We Will Rock You
Whoever thought Geology could be cool? Last Sunday I was part of a large and enthusiastic audience gathered at Inverness’s Ironworks venue to hear Iain Stewart talk about ‘travels in lands that don’t exist’ as a highlight of this year’s Inverness Monster Science Festival.
Now, the city’s premier music venue might have seemed an unlikely location for a lecture on the history of the planet but then, as anyone knows who’s seen his many BBC series, Professor Iain Stewart is no ordinary geologist. You could describe him as Indiana Jones without the hat but with an East Kilbride accent, but that underplays his ability to be a really clear and stimulating communicator.
I think I’ve seen just about every programme he’s made for the BBC in the last ten years (I have a very good friend who’s a geologist and the enthusiasm has rubbed off), so I was keen to see what he’d be like in person. At first I was a little disappointed, as he interspersed his talk with a number of clips from his current TV series, Rise of the Continents, which I’ve been watching anyway, but it soon became clear that this was just the set up for what turned into a 45 minute-long Q and A that was as wide-ranging, thought-provoking and entertaining as you could possibly wish. Altogether, a consummate performance.
Nor was this a conventional lecture setting. The audience was seated at round tables, café style, and the play-in music was decidedly related to the venue’s normal programme and clientele. Mind you, they missed the opportunity to play Queen’s We will rock you, or perhaps Diamonds are Forever. But then, on the other hand, I don’t imagine many geology lectures have a bar available.
But what was most intriguing was the make-up of the audience, which went from senior citizens to a certain four-year old geologist who was keen to share his, very articulate, enthusiasm for the subject, and his detailed knowledge of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago…
Afterwards, I began thinking about the different appeals, today, of the arts and the sciences. If a similarly high profile TV presenter on the arts—say Andrew Graham Dixon, or Brian Sewell—had been programmed, I expect the audience would have been of much the same size, and perhaps even as keen, but I doubt if there would have been anyone present under 40. And this broad appeal of the sciences is not just down to the universal interest in dinosaurs. I suspect that if the guest had been Jim Al Khalili on physics, or Marcus du Sautoy on maths, the audience would have been almost as diverse in age range, and that’s without even mentioning Brian Cox.
So it looks as if the sciences have got their act together in introducing people of all ages to what are often abstruse subjects (tectonic plates, magma plumes, continental subduction) in an accessible way, that just isn’t true to the same extent for the arts. Which is ironic, as the ancestor and template for all such hour-long documentary programmes, whether in science, history, or the arts, is Kenneth Clark’s majestic 1969 series Civilisation. That was the first such documentary series to foreground the presenter so overtly, to have them actually speaking to camera in the locations they were discussing, rather than on voice-over, and to have the presenter start a sentence in one location and finish it in another, hundreds of miles away. And it, of course, was the brainchild of David Attenborough, during his time as Head of BBC 2, so it’s no surprise that he would then go on to adapt the model for his own Life on Earth, which changed forever how we view the natural world.
I think there are a number of factors at play. First, these science presenters all actually do science—perhaps not always at the very highest level, but certainly as their day job. They’re not commenting from outside, which is almost always the case with arts presenters, who are usually journalists or writers when not on the box. So an Iain Stewart, or a Steve Jones, or an Alice Roberts (for, thank goodness, they’re not all male) brings a personal passion and an insider’s view to their subject—something that is very evident, for example, in the conversations Jim Al Khalili leads in his excellent radio series The Life Scientific.
And then, so many arts documentaries seem stuck in a rut. Andrew Graham Dixon’s various series surveying the art history of different countries have barely moved on in format since Civilisation 45 years ago—indeed it could be argued that Lord Clark was a more diffident and self-effacing presence than some of his successors. By contrast, in his new series, and especially in his 2010 series Making Scotland’s Landscape, Iain Stewart uses every possible modern technological device to get across his points clearly—split screens in the case of the Scottish series, Sherlock style graphics in Rise of the Continents.
There are, however, some encouraging straws in the wind for the arts. BBC4’s modest little series What do Artists do all Day allowed the artists to speak for themselves, with only the briefest off-camera prompts, and the results, at least in the case of the two I’ve seen, on Norman Ackroyd and Cornelia Parker, were little short of revelatory.
But that’s on TV. What should we do closer to home? I’ve been giving a few talks on the arts recently to groups in the Inverness area. What I often find is that even those who are so actively interested in the arts as to join a dedicated group or society, still have a disconnect with ‘modern art’ that goes all the way back to a century ago, to the work of Duchamp and the other early Dadaists.
The problem seems to be that, for such people, art itself has ceased to be what they expect it to be—it is rarely representational, often defies accepted canons of beauty, and seems to shun any display of craftsmanship or virtuosity. Yet there is surely a parallel here with the sciences, where in almost every discipline we have been increasingly asked, over the same century and more, to accept the apparently counter-intuitive and the downright mind-boggling: from natural selection to gene sampling, from splitting the atom to string theory and multiverses, from the realisation of the scale of our own galaxy to discovering that it is but one among millions of galaxies in the observable universe.
Perhaps many of us, in this increasingly unstable perception of reality, therefore, turn to art for something that will provide reassurance, comfort, continuity. And instead we’re faced with Cubism, Abstraction, Conceptual and Performance Art, in short a world of ideas and languages that seems esoteric, hostile and excluding.
It’s not so long ago that most of contemporary science would have seemed equally challenging and unappealing. But scientists themselves took the first steps to open up their world. Since the pioneering work of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jacob Bronowksi, among others, a host of scientists in all disciplines have made strenuous and successful efforts to make their work more accessible. There are some honourable examples in the arts, too—notably David Hockney and Grayson Perry–but they are still too few. I’m writing, here, about science in a cultural blog because, unlike Matthew Arnold, I believe that science is an integral element of our culture. But I equally think that artistic practice is integral to our understanding of ourselves, and we are the poorer if we ignore what contemporary artists are doing, for lack of appropriate ambassadors.
© Robert Livingston