Why make art about science?

Is art – even art about science – still art for art’s sake?

Why make art about science? It’s a question that’s been plaguing me, particularly last week, when I found myself crammed into a small meeting room in the public library across the street from my house. I was listening to a lecture on Antarctica, from a man who calls himself DJ Spooky. It was a far cry from the environment in which you’d normally picture a DJ, much less a nationally known DJ – perhaps he would be more comfortable in a hot, sweaty club, shouting exhortations for everyone to raise their hands in the air?

But DJ Spooky – also known as Paul D. Miller – is just as much an intellectual and an artist as he is a master of the turntables. And he was giving a very scholarly report about his new composition, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica. A few winters ago, he spent four weeks in Antarctica, making sound and film recordings that became this large-scale multimedia project, now traveling around the world. You can see the video and listen to samples of the music on his website. DJ Spooky explained the musical and historical influences on the work, and concluded that the purpose of the project is to create a portrait of Antarctica’s rapidly changing environment.

But before DJ Spooky had a chance to speak, Ginny Catania, a polar scientist at the University of Texas, gave a short presentation. Ginny, who has been featured on EarthSky, described the conditions of doing science in Antarctica (long days, open spaces, and three-day long storms), and showed some of the research she had done. As she spoke, she answered questions from the audience. One man asked why the glacial ice that’s melting into the sea is fresh water, and if that’s good or bad.

These are good questions (the answers: glacial ice accumulates from precipitation falling from the sky; and that’s very bad) but they point to how very basic most people’s understanding of what’s happening in Antarctica is. As a science writer, I often wonder how much I can do with words to express how environmental change in Antarctica is relevant, and why people should care. So how does DJ Spooky’s piece of music, which uses a string quartet and turntables, engage people with the continent’s transformation any better than Ginny or me?

To be sure, art serves a very different purpose than data or news. DJ Spooky said that with Sinfonia Antarctica, he wanted people to think about the environmental change. Thinking about something, though, doesn’t necessitate understanding it. I usually think of art as an individual expressing a reaction to experience. It can engage people in ways that charts and words can’t. But can art, with all its cultural abstractions, carry the meaning of science? Or is not important whether it can? Is art – even art about science – still art for art’s sake?

Lindsay Patterson