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
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.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish children told 'the non-Jews' are 'evil' in worksheet produced by London school
- 2 Moscow voted the world's unfriendliest city
- 3 The excuses your boss is most likely to believe when you call in sick
- 4 I'm pansexual – here are the five biggest misconceptions about my sexuality
- 5 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
JK Rowling announces Harry Potter's son is starting at Hogwarts
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
Loose Women poll asking if rape is 'ever a woman's fault' sparks backlash
Akram Khan: Choreographer says dance is 'as important as maths and being a doctor'
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches, it's time to act
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up