Art or science? That’s a choice we might have to make at some point in our lives, maybe when we’re deciding what to study. Or choosing our career. Or deciding on which passion path to take.
Art is commonly thought of as abstract work, work that doesn’t always follow particular patterns, work open to interpretation. Think the fields of writing, music, painting, photography. On the other hand, science is commonly associated with logic and grounded in rational thinking, Think the fields of astronomy, accounting, law, medicine.
I was good at both in school. But it wasn’t until I finished university that I decided to focus on becoming a non-fiction writer.
Art or science? What we want in life often plays a part in which we choose, and it’s a choice that shapes who we are.
Some of us choose arts over science because we love the free-falling, anything-goes liberating feeling that comes with creating art. No need to fit a mould, no formulas to dictate our imagination. There’s usually no right or wrong answer in the realms of creative art; what we create can be as wild as we think. When it comes to the creating process, psychoanalyst Rosa Aurora Chávez-Eakle argues the artist is in a constant state of self-actualisation while psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowsk argues artists experience ‘overexcitability’, experiencing the world intensely. This kind of art often translates from within the depths of our soul, the depths of emotional feeling as we realise what we honestly feel – which makes it unique.
In high school, aside from English I studied physics, chemistry and maths. At university, I did a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Cultural Studies and Applied Mathematics – both majors scoring distinction. My stereotypical Chinese-Malaysian parents were full of praise for what I scored in maths, saying how clever I must be to ‘get complicated formulas’. On Cultural Studies, my mum frequently commented, ‘Study communications cannot get job, let me tell you’.
Typically in Asian cultures, it’s considered impressive if one can do the math (especially according to fellow blogger Autumn Ashborough’s Chinese in-laws) and each year studies show Asian countries continually come in tops in maths. Artistic professions involve more subjective evaluation and (cultural) discrimination. Hence a scientific stable job which also typically pays the bigger bucks is ‘the face of pride’ In Chinese culture.
I always liked the humanities side of my degree more. When it came to maths assignments, I applied numerical theory against numerical problems and got the answer. It felt ‘predictable without soul’. When I wrote an essay on the rise of hybrid cuisine, I suggested cooking comfort foods like ‘bon-bon-looking dumplings’ covers up cultural differences. Touchy idea, yes, but the lecturer loved it. I loved my own idea.
Creating art with far-fetched ideas, there’s the feeling anything’s possible. You feel the possible right within you.
Going down the path of the arts, some of us artists relish listening to different perspectives around us. It makes us ask ‘why’ about the world. Learning to respect what’s been said and taking our own stance, we find our true (artistic) voice, what matters to us and where others are coming from.
At university, I rejoiced whenever I had to write 4,000-word essays for my humanities subjects. I borrowed countless books and downloaded countless e-Journals from the library. Hours and hours I swotted over historical and modern literature. The more I read, the more I wanted to read and come up my original literature. On the other hand, applying a maths formula to a maths problem and getting the answer yet again, each time my mind went, ‘That’s the way it is’.
When we’re an independent artist, we learn to be an adaptable jack of all trades. It’s one thing to create art but another thing to share it with the world. There’s designing, marketing, promoting, publishing, networking, copyright issues to get around, budgeting and more when it comes to the process of connecting art with others.
After I finished university, I was unemployed and on social security benefits. Every day I went to the library in search for media/editing/journalism/research jobs online using the free Wi-Fi there. And learnt how to use CSS to brand the look of my blog, learnt the theory behind photography, and found a couple of paid online freelance writing gigs. Maybe if I focused solely on the write stuff I could’ve achieved more with writing. But my mind nagged at me to find a decent job. The passive, practical Asian stereotype within me told me to think for the future – because it worked for many of our forefathers, because it’s rational sense.
And so as an artist dedicated to our craft, we learn the lesson of underdog discipline. Not everyone will agree with what we create. Not all of us will be able to make a living off just creating something subjective. Not all of us will be able to spend as much time as we like on our art, especially if we have a day job. Most of us won’t sell a million pieces of our art. But if we love doing art enough, we’ll make time for it.
