Friday, March 03, 2006

Singing for their supper

I recently saw Gregory Colbert’s show “ashes and snow” in Santa Monica. The art cognoscenti look down on Colbert; his work is too accessible and too popular.

This condescension made me think about the very different attitudes artists and scientists have towards popularizing their work. Scientists make a point of trying to be understood. Many of the most prominent (Hawking, Greene, Pinker, Gould) write books accessible to the lay public. Of course, scientists need more money – telescopes and biotech machinery don’t come cheap. But I sense that scientists want to share their passion by making it accessible, whereas artists don’t.

Visual artists – the fine arts, that is, not movies – don’t deign to explain their work. A charitable explanation is that they think their work appeals so directly to the emotions that it doesn’t need to be explained. Perhaps they don’t feel that writing about art helps. Apparently a famous dancer (choreographer? couldn’t find the quote online) once said this after being asked about the meaning of a piece: “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.”

For my money, they just can’t be bothered to talk to the unwashed masses. Fine Art is a much more insular creative occupation than science. One only has to satisfy a miniscule audience of curators and collectors to succeed commercially, and one has to satisfy no-one but yourself if you’re a purist. Scientists have to pass peer review and extract grants from bureaucracies.

Artists always bemoan the lack of government support for the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts budget is about $120 million/year. The National Science Foundation budget is more than $5 billion. Purely on the basis of these numbers, one might say that the sciences are deemed to be fifty times more socially useful than the arts. (Curiously, elephants weigh about fifty times as much as people.) If artists did a better job at popularizing their work, perhaps the gap would not be quite so big.