11/21/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Considering the Source: Which Contributes Most to the Well-being of Society -- Science or Art?

The old curmudgeon in me often wonders, "Why do we keep asking the opinion of the man in the street? If he knew anything he wouldn't be in the damn street!"

Recently I came across some information in a public survey that confirmed my old curmudgeon's jaundiced view of the man in the street. It was a 2009 Pew Research Center for The People & The Press survey of the public's attitude towards science, although it was a question that encompassed artists that caught my attention.

The public was asked whether certain professions contribute "a lot" to society's well-being. Seventy percent of the public thought scientists did, which was close to their opinion on members of the military (84 percent), teachers (77 percent) and medical doctors (69 percent), whereas only 31 percent of the public thought artists did, just above lawyers (23 percent) and business executives (21 percent).

Although I was pleased to see scientists listed among those that a majority of people think contribute a lot to the well-being of society, I am skeptical whether they truly know what they are talking about. I was dismayed to see that only 31 percent of the public believe that artists contribute to the well-being of society despite their lives being made at least slightly better, and at least slightly more tolerable every day, because of the work of artists.

Let's take scientists first. Although I, had I been asked, would have enthusiastically stated that I believed scientists contribute a lot to the well-being of society, I have to wonder how most of the respondents interpreted the question. Were they thinking of scientists who do pure research, who go off on quests for knowledge simply for the sake of that knowledge, whether it is the quantum structure of the universe, the family tree of Homo sapiens, the roots of consciousness, or the origin of life? Or were they thinking of those scientists -- and the technologists and engineers who follow them -- looking to apply their science to something nicely practical and potentially profitable, from medical techniques and drugs, to new sources of clean energy to ever more powerful computers, ever more versatile cell phones, and ever more realistically violent video games?

I would be willing to bet it was the latter. For those are tangible items that not only everyone can see, almost everyone has arguably benefited from. But had the public been asked if the research that physicists are now doing at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, or the data to be gather from Curiosity, the newest Mars probe, or the knowledge that has been pouring in from the Hubble Telescope, or the discovery of strange new species at the bottom of the oceans, if the public had been asked if any of this contributes to the well-being of society, does anyone really think the polling would have reached 70 percent? This fruit from the tree of knowledge may inspire awe and wonder, but does anyone really think it makes our days better and brighter?

Well, I do, because I believe that it is inherent in Homo sapiens to quest after knowledge, and if that quest isn't heeded the well-being of all eventually suffers. I just don't believe most of the public believes this. I may just be an effete elitist, of course, and I welcome counter arguments, but I believe that when most people think of well-being they think of tangible benefits, things they can touch and see and assess; not benefits that are more, for lack of a better word, ethereal. Which may be why artists only polled 31 percent.

If I may be so bold to define art as the self-expressions of Homo sapiens, would it then be logical to assume that many people see art as a self-indulgence, something done essentially for the benefit of the individual artist, and not for society? But to make such an assumption you really have to underline the "A" in art and further assume that the public considers art as being only that which has been defined as "high" or "fine" or "profound." In this view, art is that which the artists, and some critics, may consider rarefied, but which is not really liked or understood by the masses. The masses, far from being ashamed by this, often take pride in it, making them reverse effete elitists.

My definition of art, that it is the self-expressions of Homo sapiens, though, gives it a rather broad scope, taking in everything from the most esoteric modern composer of note-less music, to that guy in the bar who can burp out the first two bars of any song you care to name. His art may not be profound, and certainly may not contribute to the well-being of society, but it cannot be denied that it is an expression of his self.

Even if we back up from the burping troubadour (and who wouldn't want to?) my definition still assumes that artists are not just people who put cows in formaldehyde, or write music you can't hum, novels without plots, and poetry a stunningly small amount of Americans read, but also those people whose genuine and sincere expressions create works that have been both celebrated and damned as "popular art." From the best -- and we always want to discuss the best -- in film, television, music, books and theater to the finest work of architects designing buildings of stunning grace and beauty or of regional craft fair jewelry designers who make pieces that call out to you and say, "That's me!" or "That's my lover!" or "That's my friend!" Such art pervades our daily lives and it is often what we most enthusiastically share with others.

If it is inherent inHomo sapiens to quest for knowledge it is also inherent in Homo sapiens to express themselves, and those expressions can be in words, music, movement, stone, wood, paint or light. If it is not in our individual abilities to express ourselves well, with subtlety and finely honed craft, we still, all of us, have the desire to do so. It is wonderful when artists express, for example, stories that speak for us and to us, in essence giving them to us as our own if we want them. If cut off from that, if we could not share the expressions of artists, and share them with others, would we not become frustrated, our emotions thrown into chaos, our view of the world surrounding us squeezed into a narrow aperture letting in little light? And would not that be detrimental to our well-being?

Scientists and artists both contribute "a lot" to society's well-being, because their work -- the quest for knowledge and the expression of selves -- are essential human endeavors. If those endeavors were not carried out we would be less human and our society would eventually become diminished.

If the old curmudgeon in me is right, that the public -- atavistically known as the man in the street -- places the contributions of scientists to the well-being of society far above that of artists because they over-value the popular in science and take for granted the popular in art, then that is sad. If they knew the true value of both, I believe the percentages would have been much closer -- and both very high.

But what do I know? I'm just the effete elitist in the street.