Art, Freedom and Science

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

Early this November, the seizure of a staggering 1,500 artworks lost during the Nazi era was made public by the German police. The find includes works by many key painters of the last century: Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, Klee, to name just a few. They all shared one commonality: The Nazis branded them Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art).

I read about this in the Independent article “When the fascists tried to tame the modern masters”. It contained this quote by Goebbels:

Art Fascism“The freedom of artistic creation must keep within the limits prescribed, not by any artistic idea, but by the political idea”

It is not obvious that this has anything to do with emergent technologies. But because I spent the morning reading about technology governance before I picked up this newspaper, I experienced the classic case of a prepared mind connecting new information (the quote) to existing information (a lot of thoughts on governing technologies).

What link is there, if any, between freedom of speech, freedom of the arts and freedom of science?

Michael Polanyi was famous for defending the liberty of what he called “the republic of science”. According to him, science is most effective when individual scientists follow their own curiosities, without external agenda setting. Indeed, he thought that “You can kill or mutilate the advance of science, you cannot shape it”. Any attempt at directing science would lead to a crippling of the productivity and creativity of the scientific community.

This line of thought often seems like a straw man in the Governing Emergent Technologies course. Instead, it usually seems to be the implicit, inevitable position that, yes, we should direct science in some way towards producing results that are safe and desirable. Given the name of the class, maybe this should not be a surprise.

But the definitions of and boundaries between science, technology and art seem to get increasingly blurry. Is the implication that these two apparently deeply held (but unreflected?) positions, the sanctity of artistic freedom and the necessary directing of science and technology by policy, are increasingly in conflict? For example, A friend, let’s call her J, describes herself as a hybrid artist and scientist; in her words: “As a scientist I pursue objective knowledge, as an artist I pursue subjective knowledge”.

Bacterial World, work and picture by Howard Boland / c-lab

Bacterial World, work and picture by Howard Boland / c-lab

This April, Howard Boland exhibited artworks containing living genetically modified organisms at the Royal Institution. This is art in the medium of synthetic biology, an emergent technology. Howard has been a friend for a number of years and it took about the same time to get this kind of exhibition off the ground in the UK, mostly due to red tape and worries of venue managers. I remember multiple occasions in which the plug was pulled days to hours before the proposed art exhibition of GMO, despite extensive risk assessments and health and safety clearance. This April was a first in the UK.

Goethe Die Leiden Des Jungen WerthersIf we extended the idea of a precautionary principle – harmlessness has to be proved by the creator – to art, would it turn into censorship? The release of Goethe’s Werther, a milestone of German literature, was followed by a wave of suicides inspired by the protagonist’s struggle. Imitation suicides are now known as the “Werther effect”. Should publication have been stopped, or should an artist be obliged to show that no harm can come from their works? This could be a slippery slope.

Problems with the standard view of directing and limiting science to what is politically acceptable and desirable mirror to some extent objections to censorship. (And this is how I managed to add a Christopher Hitchens video to my blog post – see this excerpt from a debate on censorship and freedom of speech).

Who, if anyone, could be capable of deciding which directions for science are desirable and which ones are taboo? Leaving this to temporary political alliances seems less than optimal. Indeed, is it not also our objective to not be locked in to certain technological systems? Central planning of technologies could turn against this goal.

Of course, in some way there is never a vacuum of science and technology direction; companies and funding agencies with the largest budgets inevitably fill it. My feeling is that just as in art and speech, valuing a diversity of opinion and approaches in science and technology is paramount. Do we need some kind of cartel office for innovation?

Writing this blog post has not been straightforward, but it was hard to resist once I read the quote about political art in times of fascism. I have no clear answers yet to the questions that were raised: Can freedom of art and freedom of speech be linked to freedom of science? Is it not ironic if we protest immediately against art being limited by “political ideas”, yet show no reservations (other than implementation details) against the idea of limiting science by political ideas?

(It seems appropriate to end this post with a question)

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One thought on “Art, Freedom and Science

  1. Pingback: Governing emerging technologies 2013 Blog Award Winners | Responsible Innovation

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