Do you consider yourself a scientist or an artist, or perhaps neither? What is your definition of the arts and sciences? In your mind are they totally inseparable or are they on two sides of a divide?
My training and long experience in the arts and education has taught me that there is an unwritten perception of science as being the more intelligent and more demanding area of learning than the arts. Often the arts are referred to as the ‘lighter option’! It is said that ‘Science demands intelligence while the arts demand talent!’.
However, as a Baha’i I like to reflect on how Baha’u’llah writes about the ‘arts and sciences’, always honoured together as illustrated below:
Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone.1
One of the names of God is the Fashioner. He loveth craftsmanship. Therefore any of His servants who manifesteth this attribute is acceptable in the sight of this Wronged One. Craftsmanship is a book among the books of divine sciences, and a treasure among the treasures of His heavenly wisdom. This is a knowledge with meaning, for some of the sciences are brought forth by words and come to an end with words.2
I am fascinated by the apparent dichotomy between the accepted understanding and the Baha’i Writings so I asked myself four questions:
- What might the words ‘science’ and ‘art’ mean in the Baha’i Writings?
- What are the roots of these words in history?
- Is the understanding of these words the same now as it was long ago?
- How can an understanding of the relationship between the arts and sciences contribute to the community building endeavour driven by the Institute Process?
Beginning with the roots of the words ‘science’ and ‘art’, I discovered that the root of the word ‘science’ whether in Latin, Greek or Arabic means ‘knowledge’, broad and undefined, and only in the 17th century did the meaning become narrowed to mean a ‘body of regular or methodical observations or propositions concerning a particular subject or speculation.’
The roots of the word ‘art’ reveal an interesting change in meaning in the 17th century. The Latin root is artem /ars /artis (skill) that in the 12th century, for example, meant ‘work of art; practical skill; a business, craft,’ and ‘skill as a result of learning or practice.’ However, by the early 1700’s the term ‘art’ had come to mean ‘one who practices the arts of design or visual arts.’ As with ‘science’, the word ‘art’ narrowed from its original meaning.
With this in mind I explored the first question: What might the words ‘science’ and ‘art’ mean in the Baha’i Writings? In the Persian language there are several words used to describe art; ‘hunar’ and ‘fan’ being two of them. They mean a learned skill or ability, or being skilled in the art of something. There is also ‘san’at’ which refers more to industry and trades.
These words equally refer to something that can be held or touched, as to an activity that can be experienced. So these words might refer to a brick wall, a suit of clothes, a painting, a ceramic pot, a tool, a table, a plate of food, a machine or equally to a conversation, dance, parenting, facilitation, poetry, music, etc. So someone can be referred to as a ‘hunarmand’, which means a ‘skillsman’ or one who ‘possesses the art’ of something. Therefore, in Persian the arts are broad and all-inclusive of anything that demands a skill whether that results in an object or an activity. The word for ‘science’, in Persian, is ‘Ilm’, which means knowledge, wisdom, learning, scholarship or more generally a search for knowledge.
Bringing together the exploration of the roots of the words ‘art’ and ‘science’, that originally were broad and inclusive and the meanings in Persian, which are also broad and inclusive, I began to realise that the understanding of art and science now is very much narrower than in the past. However, what might they actually mean in practice?
Knowledge acquisition is surely hardwired into the human race; it is impossible not to gain knowledge. From the moment of birth, the baby ‘wants to know’ about its surroundings, and once a person has knowledge they cannot help but apply that knowledge in whatever context it is applicable. Is this the connection between the sciences and the arts? Is the ‘art’ (the skill) simply the application or practice of the ‘science’ (the knowledge)?
In practice, we see and know them to be inseparable; a surgeon must acquire a body of knowledge or the science of medicine, but in the operating theatre their practice is an art. The theory of education is a science, its application in the classroom is surely an art. The science of horticulture when applied to create a beautiful garden or healthy crops is an art. Think of any context and this pattern applies.
So, could we all be scientists and all be artists? How might this idea change how we see ourselves contributing to building communities through the Institute Process?
We all gain a body of knowledge, (our science/s) whether by study, by experience, or by living our lives. We all apply that knowledge through our skills (our arts), whether through professions, passions, or living our lives. Therefore, whatever our knowledge and whatever our skills they can be applied to the Institute Process — a process where we both acquire knowledge, then develop and apply the skills learnt.
These are our ‘arts’, our unlimited range of skills that result in an object being made or an activity being experienced or both. Suddenly the ‘arts’ do become broad and inclusive, everyone has skills, so everyone can offer their ‘art’. Perhaps this understanding can allow people who have never considered themselves to be ‘artists’ to be involved in offering their art to the community. Their arts might be manifested through cooking, mathematics, building, conversation, horticulture, facilitation, engineering, as well as parenting, teaching, dressmaking, architecture and administration etc. etc. Think of the knowledge and skills in your own community, are there skills/arts that could be shared that no-one has previously recognised as an art?
Might this be what Baha’u’llah is suggesting when He uses the words ‘art’, ‘craft’, ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’ so often together and so closely interwoven? Something to think about perhaps!