Tuesday 03 April 2012

Making connections

Art and science continue to redefine their relationships with each other. While the relationship and its implicit tensions have been documented many times on Imperica, it never ceases to offer new angles and ways of seeing established concepts and constructs.

Kerry Daynes, Emily Winterburn. Photos by courtesy of Kerry Daynes and Emily Winterburn

Much of the world's artistic product has scientific reference in the same way that scientifc endeavours bring about artistic beauty. This is certainly the case in two very different topics being discussed at the first Salon North, where the forum for intellectual and cultural debate and discussion moves from its home city of London to the Harrogate International Festival.

Given Salon's record in mixing up a bunch of diverse topics in one sitting, the first northern venture is no different. As well as tackling stargazing and psychopathy, the evening comes complete with a bit of Mongolian Throat Singing. Something for everyone, perhaps.

It's specifically astronomy and psychopathy that comes under this particular "art-science" connection; the way in which scientific theory and practice has shaped art, and how art has responded – in not necessarily the most precise way. The constellations of the night sky were not initially understood in the most scientific of ways, but gave way to wonderful visual and narrative work from the time of the Grecians onwards. Equally, psychological conditions have not necessarily been universally understood and accepted outside of our understanding of them from an artistic perspective.


0003 by Johan91200, CC BY-SA http://www.flickr.com/photos/johan-gril/6524631931/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888


Forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes is something of an expert on psychopathy, having written The devil you know, a book which covers the psychopathy of literature, and how psychopaths operate in day-to-day life. Literary coverage of the topic has increased of late, with Jon Ronson's book coming out at the same time; where Ronson's book looks at criminal psychopathy, Daynes' book asks the reader to consider the psychopaths that have occurred in their own lives.

Given that between 1 and 3% of the population are psychopaths, the chances are that we all know one of these non-criminal psychopaths: a true wolf in sheep's clothing. They blink less. Their conversation is sprinkled with references to food, money and their more immediate needs. While Daynes is clearly not suggesting that the book provides the tools for us to diagnose (or self-diagnose) psychopaths in society, it is designed to inform readers about what is a misunderstood area.

"Hitchcock has a lot to do with that. when you think about psychopaths you automatically think of Norman Bates in Psycho. Psychopaths are seen wearing Granny dresses and grey wigs and in fact he was suffering from psychosis, and that's what the term 'psycho' meant. Psychopaths have a cluster of abnormal ways of relating to other people, but they're not psychotic.

"It's only when psychopathy becomes a problem for society, when people are breaking laws, that we become interested in it. I don't think that we need a new term, although the term 'psycho' is certainly overused and misunderstood."

According to Daynes, the behaviour that comes with being a psychopath is very negative. There is not a lot of material which has looked at how psychopaths operate in a non-criminal context, but this is changing. Recent research has looked at psychopaths in the corporate world, revealing that there are more narcissists and psychopaths in the business world than in the criminal population.

Psychopaths flourish in corporates, as they can become harder to spot. They can operate quite covertly, although can often end up becoming more successful at their vocation. They take big risks and are not anxious about their behaviours, nor on treading on others' toes to elevate their careers. "What we call psychopathy in a clinic is reframed and thought of as good business. You only have to look at the Apprentices on TV - delusions of grandeur. It's all there, just in a different context and one which is not damaging to society. It's actually encouraged."

Daynes takes the view that when motivational speakers encourage us to consider no dream too big, and that we should take risks without consequences, they are encouraging psychopathic behaviour. These behaviours will unquestionably continue in business culture, whether in boom or in bust. Business loves enduring narcissism, and narcissists love to be in business.

"Many of the 'big world events' - our world, our society - is shaped by a small number of psychopaths. They are our world leaders: people making things happen. Most of the news is made by psychopaths: people who display psychopathic tendencies. The recession was created within the financial sector, where there are lots of psychopaths. This behaviour has worked for them in the past, but as we have hit the 'bust' stage again, it has started to fall apart for them. However, psychopaths will dust themselves down and carry on; one of the features of psychopathy is not being able to learn from failure or punishment."


David Cameron by Steve Bowbrick, CC Deed http://www.flickr.com/photos/bowbrick/6486473213/


These behavioural tendencies can sometimes become highly lucrative. Many successful entrepreneurs have become rich because they have been able to 'dust themselves down' from a failed venture, and been able to quickly move on something new. That's why many motivational speakers are perhaps so successful: coaching people into "I can't fail" thoughts and behaviours may lead them into a position of considerable success, even though that success has been derived through trial and error. How psychopaths would see it, however, is not to see the error at all. "Any psychopathic bankers out there will think 'There is an economic crisis, but it's nothing to do with me; I'll dust myself down and get ready for the next thing. I can't fail.'"

The science of psychopathy has clearly had something of a fraught relationship with art, as Psycho testifies. The science of astronomy has had a more successful relationship, but still a tumultuous one. Dr Emily Winterburn, writer of The Stargazer's Guide, is on a quest to seek a better appreciation of what people see in the night sky, and to understand the importance of astronomy in everything that we take for granted. Astronomy is pervasive in culture: many of of the constellations were created to make sense of the sky, with stories created for them, which in turn became Greek mythology and influenced so much of our own language and culture. Winterburn's aim is to make people think about how much of what's all around us can be traced back to astronomy.

North Yorkshire is perhaps a better place to see the night sky than many parts of London, which inevitably suffer from light pollution. That said, such pollution is starting to decrease as we understand more about what it is, and how it can be alleviated. Street lights which point downwards and are covered at the top have been a significant boost, and recent attempts to further reduce overall street lighting may lead to greater reductions in light pollution over time. If this is one end of how astronomy is understood, then contemporary culture is the other: the "Brian Cox effect" has certainly played its part, with astronomical trips, eclipse cruises and the like becoming more successful than ever. Astronomical events, such as the forthcoming transit of Venus, seem to be enjoyed by more and more people every year.

Both Winterburn and Daynes agree that artistic portrayal of scientiic concepts is fundamental to the understanding of science – although art can, in the case of Psycho, create a misinterpretation that has a lasting impact Winterburn concludes with strong views on these connections, and how the appreciation of one cannot be fully achieved without the appreciation of the other.

"Art and science were always interlinked. In very early star charts, you had very beautiful classical constellations. The art/science divide goes in waves; it's often seen as a distinction that you are interested in art or in science, but at the same time you get a lot of art that is inspired by science. It goes both ways. A certain amount of science is based on inspirational thinking; there is an artistic process in terms of thinking up new theories, and trying to work out the logic of what it is that you're seeing. Therefore, I don't think that there is a division.

"For the sake of science, we hope that the division goes away. It can seem off-putting to people; that art is approachable and science is very technical and difficult. Stargazing can give you away of bypassing that; you don't need to know anything in terms of looking up at the stars. It's an open appreciation."


Kerry Daynes and Dr. Emily Winterburn are featuring at Salon North, taking place at the Harrogate International Festival on 12/04/12. For furher information and to book, visit the Festival's website.

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