What can artists learn from scientists about public communication?

Christopher Reiger has a great post at Hungry Hyaena about public communication strategies used by scientific advocacy groups, and where artists should adopt similar strategies:

Most Americans see science as extraneous esoterica crafted by white-coated wonks. Similarly, contemporary art is seen as the province of effete Onanists devoid of "family values." But the respective responses of the two realms to these ugly public perceptions is critically different. The scientific community has confronted the issue head-on, spilling ink, hosting panel discussions, and building programs. Whether or not this conscientious approach will change things for the better remains to be seen, but scientists and science academics can't be criticized for inaction. Should an art writer or organization assert, however, that negative popular sentiment indicates the art world is faltering, they won't receive donations for a new graduate program or institution dedicated to improving the art world's communication skills. In fact, many (if not most) professionals in the art world rankle at the suggestion that fine art should even consider appealing to the masses.

Christopher's argument is thought-provoking and very well-balanced - he is not the type to generalize about the "two cultures" in an unthoughtful way. While recognizing that both science communication and art communication have a long way to go, and that both science and art blogospheric communities are just that - communities, not strictly public facing PR machines - I do think that subjectively it is easier for scientists to get public attention and seem relevant, and that we have recently made strides as a scientific community to prioritize public outreach. It's true that journalists often push the relevance of science too hard, misleading the public into thinking that all science, especially basic science, will spout transformative rewards within months of inception. But at least we don't usually get the threshold question of "why should we care at all" that artists may get.

On the other hand, I don't much like the first comment he has, from "Tony Bot." I don't want to be too harsh on Tony Bot, who doesn't seem to have had the pleasure of meeting many scientist-communicators, and also doesn't seem to realize that almost all of us doing science communication have sought out opportunities to teach it to ourselves, since PhD programs almost never include writing, teaching, public speaking, or journalist outreach as course options. But I do think Tony Bot's attitude is unfortunately symptomatic of the division between the two cultures. It's all too easy to assume that because scientists' work is relevant, they have a special advantage, or because artists move people emotionally, their work will be recognized as valuable. Those types of generalizations don't help communities communicate better with each other.

Anyway, I wrote all of this in a comment on Christopher's post, but Blogger ate it - perhaps as karmic retribution for my having disabled my own comments. So be it. :) Go check the post out, though, because it's really good.

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