In 2014, The Good Universities Guide found up to 70% of those who studied a creative arts degree in Australia were still unemployed four months after completing their course. When I was unemployed after finishing my degree, my parents compared me with my friends who were engineers and accountants raking stable income. My mum often said, ‘See, study arts. Now NO job.’ It wasn’t pleasant to hear but it was reality. For three years.
Subsequently, I applied for any jobs that matched my skills and soon landed a competitive corporate desk job as a numerical data analyst. All day I balanced equations from spreadsheets on the computer. I felt miserably bored of the repetitive formulaic routine this job entailed, and lasted three months. Some time after that I landed a job that had nothing to do with number crunching, or writing except writing emails. But I enjoy it and it pays the bills and affords me certain luxuries. Outside of that today, I write. I write well aware of the fact that there’s a lack of cultural diversity within Australian media onscreen and off-screen, a lack of Asian role models to look up to. Dedicated artists hustle and make the most of circumstances to create their craft. As amputee model Jessica Emily Quinn said:
‘It doesn’t matter if your cup is half full or half empty, just be greatful you have a cup. Now make magic out of it.’
Choosing to pursue arts over science or science over arts doesn’t mean we’re less smart than those who choose otherwise. Arguably both arts and science go hand-in-hand, influencing each other. Arguably art is science and science is art. We might even pursue both for a living. Neuroscience has proven that we use both sides of the brain when we do any task. The world is where it is today because of both.
As writers, we need semblance of logic to organise the flow of imagined stories. As a mathematician who got offered a place to study Master of Science, admittedly I had to think outside of the box to figure out which formulas fit and solved equations during maths exams. Anything’s possible with both arts and science, and the reasons for pursing arts can be the same for pursuing science too.
When we do what we love, it doesn’t mean it comes easy to us or we’re good at it as much as we like. Studies suggest practice does not make perfect, ‘performance difference’ can depend on genetics and opportunity. I never struggled with maths in school. But words and writing never come naturally to me. Every day when I read emails at work, sentences appear jumbled in front of my eyes and it takes me a moment to unjumble them.
Each blog post here goes through drafts over days before I feel each one gets its message across. Over the last two years, again and again I’ve opened the draft of my book about growing up in Australia only to close it with no changes made – no inspiration. But I do believe, inspiration will come some day.
Whether or not we prefer art or science also comes down to our personal preference and what makes us happy. Sometimes we’d feel something is ‘just not for me’ and other interests ‘why not’. Along this writing journey, photography (for this blog) captivated me more and more. It’s something I enjoy, something I want to do more of and put writing aside at some point.
On the topic of success, ‘making it’ is vague in the arts as art is subjective, likability subject to personal taste. In 2014, Princeton researchers found we are more biased than we think: participants in a study rated famous artists’ works higher than little known artists’. Though I don’t make a living off writing and probably never will, this artistic journey has been such an experience in my spare time over the years – academic journal publications together with academic scholars, this educational blog from no readers to a few comments, a chapter in collaborative self-help book Lady By The River. As artists, when we feel we’ve shared and touched others in some way with our craft, we feel like we’ve made a difference.
This was exactly how I felt when I met dancing electronic violinist Lindsey Stirling earlier this year for the third time. After posing for photos and giving Lindsey a high five, I gingerly reached down and pulled Lady By The River out of my bag. Held it out. Lindsey took the book, face lighting up and jabbed at it with her finger. ‘You wrote all this?!’ she exclaimed. I paused, star struck by the person who inspires a lot of my art. Then I said, ‘N-no. No.
‘I-I just played a part.’ Lindsey then kindly posed with the book for my camera and I walked away feeling on cloud nine.
Apart from finding self-confidence to create beyond the culture we come from, the beauty of being an artist lies in learning to be humble – learning to appreciate it’s never just about you. There’s always the ones closest to us, the believers, carrying a torch for us in spite of the ‘this is as good as it gets’ feeling we feel. Art is a team and one big ride together. On being mediocre and accepting that, Lindsey said:
‘Maybe my best isn’t as good as someone else’s, but for a lot of people, my best is enough. Most importantly, for me it’s enough.’
As a creative artist, you learn nothing’s ever perfect with yourself or your art. Or the people around you. Or the world. You deal with it.
You get some. You give more.
Are you more of an art or science person?