This Wednesday and Thursday, I watched the debates between the prospective Democratic candidates for president; mostly, they did not solve much, just argued with differing degrees of passion which one-sided views they espouse and will promote. (Republicans are not much better, although their specific issues act as alternative window-dressing). Neither side seems to be willing to really discuss, without attacking each other, real differences of opinion on real issues so that change can be proposed that would satisfy the deepest issues of the respective sides. At the same time, I have begun to work with a startup arts center that is currently only partly up and running. I do this because we seem to have forgotten the arts in the pursuit of science, and I believe we are the poorer for that. Hence, the following reflections.
We live in a world of complementary dualities, each of which is a part of a complete whole. Light complements dark, sorrow complements joy, effort complements ease, sleep and relaxation (down time) complement our working life. In life as in art, the negative spaces empower and define the positive ones. Each defines the other, each gives life to the other, and thus in our world the whole exists. They are sides of a single coin.
In fashion now are the sciences, currently called STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. Sciences are concerned with the physical world, the observable and quantifiable. They seek to understand how the physical universe is constructed, how it works, how it might be changed to adapt to circumstances, how it might serve people. The sciences work with what can be logically proven or disproven through experimentation. Together, the sciences have brought about immense and rapid advances in our understanding and in applications in our physical world.
My grandmother began life in a world in which the use of horses was still common. Before she passed, men traveled to the moon. Technology in the present advances even more rapidly. The quickened pace of these advances comes at a cost. In order to devote the amount of attention and cultural value to STEM topics and to fully support these rapid advances, we have largely neglected the partner of STEM, the arts.
Arts – visual arts, music, dance, theater, literature, philosophy and writing, to include some – are more concerned with that which is less readily apprehensible. Arts apply themselves to our values, our pursuit of wisdom, subjective perceptions and emotions, and to concepts such as joy, beauty and existential truth. STEM deals exceptionally well with the concretely physical; arts express marvelously our souls. Both are necessary.
Our world today is unbalanced; some would say it is chaotic. This is not amazing if we notice that we have neglected the sisters of STEM. The whole cannot be complete while only half of it is fully accepted and appreciated. Putting an “A” into the acronym “STEM” to make “STEAM” does little. The four strands of STEM are still emphasized while the arts are lumped together and given lip service.
At one time – my grandmother’s and maybe also my mother’s – arts had a greater place in our culture. Schools gave emphasis to literature, writing and music. Elocution, painting, drawing and crafts were also given instructional time, and exhibitions of these were valued. Dance and theater were not only performing arts, to be enjoyed if one had time and money, but also often popular pastimes. In private life, there was time to create beauty. Math and science were certainly not ignored, but the whole was more balanced.
Not so today. Schools emphasize and promote STEM subjects, and parents rush to enroll their children in STEM summer camps and extracurricular lessons. Arts in the schools are underfunded and minimal. Those who enroll their children in the few art camps do so mainly because their children demand that. (There are also sports camps, some of which are neither STEM nor arts. These, too, are more accepted than camps that feature arts.)
We have lost something. Social structures have lost center or direction as they change and grow. Balance is good as change progresses; it keeps the change from falling into destructive chaos. We have lost that balance, that sense of direction, that guidance system. Some would say we have lost our soul. Re-including and re-establishing the importance of what we have neglected can help restore what we have lost.
Let us individually grow our whole selves, both the logical and the intuitive, with a sense of the wonder of the universe.