I switched on the radio recently to catch the end of a discussion which concluded with the words, “There’s a fine line between being a chancer and being an artist.” The phrase struck me. Does this perception lie at the crux of our suspicions about contemporary, or maybe even all, art? The value of any creative act is difficult to measure, right?

It reminded me of a blogpost written by the poet Jo Bell after the UK Education Secretary said students unsure about what to do with their lives have traditionally chosen arts subjects over science and maths, and subsequently limited their career options. Bell wrote, “I chose the appropriate qualification for my chosen career, as I’m sure did James Dyson. The fact that there is more money in vacuum cleaner design than poetry is not his fault.” She was being funny, but she also makes an excellent point about how we value different types of learning and its subsequent output.

Science and art are necessary for us to live rich and fulfilled lives. This false dichotomy, compounded at school, between those who are good at maths and those who are good at art, for example, is dangerously pervasive. It limits us. Individual talents vary, but there is no real reason why music and science, or engineering and acting must be regarded as mutually exclusive, and no good reason to believe those who choose artsy subjects over STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) options are somehow copping out.

I was brought up not to make those distinctions, although the education system did its best to enforce them. At my school, students couldn’t take Biology and Art for Leaving Cert, so I took Chemistry and Physics alongside Art instead. I had enough points to become a doctor (although the biology might have been a problem), but I became an art critic. Have I somehow wasted my potential? Has my brother wasted his astrophysics degree because he earns his money as a musician? Take the argument in the other direction: has my sister made a mockery of her Fine Art BA by following it up with a career as a primary school teacher? The answer to these questions is no. My sister is a finer teacher because of her art degree. My brother makes science-inspired music. Creativity is essential to innovation. STEM industries know that. If we teach our children only to explore the logical side of their brain we cut them off from the potential to be truly pioneering.

Research into STEM graduates in the US, published in 2013 found the most productive innovators had art and craft hobbies. Nobel Prize winning scientists are weekend artists, poets and musicians. Which brings us back to chancers. Every profession includes those who do not excel at their job, but no one will pay an artist, actor or musician to be average, or just good enough. Plenty of engineers, lab assistants and computer programmers earn a decent living by being just that: good enough. Who’s the chancer now?


A version of this column was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 29 March 2015. 

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