5 May 2012

A Defence of the Arts

‘The Arts’, a vast, cultural collection of creative and social disciplines, is a field of study that is constantly under siege from derogatory, na├»ve and introspective discredit. From many angles, the glorious, archaic but crumbling battlements of the Arts are under attack from battalions of scientists, politicians and people claiming that such an education’s use is diminished, now merely ornamental and pointless in a world where cold, hard numbers on TV screens at the New York and Shanghai Stock Exchanges reign supreme.

A ‘BSc’ is seen by many as a superior degree when one has left University, because of the apparent gain of empirical knowledge one has gained in that field of study. The same is not seen for the Arts. Many students, bolstered by the confidence in their field of study, will often go out of their way to boast about the quality of their degree, or the opposite: discrediting a degree they know very little about.

Politically, the Arts are under threat too. Since the 100% cut in UK government funding for the Arts, the future institutions of the Arts are indeed at risk of becoming the ‘crumbling battlements’ I spoke of in my introduction. The irony, of course, is that the politicians making these decisions invariably have Arts degrees: a pattern in many of the most prestigious jobs of the country.

Discrediting the Arts and its uses is unnecessary. Of course, a student studying History is very unlikely to pioneer a breakthrough in cancer treatment, or invent a new, more effective aircraft, or find an efficient way of encasing the energy released by nuclear fusion, but the study of History should not be punished or penalised because of this. The study of many Arts degrees ‘keeps alive and refurbishes glorious human artefacts’ that would be ‘rendered less available to future generations’ (Stanley Fish) with the loss of such study. With the loss of prestigious Arts degrees, such as History, Politics and English, the human race would lose centuries of cultural knowledge that has built and shaped the society in which we live. ‘So what?’, you might ask. So future generations will lose out on interesting, and useful, information about our civilisation’s past and therefore future. The study of science cannot function without society and culture, just as the study of Art cannot function without engineering and science.

Of course, science and art are inextricably linked.  There are elements of subjects in other subjects: a mathematician will make copious piles of notes to reach that elusive answer, as would a historian unlocking the empirical secrets of the Aztec Empire. Equally, a composer will write in a way that reflects scientific experimentation, seeing a lot of well-crafted work discarded before arriving at the end, worth-while product. My own personal experience in my English degree has had me studying Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The juxtaposition and separation of the Arts and Sciences is, in my view, rather juvenile and unnecessary competition, certainly a factor that should not appear in the dialogue of the intellectuals leading the forefront of scientific, social and cultural innovation.

Stanley Fish, in a lecture titled ‘Liberal Arts Education Needs No Justification’, gave a similar argument in a much more effective way than I could hope to. The following quote describes the paradox that I’ve been grappling with in this post:
“The loss [of Arts] would not be economic, or reputational, or civic. It could not be described by any of the measures the commission will invoke; in fact it cannot be described. And it cannot be explained.”
Do we really want a world full of overtly logical scientists without the liberal, entertaining and broader influence of the Arts? I hope the answer is ‘no’. A balance; a compromise: this seems to be the answer to many things. Of course, the advancement of science and technology is fundamental in the human race’s race for development, but as is the study of us as humans; the study of our past; the pursuit of our pleasures; the preservation, study and admiration of Fish’s ‘glorious human artefacts’. Therefore, the battalions fighting for the domination of Newton, Watt and Einstein should not be assailing the under-funded establishments of the Arts, but working with the preservers and pioneers of the theories and works of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Mill for the collective advancement of the human race. 

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