This is the first of what will eventually be a number of posts on this topic: this is one of my central concerns.
Some liberal arts professors, in the deconstructionist school, notably Stanley Fish, have recently argued that the only purpose of gradschool in the arts is to produce arts professors. He sees literary criticism as a craft, and his english department is supposed to teach that craft.
He also argues that the notion that the liberal arts can ‘improve people’ is pure hogwash.
Deconstructionism, however, isn’t exactly known for its idealism: Fish is an anti-idealist. And, arguably, he and his ilk are the principal problem with the arts in the US. In their literary criticism, they argue that there is no purpose to anything. Thus, they are purely of the 1950s nihilist school of artistic thought, which was following dadaism, which was following Nietzsche, in arguing that since Christianity was false, therefore God was dead. With god dead, they reasoned, there was no real or ‘true’ idealism: thus, no truth, beauty, etc. Since there was no such thing as beauty, art did not have to be beautiful. And, more to the point, there was no way to judge that art was beautiful.
In my post on aesthetics, I have challenged this notion by arguing that human beings all have certain instincts and characteristics which means that, yes, some things are inherently pleasant to almost all people, and some things are inherently unpleasant. A noise as loud as a jet engine up close is going to be unpleasant, unless you are deaf. Likewise, a 15 storey building will always strike us as tall, because we are only ever going to be about one meter high, as humans. Dogshit will always be unpleasnt, except in that taboo freudian way which causes us all to find shit somehow fascinating, even while we find it disgusting. Likewise, the golden section in art and music replicates the same proportions of the human body and all other natural things with DNA, thus, we find these things inherently pleasing. This is why credit cards and TV screens are the proportionality that they are: we find this soothing, somehow correct, becasue the 3:4 proportionality is based on our own human proportionality. So, in other words, I have argued that even if God is dead, there is no reason for us to throw out the Platonic ideals: they make sense to us, and all of us yearn for them. They are part of our instinctual and psychological makeup, and to deny this, as the 20th century experiment has revealed, is just to create garbage. This is how one can describe most 20th century art which comes from the nihilist vein, including Stanley Fish’s criticism, for the most part.
A major value of the arts, in other words, help us to see ideals, to appreciate the gestalt, and to move above the level of being mere animals, or mere machines. Vocational education, which is dedicated exclusively to the pursuit of technical training, for the purpose of making us good at performing one particular type of task, is ideally suited to machines rather than people: its ideal is to have people who merely perform an economically lucrative task well. Thus, purely vocational training, while useful, also degrades us, and denies us the power of our minds, our souls, our thinking parts, the parts of us which have perspective, and which make sense of things.
But to defend the arts effectively we should perhaps move out of this realm of the idealistic and deductive, which Fish and his Aristotelianist adherents do not like, to the concrete world of the inductive and empirical: let’s keep it real. Here on our critics’ own ground there are still many reasons to see value in the arts, and this is probably the most fruitful way to defend the arts to society at large. The arts have a number of serious, concrete, and arguably essential purposes to perform in any democracy. While Fish dwells on the purely vocational aspect of arts training, and finds the rest to be garbage, I have argued, however, that there is another side of the coin: 20th century arts criticism, insofar as it was decentering, was also the most productive theory perhaps ever, in terms f how much egalitarianism it has fostered in our society.
The liberal arts have been both nihilist in the 20th century, and to this extent the arts establishment has alienated itself both from itself and from the public, but it has also been highly progressive: it has presided over the greatest single increase in equality , true equality based on thought, word, and deed, that has ever existed, due in large part to the psychological discoveries of the power of language by the likes of Laing, followed up by Foucault. This has led to the modern ‘political correctness’ movement, which people groan about, but which actually is the popular side of an incredible decrease in sexism and racism and almost every other type of ism. I argue that this is the fault of the liberal arts. But people like Stanely Fish have almost entirely hidden this from the public view, by continuing to hold the spoltlight on their silly nihilism. Their generation, thankfully, is dying out. But as Fish notes, it has also taken the notion of tenure with it, and in many ways, the last notions of a sinecure professoriate which is free to produce at leisure, like gentlepeople. The new generation of professors are jobsworthies – in fact they work just as hard as people at the most high powered offices. This is not good, because it means they are to a large degree thinking only vocationally, and can often miss the forest for the trees.
