Art and science may both be ways of understanding the world, but that does not mean they are interchangeable enterprises. In fact, it's likely that a Richard Dawkins of the arts is an impossibility

Brian Eno asked an impertinent question earlier this week. Before handing the Turner Prize over to Damien Hirst he put this to the assembled gathering: "Why have the sciences yielded great explainers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, while the arts routinely produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history?" An impertinent question, whatever its larger pertinence, because the gathering in front of him contained quite a few of the people responsible for that writing. He was rewarded for his frankness with a slightly uneasy murmur, the almost imperceptible sound of fur being rubbed the wrong way.

It is easy to sympathise with the second half of his statement. Anyone who has ever tried to advance through the no man's land of the average catalogue essay will know what he is talking about - prose like barbed wire, leaving comprehension exhausted and dangling. But the more you think about his proposed solution, the clearer it becomes that it simply wouldn't work. Art and science may both be ways of understanding the world in which we find ourselves, but that does not mean they are interchangeable enterprises. In fact, it's likely that a Richard Dawkins of the arts is an impossibility.

One obvious thought offers itself at once: that is, that art and science have a very different attitude to complexity. The sales of popular science books, Eno argued, "indicate a surprising public appetite for complex issues". But while science certainly has uses for complexity, the enterprise is essentially dedicated to its diminution. The Grand Unified Theory, the holy grail of modern physics, is an attempt to merge many explanations into a single one. And, as the popularisers of science repeatedly point out, "beauty" is a term roughly equivalent to simplicity or clarity.

In the arts, though, complexity isn't a veil we wish to strip away from the world. It isn't a register of our failure to grasp some higher order of truth. This may not apply to all times, but it certainly applies to this century, in which art has been dedicated to ambiguity, the absence of categorical statement, the desire to excite a fruitful confusion in those who look at it. There can, then, be no simple equivalent of the scientific go-between, translating the arcane knowledge of professionals into something comprehensible to the ordinary joe. There simply isn't a right answer to the mystery of a Titian.

The blurb on the cover of a paperback edition of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene helps to illuminate the difference. It reads, "The sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius". Not bad for a blurb and spot on, as it happens, about one large appeal of popular science - its implicit promise to expand your sense of control in the world, to make you rich in facts.

But facts, even theories about facts, work in a different way in art because they are ultimately answerable to our own emotional proof. Barely anyone reading a popular work about particle physics would be able to put the book down and set off, full of enthusiasm, for their local particle accelerator. But virtually everyone has some access to the raw data of art.

In other words, if works of art are experiments in human perception, they are experiments which finally have to be conducted by each one of us individually. The results cannot be taken on trust because they will, by definition, vary from occasion to occasion. What's more, there is no obvious test of the validity of our findings except for a kind of democracy of the plausible. Someone might conceivably take the view that Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided, his controversial sandwich of bisected cow and random art-lover, is a profoundly moving meditation on the partition of India. It would be difficult, even for the artist, to argue that this was categorically wrong but such a person would be likely to persuade far fewer people than a more illuminating interpretation.

There is room for good writing about art here - for an infectious intelligence to go to work on the experience of looking at good and bad art - but it is unlikely to offer the same pleasures as the excellent writers Eno mentioned. Science, rightly or wrongly, offers us authority and a sort of certainty. (Stephen Jay Gould's essays are actually classic sermons in their form, beginning with a text - some natural curiosity - and moving outwards to a larger principle.) To put it simply, the best writing on science points towards the right answers; the best writing on art points us towards the right questions.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam