On April 22, I marched for science in San Francisco along with an estimated 15,000 in that city. More than 600 marches were planned worldwide, though I couldn’t find after-the-fact estimates of total participation.
If I hadn’t become a writer, I’d probably have become a environmental scientist. Also, I’m the descendant of scientists and the parent of a likely future scientist. I’m alarmed, as many are, by plans to shift government resources from programs and agencies designed to preserve, support, and protect to ones intended to destroy, divide, and plunder.
What do we want?
The march began at Justin Herman Plaza, where various speakers fired up the crowd, including former US chief data scientist DJ Patil (there is no chief data scientist in the current administration), retired EPA project manager Kathy Setian, inventor and Mythbusters host Adam Savage, and futurist comedian Baratunde Thurston, who made a surprise visit. The audience participated in a rousing—well, as rousing as a gathering of scientists can be—call-and-response that embodied the essence of the march:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“After peer review!”
Walking along Market Street surrounded by researchers, doctors, engineers, teachers, families, and kids, I wondered why there is no corresponding March for Art. In terms of funding, the budgets of NEH, NEA, and public media stand to suffer proportionally at least as much as those of NIH, EPA, and DOE. I was encouraged to discover, however, that there is a hurdle to overcome before such cuts and rebalancing can go into effect, as explained by this article in Science. (For a countervailing view of arts funding cuts, see the article in the Federalist, a publication on the other end of the political spectrum, or George’s Will’s discussion in The Nation.)
Okay. Enough political weed-whacking.
Why not art?
Perhaps we have no March for Art because of the perception, still so pervasive in our culture, that art is superfluous. What’s it good for, anyway? To a non-artist, art seems non-essential. A pretty painting, a funny story, a catchy tune, an engaging movie—these don’t fill your belly or give you a place to rest your head.
Or do they?
I’ll trot out the somewhat tired story of cave painting, 1) because it’s lasting and 2) because it illustrates that maybe art is more core to our identity as humans than we might think. I don’t imagine the paleolithic cave painters at Lascaux had lots of leisure time to make pictures. They must have spent most of their days worrying where their next meal would come from. And yet they found the time to create art.
In modern times, we have the example of Frederick, the mouse hero of Leo Lionni’s now classic children’s book, who appears to be daydreaming while his fellow mice stash food. Only when winter descends does it become clear that he has been creating a stash of a different sort in the form of art.
What if we spent as much money in schools teaching acting, music, drawing, sculpture, and storytelling as we do teaching math, biology, physics, and innovation? True, some schools now focus on STEAM instead of STEM, but the “A” for art is but one letter among the other four (science, technology, engineering, math). What if we encouraged young people to be curious not only about the world and how it works but about themselves, their fellow humans, their imaginations?
This might have an unforeseen benefit. It might save us from the insidious influence of what we’ve come to call “fake news.” It might help those who seem to have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
So, how would teaching people to make shit up help them tell truth from lies?
Art, truth, and Truth
My theory is that people confuse truth with Truth. It’s not as simple as “This never happened, therefore it’s untrue.” We can easily dismiss something that’s true but not True, or situations in which the facts match reality, but our lived reality feels completely different.
Art helps because it occupies the realm of Truth. A novel’s characters, while made up, may feel as real as your friends and neighbors. A painting that puts the subject’s nose on the side of her head or her breasts on her arms may reflect a Truth beyond the reality of human anatomy.
Art feeds the soul—or whatever you choose to call that thing that defines our human essence. A starving soul looks anywhere it can for sustenance: to charlatan politicians, to empty promises, to carnival barkers, even to policies that turn out to be self-destructive. But when the soul is nourished with sounds that tickle the ears and the heart, with patterns of color that please the eye and evoke emotion, with words that capture the essence of experience and connect us to one another, then we can see the world as it is.
Yes, we need science. But science alone won’t cultivate empathy, won’t take us on journeys beyond what we can now imagine, won’t fix broken hearts.
I propose a March for Art. Will you put on your shoes and join me?