Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee
The Two Cultures

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Forty years ago,on 7 May 1959,the distinguished scientists and novelist CP Snow delivered a lecture that caused a famous stir.
He pointed out the growing chasm between the world of art and the world of science that he described as the Two Cultures [Ref: "The World Treasury of Physics,Astronomy and Mathematics" CP Snow "The Two Cultures" p741;Davis & Hersh "The Mathematical Experience" p50/60 {The Individual and the Culture}]. He saw a profound alienation between the two.
Rare then as now, he was one of the few great men of his day to span the divide. In his speech he suggested science would be the inevitable winner because science was providing all the answers.
Two Cultures (to be shown on Sunday 16 May on C4) revisits some of Snow' s ideas but with a very modern eye and a rather different conclusion.[Ref: Video: OB4]
Nowadays you might find fewer people with Snow's absolute confidence in science as our saviour. We have seen science lead us the wrong way too often since then. Splitting the atom never delivered a benefit commensurate with its threat. BSE showed that scientists who mock nature interfere with the natural food chain at our peril. We have been to the Moon at vast expense and it hasn't made much difference. New technology is accelerating at a pace where most of us can't keep up.Instead of liberating us for more leisure, it has made it possible and therefore inevitable that one person does the job of three.We may be grateful for the internet and mobile phones, but at the same time we are mightily more sceptical about science than in CP Snow's day.
The Channel 4 film tries to span the two worlds by suggesting that there is really not much difference between art and science. Both explore the world around us, both try to find deep reasons and meanings art asks how and science why [Do they? -LB]. If, 40 years ago, art was regarded as an irrelevant add-on, that's changed. Increasingly now ordinary people, not just elites, regard art as a central part of human life, the spiritual element that once was filled by religion. In the film people express their feelings about the pictures they have chosen for their sitting-room walls: reproductions of Constable's Corn Field or Turner's Fighting Temeraire.People who live near to Anthony Gormley's triumphant Angel of the North iron sculpture in Gateshead describe how much it means to them, despite their first doubts.
So has art won? The somewhat dubious theme of this elegant and charming film is that art and science are converging. The more scientists discover about the brain, the more they understand about our appreciation of art. This rapidly descends into the kind of neo-Darwinist determinism that I find particularly repugnant, where every human feeling is reduced to its most utilitarian. According to this doctrine, as primitive creatures surviving in the wild we became programmed by our experience of nature to feel anxiety and alarm when we see red, reminding us of blood: we love blues and greens that echo the water, sky and grass of a safe environment. Our brains are programmed to like certain shapes, patterns and compositions, though here scientists don't know why or how.
The most truly fascinating revelation comes from an experiment to discover whether ordinary people can tell the difference between good art bad art. A large group of people, not art experts, were asked to look at 75 different pairs paintings by the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, whose hallmark style was abstract black lines and boxes on a white background, with the occasional yellow or red box. Each pair had a genuine Mondrian next to a slightly modified one, with the proportions subtly changed.
Asked to identify the genuine from the altered, three-quarters of the time the group got the answer right. Why? No one could say, but clearly the brain has a sense of correct, pleasing proportion that a good artist instinctively understands. All those who say abstract art is just a random accident are proved wrong scientifically, supporting the idea that we are all hard-wired to appreciate art and that art is not just a part of our spirit and emotions. [This has to do with PHI or the golden mean and the recursive nature of Fractals -LB ]
Otherwise, it seems to me CP Snow's observations hold good art and science remain worlds apart.It starts at school, where the two groups divide at a young age. To be sure there are some high scientific thinkers also immersed in the arts, but they are mainly the geniuses at the top, the abstract thinkers whose ideas reach to the realms of philosophy as an art. Otherwise the people who look for the mysteries of the universe in test tubes and microscopes live on another planet from those for whom the word, the note or the paintbrush holds the only true path to the meaning of life. The boffins think the artists are a little frivolous, living off the hard graft of those whose discoveries create the comfortable modern way of life that makes the money for art possible. The artist fraternity for their part look snootily down on the scientists as dull mechanics, plodders, worthy but lacking the spiritual dimension without which scientific discovery has no real point.
What's more, I suspect this cultural divide runs so deep that it is passed on. Families who for generations have been involved in the arts are unable to communicate enthusiasm or understanding about science to their children. If their world revolves entirely around the arts,how can they offer more than a blank look of panic when confronted with their children' s physics homework? If even one of my four children stepped across the divide and became scientists, I would be proud of myself as a parent. But I doubt they ever really had the chance, since the Two Cultures are so difficult to bridge.


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