At any rate, why study the arts? The arts are not worthless, as Fish argues. They are perhaps responsible for all that is progressive in society. Where else do people study empathy? The arts, in essence, are empathy. Your subject is people, and to be scientific about the study of people, you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
The individual arts subjects are also all historical, as I have argued in my history post. English is the history of english, Philosophy is the history of philosophy. Political Science is the history of Poly Sci, and psychology ditto. in other words, when you take any course in these fields, from 101 up to a PhD, you are doing history. When you do history, you scientifically engage with the artefacts of other people – specifically, their texts. Their distilled thoughts. You must empathize with their texts, to understand them. And you can then judge which of their ideas are worthy and which aren’t, and which were significant and which weren’t. But the point is, you are empathizing, for the most part, in some way or another: you’re recreating other lives, other thoughts, other societies, with the notion of understanding them, so that you can understand the main issues in your field.
In Holland, you only study the arts at university, which is considered the ‘highest’ type of postsecondary education. The vocations, including architecture, are at vocational school. The sad thing is that in this way, architects and other vocational educations, engineering, etc., have no exposure to the arts at all. And the university students just do the arts – or other things which can be done ideally, wihtout applying them (like economics, and the sciences). Even though of course many of these things do have applications. And in holland, companies hire university grads for the highest management posts under the assumption that they have learned how to think critically.
So in Holland, as an arts major, you automatically are up for the best posts in upper management. Management school is for those who will do lesser things. This obviates the American obession with the question: what good are the arts? Most american parents, of course, will tell their kids to avoid the arts like the plague, and do something which will ‘earn them a job’ afterwards. This makes sense, for most middle class people.
But some of us simply will not learn. It tends to be those whose skills most lie in language. Language is messy, and very complex. Math can be very complex, but complex in a formulaic way. You can proceed in clear logical steps, and it’s a question of if your brain can follow the chain, for the most part. Same with most vocational training. There are problems, and usually, there are paths that you take to create solutions. In the arts, however, the essence is text, and language, which often, as epitomized by poetry, has quite a few meanings at once. There are gradations: philosophy attempts to be the most logical; the social sciences aim to find social formulas. But it always comes back to language, and its slipperiness. Because of its complexity, one can make a strong argument that the very smartest, certainly the most sophisticated, people are those who can master language. The arts are therefore the most challenging and engaging of all university subjects. Anyone can learn formulas (though few can master them, admittedly–this takes genius). That whole notion a “Beautiful Mind” being the mind of a math genius, is typical our society whose liberal arts’ establishment has been pursuing nihilism for 50 years: thanks, Mr. Fish. I would argue, and the entire weight of the Western tradition would be on my side on this one, that a beautiful mind, whatever else it may be, must be a philosophical mind as well. A mathematically gifted mind can be an orderly mind, but for it to be beautiful – its beholder has to have an inkling of all the Platonic theories of beauty which originated the notion that mathematics are beautiful. In other words, a math genius’ mind only differs from a machine insofar as someone (the mathematician or someone else) with an understanding of language, aesthetics, and philosophy can create an entire cosmos of meaning around the notion of order, logic, and the ‘laws of nature’ of which mathematics are a part. (The ‘laws of nature’ were originally supposed to be a reflection of the thoughts of God himself–a beautiful notion, which has the power to make me weep). Mastering the art of working with language is therefore of a higher order: only with language, do you have a fighting chance of encompassing and describing the significance of all science, all math, all music, all experience.
