Should the Arts Council run by a scientist?

History shows that the gulf between science and the arts is artificial. Colin Tweedy, head of Arts & Business, thinks the Arts Council chairman ought to be science-based - but may well be a Tory politician
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The Independent Online

Nowadays, the Government insists that all the top jobs in the nation's quangos are publicly advertised. One recent advert has been for the chairman of the Arts Council England, the organisation that funds much of England's artistic activities. A range of candidates have put themselves forward for this unpaid job of dispensing the taxpayers' cultural largesse. But I doubt whether there are any scientists on the list. There will be fine upstanding business tycoons, media figures, philanthropists, maybe even some academics, but no scientists. Most people on reading this observation will shrug their shoulders and not for a moment think that it matters. Art and science do not go together, I can imagine them saying. But the majority of scientists work in research departments in universities and teaching hospitals, where juggling budgets, research grants, applications for funding and the competing egos of fellow scientists can be a daily occurrence. Who could be better suited to handle the complicated demands of the nation's artists, bureaucrats and politicians?

But more important than the ability to handle budgets and chair meetings is the message that the appointment of a scientist would have in addressing the artificial divide that has been created between the arts and sciences. A divide that has seen the arts increasingly marginalised in society in general and in education and government in particular. Science is seen as left brain - logical and analytical - the arts as right brain - the source of intuition and imagination. Modern man seems to say that the space between the two disciplines is huge. But is it? Paul Valéry, the French Symbolist poet, said "Science and arts are crude names, in rough opposition. In fact they are inseparable." Throughout history artists and scientists, like artists and business people, did not have separate social and intellectual worlds. The Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance or Enlightenment creator could be a skilled craftsman, philosopher, painter, sculptor, architect and scientist. Look at Brunelleschi, painter, sculptor, engineer and architect. Books are written on Leonardo da Vinci's scientific discoveries alone. Dürer and Morris were both artists and scientists. Scientists such as Copernicus and Pasteur were skilled artists; Einstein and Schweitzer were both renowned musicians.

The Dutch Nobel prize-winner Jacob van't Hoff said: "The most innovative scientists are almost always artists, musicians or poets." But is it still true today, in the first decade of the 21st century? There are some distinguished scientists who are very appreciative and knowledgeable about the arts. Indeed, many of them would make very challenging chairs of the Arts Council. But where have all the artists who are also scientists gone - are the likes of Da Vinci just one offs? There has been a rupture between science and the arts in modern times, indeed between the arts and many aspects of society, and all the video installations in the world cannot repair it. Some people point to the Enlightenment, when knowledge moved out of the studio and into the laboratory. The traditional designation of "natural philosopher" was replaced with the word "scientist".

But, curiously, the Enlightenment also saw the creation of the learned societies where artists, patrons, businessmen and scientists met and debated the great subjects, ideas and discoveries that were to transform the world. These 18th-century foundations - which included the strangely named Lunar Society - saw no boundaries between the arts and sciences. But today the 21st century learned societies seem shadows of their former selves, locked in their respective silos of thought and endeavour. Neil MacGregor, the new director of the British Museum, sees the establishment of the museum in 1753 as one of, if not the greatest example of the Enlightenment in these islands, where intellect, science, discovery and the imagination came together. Even though by the Victorian age the high walls between arts and science were beginning to appear, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, in creating the 1851 Great Exhibition and its legacy in the museums in South Kensington, brought scientists, engineers, artists and designers together to celebrate Britain's global interests. Perhaps the Millennium Dome, padlocked and decaying at Greenwich, is a fitting image of the dysfunctionality between arts and science in our century.

As science charged forward over the past 200 years, the arts appeared to rebel against the profusion of the new technologies. As the artist was no longer required to represent reality, many took to challenging and deconstructing it. From the Romantic poets onwards, the artist paid heed not to numbers, but to his own soul. The rest was mere machinery. In some ways, art has tried to find its way back to science ever since from the Cubists, the fascination of the machine by the Futurists and the mathematical dimensions of Schoenberg.

We live in a divided world. Not just between rich and poor, East versus West; science, economics and business sit on one side, art, emotions and personal values on the other. The divides are destructive, indeed explosive and potentially lethal. Universities complain that they cannot attract the talent base into science that the country needs, while the arts faculties are bursting with would-be changers of the world order. But science is seen as central to our modern world and the arts seen as peripheral to debates on what society we want to live in. But the arts are more than entertainment, and science is more than the next business idea.

So will the next chairman of the Arts Council be a scientist? There could be lots of potential candidates to chose from. There are many prominent scientists who travel between both worlds, such as John Barrow, the Cambridge cosmologist who has written a play called Infinities and Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, who speaks with conviction on the issues that edge along the gap between science, culture and ethics. Lewis Wolpert is a polymath who has done a huge amount to popularise science within the broader issues of responsible society. Richard Dawkins, one of our most famous scientists, would bring great intelligence and innovation to any Arts Council meeting.

Tune into Radio 3's Private Passions any weekend, and more often than not you will hear a leading scientist illuminate the discussion with remarkable insights into the arts and their love of a particular piece of music. Three such scientists this year were Malcolm Longair, a Jacksonian professor of natural philosophy at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, Robin Canter, the founder of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at Liverpool University and Steven Pinker, the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center of Cognitive Neuroscience.

A dialogue between the arts and science is essential if we are to make sense of this modern world. Science continues to push back its boundaries. Science moves forever closer to the conscious and unconscious perceptions of the divine; the ability to shape our identities and our species; the land and language once the sole preserve of the priest and the poet. Richard Hoffman, a Nobel prize-winner for chemistry said, "The synthesis of molecules puts chemistry very close to the arts. We create objects that we then study, for others to appreciate.

The arts have always sought to answer the questions, "What is life for and how do I live it well?" Scientists from the Renaissance onwards have asked themselves the same question. But the answer will not come from the laboratory. The ethics and values of the good life are to be found in the arts, not the test tube. But without the test tube many will not live life at all. One chairmanship alone cannot bridge the divide, but it is a beginning.

Three of the four last candidates in the race are already known: Sir Christopher Frayling, Sue Hollick and William Sieghart. The fourth candidate is curiously being kept a secret. Is it a Nobel prize-winner, to be dramatically unveiled at the last minute? Much though I would like it to be, if I were a betting man, my money would be on Michael Portillo being revealed as the mysterious fourth man. All will be known any day soon.