I was discussing SciArt on several occasions with different people recently and was fishing for a way to classify different SciArt in order to make a particular point – the point being that the type of SciArt I find most interesting and valuable is in the minority. Basically, it seems there are 3 (or maybe 4) general types of SciArt: informational, inspirational, and degradational. I should note that mostly I am talking about SciArt that is performed – mostly plays and movies. Although probably some variant of this can be applied to visual arts or music and such.
Degradational is when the science or the scientists are depicted as evil or as the cause of problems – you know the type: Jurassic Park and such. Inspirational (which might need some subcategories) – is when there is science in a piece of art, but the science is just there as set decoration, or because a main character is a scientist, or because some minor plot points hinge on some sciencey-sounding mumbo-jumbo-speak that (supposedly) makes the audience feel that serious science has saved the day (or at least moved the plot forward incrementally). Inspirational SciArt is the bulk of what is out there – pushing 98% in my opinion (mostly because of a significant decrease in degradational SciArt, which used to occupy a sizable portion of what was out there).
In the minority, however, is informational SciArt. I am not talking about documentaries here – or Nova specials – they are clearly informational and have a lot of artistry to them, but in my opinion are in a different genre than SciArt. So what is informational SciArt: it is a play or a movie that stands on its own in terms of plot or character but at the same time has a LOT of real and accurate science in it (or culture of science – how scientists act and such). Can you think of many of these? Not many out there, eh. And many of the ones that are out there are medically oriented (because people can relate better to something medical – as opposed to say, something about neutrinos or identifying a new species of frog). Movies like Contagion or Contact or Gorillas in the Mist or Awakenings, or October Sky, or And the Band Played On, or the classic 2001 – these are at least moving in the direction of informational SciArt – and they are definitely more than inspirational. What sets these movies apart from “inspirational” ones? The fact that you can walk away from these movies and actually have learned some real science (or science culture) – even among these, however, the amount of science information is wildly variant (and mostly on the lower side). Think of “A Beautiful Mind” – is it informational because there is a 30 second recap of one of John Nash’s therories? Or is it really more suitable for the “inspirational” category?
Why bring this up? I feel that the informational SciArt category has long been in the minority and largely because the commercial side of the SciArt couple is afraid that audiences don’t want to see things with lots of real information in them – movies or plays. Yet in day to day conversations, with scientists and non-scientists alike – I continually hear people say that they really enjoy learning new science through movies or television shows or even plays (although the fraction of informational SciArt plays is even lower than that for movies and television). So why not trust that people want to pack some of their entertainment with science and let’s start seeing more informational SciArt – or at least information heavy SciArt. When you see something labelled as SciArt – something funded by the Sloan Foundation or something in the Imagine Science Film Festival – both fantastic programs, but both of which support 98% inspirational SciArt – when you see SciArt – talk it up – did you learn any science from it? If not – ask: would it have been improved or more interesting if there had been more hard science in it? There is certainly a place for inspirational SciArt – art that intrigues and excites us about science – but there also needs to be more of a place for informational SciArt out there – at least more than 2%, which, in my opinion, is even an optimistic estimate of what is out there right now.