Natasha Drake, May 18th, 2021
May 18th, International Museum Day
Art and science, the two halves of progress.
As children we are taught that art can be a representation of reality, an expression of the abstract, and an exercise in beauty. Science, on the other hand, is observation, experimentation, or something much more tangible, such as solving a problem. Very early on we are asked to choose which of these two paths, art or science, we want to follow; by our teens, we may have already decided the kind of education we want, what extracurricular passions we want to pursue.
Certainly, the choice between art and science is not without external conditioning. The scales will always be tipped in science’s favor. An Italian proverb warns us that though we may make art for a while, artistic inclinations should eventually be abandoned: Impara l’arte e mettila da parte. Learn art and put it aside. Art is no way to make a living (except, perhaps, a hardscrabble one). Yet this belief has not always been so.
The dichotomy is, in fact, a child of our modern age. For over three thousand years art and science enjoyed the same good fortune and prestige, with artistic and scientific talent happily coexisting in the minds of the world’s most brilliant innovators. You might not know that The Greek word τέχνη (téchne), from which the word technique derives, means precisely that: art. In the broadest sense, art can be defined as technical expertise. It’s simply knowing how to do something well — artfully — regardless of whether that something involves the making of a monument, a machine, or a medicine.
History and prehistory easily demonstrate this. The pyramids of Egypt are the result of the combination of architectural, mathematical and astronomical knowledge, while the Renaissance was undoubtedly the absolute emblem of the transversality of human ingenuity. Just think of Leonardo Da Vinci: mathematician, philosopher, multidisciplinary artist, engineer, anatomist, botanist and much more… !
After all, art and science are two instruments, both useful for the interpretation and communication of reality. Together they express the values that define the spirit of a civilization, of an era. The poster for International Museum Day is particularly apt in this sense. It depicts someone wearing AV goggles, upon the surface of which we see two hands clasped around a plant. The motto: "The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine”.
Our society’s spirit has been profoundly shaken by the pandemic, and because of it, our societal values are undergoing radical transformations. The prolonged closure of movie theaters, concert venues, and museums has not only caused enormous economic damage, it has also significantly stunted cultural growth and revealed the low rank of art on our political institutions’ list of priorities. But we should not despair! Greek etymology, once again, suggests an interesting interpretive key: the word crisis (κρίσις) originally meant choice. If we want to rebuild, recover, and reinvent the future, we must first decide — choose — where to begin, and how.
Returning to the International Museum Day poster, the vision depicted on the AV goggles suggests the direction the rebuilding should take: environmental conservation and the pursuit of justice. It's no coincidence that each year since 2018, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has promoted four of the United Nation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. (For more on this, see our recent blog article on the International Day of Happiness.)
The idea is to highlight the fact that museums are, to quote ICOM, "non-profit, permanent institution[s] in the service of society and its development," and that, as such, they can and should be actors of social change. By organizing and promoting more targeted and specific cultural events, museums can help us understand reality, its needs and urgencies. Quality instruction is among the four objectives selected for the year 2021, as an integral part of education; but instruction also means offering a more conscious, critical, and informed point of view on the world, and therefore giving the opportunity to choose freely.
Recovering and reinventing oneself means understanding one's limits and, perhaps, going beyond them. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of a system of transmission of culture almost exclusively based on direct experience — on the physical presence of the user.
Recovering and reinventing oneself means understanding one's limits and, perhaps, going beyond them. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of a system of transmission of culture almost exclusively based on direct experience — on the physical presence of the user. This is why ICOM has called on all museums and professionals to develop alternative methods of creating, sharing, and transmitting culture. The call reiterates the need for a return to a harmonious symbiosis between art and science (and technology) as a necessary condition for the democratization of knowledge.
What does this collaboration translate into? Art and culture are increasingly heading towards digitization. Virtual reality, for example, allows for a more accessible and universal enjoyment of artistic heritage, and can prove to be an interesting and stimulating sensory experience, on a par with what we are traditionally used to. On the other hand, art can and must lend a voice to science, becoming itself a means for the dissemination of scientific knowledge, of raising awareness for those issues that need constant collective attention and effective promotion.
So, in the end, what does it mean to recover and reinvent oneself? To take advantage of the crisis to give impulse to a new Renaissance, in which intuition and genius, in whatever form they are expressed, collaborate in service of a single, fundamental goal: progress.