Still, why do it, practically speaking? Because, as I argue in my democracy book, the arts are the guardians of philosophy, history, and humanism. Without a rigorous historical arts university curriculum in your society, there is no history. If there is no professional history being done (or serious amateur history), then your society will naturally fall back into a state of mythology regarding God, and other social beliefs. This is a gateway to hierarchy, since mythology favors hierarchy historically speaking. In other words, business people who know no history will find it much easier to adhere to, say, fundamentalist christianity, which itself favors patriarchy, and the power of the few, despite its egalitarian protestant roots.
The arts are also the anchor for philosophy, which is the basis of science. Historically, before there was science in any society, there had to be the rigorous application of reason to all human problems. Natural philosophy, was the beginning of science – it was a branch of philosophy. Any society which has no institutionalized philosophy will also tend to slide towards myth: the advertisers will win (see my post on advertising and marketing).
And, the arts, by institutionalizing empathy, will naturally tend to foster humanism. Without the arts, no society can long justify human rights. Most societies today do not have adequate human rights. These are the same countries which have weak university systems–the ones which have only technical schools, minus the arts.
There is a reason why the arts have always been the core of the university curriculum in the west: they are the foundational building blocks of a rational, ordered enquiry into all of the major aspects of human life: the seven arts were grammar, logic and rhetoric (all dealing with how to apply reason to the use of language), and then arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (all to deal with the rational application of math and space to the earth, and the cosmos). This means, that the sciences and the arts have always been intimately bound. They are, in essence the same thing. If a society tries to concentrate just on the sciences, without the arts, or more specifically, just on the applied sciences, without the arts, then it will also slide into myth – humans will perform their vocational jobs well, but they will be very ignorant in terms of history, and society, and they will then fall prey to the priests: the televangelists, who are the modern versions of the Priests of Karnak, or of Baal, or of Yahweh. They are the enemies of equality and democracy, since they are essentially hierarchical and patriarchal.
Thus, Stanley Fish’s criticism of the arts is entirely fragmented, and ahistorical, and shows a lack of true understanding of the arts, or indeed, of the western university system.
Study the arts, then, because you are smart, and in our economy (see my economic posts), you will always be able to get some kind of job if you really want one. The ideal, however, is to try and avoid having a real job, and to live like a gentleperson, with a sine cure, whose main job is to make the world more beautiful, and more ideal for everyone else, if by no other means than by setting a good example, by living a noble life yourself. Of course, you will want to apply yourself. My definition of a noble life is one which is also useful to society. For those of you who find this too idealistic, or too flippant, then study the arts because it will indeed give you much more perspective on most of the aspects of human life and society, about which you can know very little if you merely study vocation. Study the arts, then, so that you can be an effective manager. Because effective managers understand what they are doing, and how to have agency. And this requires perspective (literal and figurative: as it worked in the renaissance, when gaining historical perspective into the history of the latin language, encouraged mapmakers to draw realistic maps of the world, and inspired Columbus to sail across the Atlantic). Only the arts can do this.
Fish not-jokingly says that the people in his department are not better people than average. He uses this to argue that the arts can’t ennoble, since the professors he knows are not noble. But, he’ll note, they are some of the more progressive, and egalitarian, and pro-democratic people, as a group, and as a profession, that exists. And, a new study just came out which clearly links education with lack of anger, i.e., lack of violence. I’ve already tied democracy to reason, and hierarchy/totalitarianism to violence in other posts. This is yet another way that studying the arts, in many subtle (and yet quite obvious if you step back to look at them) ways, is good for society.
And finally, and example of what society would be like without the arts, or at least, one of the major arts subjects. In Holland, there is no such thing as a literature major. There are no dutch majors. You just study grammar instead (philology). The nation is a very prosaic one (good in many ways, but also prosaic). This is in great contrast to the US and Britain, where literary studies have produced, inter alia, by far the most sophisticated music lyricists of anywhere in the world. Why is that? Because English majors exist. The society in general is more textually aware, and has more perspective, and arguably thinks in these poetic ways, in a way that is unique in the world. That is just one way that the arts effect society, but it is subtle enough that only people who are steeped in these thoughts, and who actually live for long periods in both cultures, have a chance of detecting. So, study the arts. And travel.