Are art and science distinct—or are they two faces of one coin?

July 3, 2021

In this recent interview for Hua Quan Village, Serge Malenfant—President of Global Mural Association—spoke of the important role of art in education and the perceived distinction between art and science. He began by quoting the American astronaut Mae Jemison: “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin. Science provides an understanding of a universal experience, [and, on the other hand,] art is a universal understanding of a personal experience. So, they are both a part of us and a manifestation of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

The basic difference between art and science is that art is based on imagination and expresses a skill cultivated through practice (most often in the form of a subjective representation of knowledge). Science is based on statistics and is most often demonstrated in the form of objective acquired rules of knowledge. Malenfant applies the same framework to the two parts of the brain that belong to the same whole but that respond and react differently to different stimuli. By his reasoning, science is mostly employed by the left hemisphere of the brain, responding to direct verbal cues and employing rational and analytic thoughts. By contrast, art is mostly employed by the right hemisphere of the brain, responding mostly to visual, playful, intuitive, emotional, and perceptual cues.

While science and art have traditionally been thought of related but distinct parallel tracks of perceiving the world, Malenfant challenges listeners to understand that they are complementary parts of a single, interconnected whole. “Science and art are the yin and the yang of knowledge,” Malenfant says.

Much has changed rapidly in the last few decades, and it has had a real impact on the development of both science and art. With modern technology, science is evolving way faster than the arts, and that causes a problem in our evolution, Malenfant cautions, because humans are less able to adapt at an emotional level at the same speed that technology has developed. The balance between the two has been disrupted, and that has affected civilization in general and individuals in particular. This “unbalancing” causes society to underutilize all the creativity it has access to; the “right brain” of civilization is not being fully engaged. Humanity is not evolving its collective capacity in even rates. The creative capacity engaged by a full development of the arts is lagging behind society’s engagement of science and technology.

What should be the role of art in education?

A robust education in the arts is needed to balance a strong education in the sciences. Society has prioritized the latter when it should prioritize both equally, since the insights unlocked by greater understanding of science cannot be fully realized without a commensurate understanding of art.

What role does art have in rolling back the challenges posed by bureaucracy in education?

Malenfant cautions against ambivalence in including art in educational curricula. He pushes back against the idea of trying to measure or quantify the return on investment an art education provides. While most school administrators may be well-intentioned, they speak a “different language” from artists, and they should have an open mind in focusing on the entire educational system to the unity of knowledge. 

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant,” said Albert Einstein. “We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Art is the gift of creation, Malenfant says, and educational administrators ought to be engaged in artistic experiences in order to understand more of their emotions and how they interact with their environment.

Human beings are not machines. Students’ hearts cannot be reached emotionally if they are treated as machines. They are nurtured by the 21st century learner profile traits now. How can art be engaged in that paradigm?

Malenfant argues that art combines perceptual skills and evokes an extended shift in an alternative mode of thinking, thereby increasing the potential for personal growth. The key principle ought to be that art and science together offer as a global set of skills—not just one or the other. In his own experience, it was not until his potential and creativity were recognized and encouraged in seeking out artistic endeavors did Malenfant feel like a fully productive student with a sense of worth. In working with youth, he uses art as an outlet for them to share their emotions, boost their self-esteem, and work on their social skills. Such educational programs offer means of self-expression to juveniles who do not have robust support systems at home. These programs connect students to a social network, and studies show that students engaged in art programs are more likely to graduate than those who are not.

Numbers and language are vehicles for communication, but they necessarily limit how humans demonstrate their feelings and emotions. Art makes vivid the complex emotions not captured by language. As Malenfant says, “The limits of our language must not define the limits of our cognition.” The arts teach children how to communicate what they cannot say—how to reach into their inner poetic capacities and to learn how they feel. Art helps people discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling and expressing. 

Artists can be taught similarly to athletes. A coach may easily identify which skills an athlete naturally possesses and which they may wish to pursue to become better, because the coach knows that no two athletes possess the same skills. The same is true for artists; teachers who identify strengths in artistic expression may encourage the growth of the student to the point where he/she is empowered to seek out their own experiences in order to satisfy (and develop) their creative capacity, which may be boundless.

Concluding with the Pablo Picasso quote that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,” Malenfant says humans lose their natural creativity when forced to learn in a defined manner. Those who are predisposed to thrive under the rational structure of learning will succeed, and many with artistic gifts are excluded from that success. Many students who artistic gifts are not properly engaged in their own future. Students should be taught a global set of skills, not just through the rational perspective. The emotional must also be engaged. Students should not be evaluated by the final exam, but the final result arrived at by the creative process—the whole person that is being shaped, who they are, and what they can become.

If you missed the talk or would like to rewatch, you can catch the replay here: YouTube or Bilibili.

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