two cultures?

This week I was honoured to be the invited speaker at the 5th National Conference of the Italian Colour Group. I decided to address the meeting about two of my research projects that to some extent attempt to bridge the gap between art and science.

In 1959 CP Snow – a Cambridge University academic – delivered a famous lecture entitled The Two Cultures that led to heated and widespread debate. Snow argued that the lack of communication between the sciences and the humanities was a problem that inhibited solution to the world’s major problems.

I believe that Snow’s argument is still valid today. Interestingly I bought The Times to read on the plane to Palermo – where the colour conference was being hosted – and to my surprise that very day’s edition had a substantial article about The Two Cultures – http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6862299.ece

The Times writes that Snow said “There is something wrong with a civilisation, he said, where knowledge is so compartmentalised that people can count as highly educated and yet be wholly ignorant of huge swaths of what other highly educated people know. How could scientists not read Shakespeare? How could literary people never have heard of the second law of thermodynamics?

In terms of colour, I believe there was more cross-over between the sciences and the humanities in the 18th and 19th centuries than there is now. I am not convinced that the problem that Snow articulated has gone away. Perhaps the divergence between the two fields is an inevitable result of specialisation? Possibly, but I don’t think so. I think there is room (indeed, a requirement) for specialists. However, we also need to find a way for people working in colour to in the arts and humanities and in the sciences to communicate more effectively to each other. Because, we have much to learn from each other.

In my experience some scientists do not want to communicate outside of their narrow discipline. Others, would like to but seem unable to do so without recourse to specialist language (e.g. mathematics). In the arts, if anything the willingness to communicate “across the gap” is even less. 

One organisation that has worked hard for many decades to encourage debate across the science-art divide is the AIC (the International Color Association”. You can find their website here – http://www.aic-colour.org/

I know from the nice stats that wordpress provide that a lot of people read my blog. But not many people leave any comments 🙁

It would be rather wonderful if – having read this – you left your view at the bottom. Is there a gap? Is it a good or a bad thing? How can we bridge it?

ps. I am not holding my breath waiting for the responses 🙂

4 thoughts on “two cultures?

  1. The Society of Dyers and Colourists is also aiming to cross the science/art divide in terms of colour and design with our online journal COLOUR: DESIGN & CREATIVITY http://www.colour-journal.org. [Steve, I guess this is more of a plug than a discussion of your post – but a comment all the same!] 🙂

  2. Hi Steve,

    Hope you enjoyed Palermo. I’d just like to say that in general I think arts people are much more educated about/sensitive to science than the other way around. It’s quite common for artists to be inspired by science – Picasso and Einstein, computer artists and Mandelbrot, Michelangelo and the anatomists, Mantegna and the Humanists, Brunelleschi and perspective, Piero Della Francesca and proportion, Leonardo and all the sciences. etc etc. It’s also a typically British problem – in Japanese or Italian culture for example, most people know more about the arts than their counterparts in the UK. To generalise, we are a particularly philistine nation, I’m afraid. And again, Science not only solves problems but can also cause them: CFS in fridges, and lead in petrol, to name but two ‘solutions’ produced by the same individual, have had devastating effects on the environment, because the individual chemist involved was only looking at local, isolated and non-holistic solutions to particular engineering problems. Artists and creative people have to be sensitive to the entirety of their world and very often draw on scientific thinking as a basis and inspiration for their work. The scientists I’ve found who are most sensitive to the complexities of art-making tend to be physicists working at a high level of abstraction, perhaps because lab-based research inevitably focuses on empirical observation of highly limited sections of the world in isolation, and its easier to lose sight of the overall picture.

  3. Yes, I do think it is a particular British problem and I think CP Snow recognised that. Although the problem does exist to varying extents in other countries. And your point about the dangers of isolated science that fails to see the big picture is well made.

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