elphaba, the misunderstood girl who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Devastated to find out that the Wizard is not the man she thought he was, Elphaba vows to fight back and break free of the rules in her world, concluding that it’s “time to try defying gravity”.

I thought how wonderfully empowering this lyric was, and then considered almost instantly, how ridiculous too. Like many metaphors in art, we are encouraged to think that casting off reality is pivotal, as living within boundaries is disabling. External influences in art have, across centuries, created the idea of reaching a state beyond reality: enlightenment. And herein lays the problem. Art seems historically set up to clash with science. Rather than be seen as parallel forces with which we push boundaries, explore the world and test our understanding of it, art has been a vehicle with which to overthrow science. Art has almost arrogantly assumed a power beyond science, considering scientists to be missing the wood for the trees. It is the subject of ‘Yes, but…”, often valuing the point but rubbishing the practice.

Science has had its victories, of course, but now embittered, seems to fight back against anything and everything that is anti-science, with all the grace of a scorned lover. At a performance of Uncaged Monkeys recently, I watched some of our leading scientific minds incite a crowd to whoop and cheer at the public flogging of non-scientific theories, reaching frenzy in the dismantling of faith and religion. I felt horribly uncomfortable, as though the universe was a prize, which you could only ‘have’ if you understood the science behind it. The message was that science is strong, science is true… doubters not welcome.

I am of course, pointing at the far ends of the spectrum. I gratefully see more and more science-art collaborations and regularly meet with minds that understand and appreciate the inspiration in both fields, seeking to make the world a better place to be with the practice of either, or both.

I do hope this continues. It would be terrible to see either science or art crushed to death by a falling house from Kansas.

Kate Hudson is Project Manager for Beacon NE, the North East Beacon for Public Engagement.

1 comment:

  1. I was nodding away while reading this, Kate. Most enjoyable and thought-provoking. I don't know which upsets me more: hearing arrogant and largely ignorant artists trashing science or arrogant scientists trashing religious faith. (But I really should spend less time on Facebook...)

    As I come towards the end of my residency, I too have been trying to track why I originally became interested in science after such a lamentable start at school. It was the excitement of new ideas and the contagious enthusiasm of scientists (Feynman, Dawkins and Pinker) for their subjects. Then what really got me going was the breathtaking clarity and excellence of their writing.

    I'm not a scientist, nor a believer in any religious faith for that matter, but I am a writer and I know a good thing when I see it.