Why “The Arts” Matter

This has been percolating for some time – in my heart, in my head. I have found myself in numerous situations, with academics and non-academics alike, trying to explain why I do what I do, why I love what I do. As I find myself at a professional crossroads I have considered this subject more than ever before. In a country were Wall Street and Google are more respected than the Smithsonian, is a life devoted to the arts wise? Manageable?

Art. The Arts.

I breathe it. I taste it. I cannot live without it.

I have devoted the last eight years of my life to studying the history, theory, and criticism of: art, art history, history, urbanism, architecture, urban planning, religion, philosophy, law, economics, etc, to better understand the development of the Western and non-Western worlds. How is the canon defined? How can we create a new canon to end the great white-western-tradition that excludes minorities, women, and the non-Western world. How can an understanding of the history of Cairo, for example, lead us to a better understanding of the development of Islamic Architecture and vice versa? How does the trade of silk fabric from China to Denmark impact Dutch woodcut prints, paintings, fashion, and their cultivation of Latin American colonies? This world systems analysis approach to the history of the arts and cultures is the basic tenet of the liberal arts and humanistic studies in the US, Canada, Europe and a rapidly growing university tradition in the non-Western world.

In a year where the GOP, Tea Party, and Conservative media et all, has called for the intellectual beheading of this country (defunding NPR, PBS, NEA, destruction of teachers unions, the abolishment of arts education in primary and secondary schools, etc) the slow-building anti-intellectual movement in this US has ramped up their destructive calls for further skepticism of American universities and their dislike, distrust, and further desire to de-emphasize the importance of an educated populace. It has become socially and politically acceptable to dislike and distrust educated people – the better the education, the more degrees the greater the skepticism. Sarah Palin, a woman who barely managed to scrape out a degree in journalism after attending five colleges, is a poster woman for many in this country. The term “elite” has come to serve as an acceptable degrading hiss of a pejorative in a country that has a great national distaste for the educated.

It has become so easy to dismiss the arts, to brush them aside with a flick of the wrist. So easy, in fact, that even Bill Maher made the case for defunding the NEA. For Maher, the NEA doesn’t save lives, doesn’t accomplish anything tangible, like say the EPA, and is thus expendable. This mentality of the “the arts don’t matter, they aren’t important, they don’t contribute or have an economic incentive to exist” is rampant in this country. Libraries close without a blink of a community’s eye. Universities slash humanities budgets but never touch athletics. Generations of parents scoff at the idea of an English or Women’s Studies major, pushing their children to major in computers or business instead. Universities close Latin, Classics, and Area Studies programs (to name only a few of the affected liberal arts) without any protest.

And why should universities care about critical reasoning skills? Why should universities support programs that train students to read within a critical, theoretical discourse, analyze the material, and produce a cogent, pointed argument or debate? Why should universities support philosophy, english, history, and art history majors? Wall Street isn’t interested in hiring from these majors, so why are they important? Perhaps because these majors score highest on the GRE and LSAT exams. Perform better in graduate and law programs than other majors. Have superior critical reasoning and analytical skills than mathematics and business majors.

The reason it is so easy to ignore and dismiss the arts, the humanities, is because Americans have become detrimentally separated from the history of education, from the history of what it means to be educated. Each generation, since the beginning of human existence, has sought to pass on cultural and social values, traditions, morality, religion and skills to the next generation. The passing on of culture is also known as enculturation and the learning of social values and behaviors is socialization. The history of the curricula of such education reflects human history itself, the history of knowledge, beliefs, skills and cultures of humanity.

Education creates vessels of humanity out of every student. The history of this world, of our cultures is crafted and disseminated in education. Without an educated populace, how are we to survive? How are we to know what came before us, what shape us, and how we can innovate our future? The process of receiving knowledge, processing it, learning lessons from it, and critically using it as a tool of future development and growth is the keystone of every educational system. But it is most represented in the arts, in humanistic pursuits.

‘The Arts” encompasses visual arts and cultural practice, the literary arts (poetry and prose), theater, music, dance, architecture, television, radio, film, journalism, fashion and food. The arts are what we see, read, watch, taste, wear. It is how we move, what we listen to, it is what we live in from the design of our homes and furniture, our planned cities, our cars, our clothes, and what we read day in and out. The arts encompass every output of the human creative practice. Even if you’d like to think of the arts as only the imaginative, creative, and nonscientific branches of knowledge considered collectively and studied academically, you can’t help but note the broad sweep of your implications in our everyday lives and in every plane of our societal functions.

The arts are both a response to the world around as as they are catalyst for cultural change. Artists, of all media, serve as a mirror to the world. They examine our collective conscience. They ask us to question our beliefs, our actions, to rethink what we know and how we know it. The nature of our world is defined, refined, deconstructed and reconstructed through the arts. Paintings of rulers can serve simultaneously as a glimpse into a a moment of history and state-sponsored propaganda (see my piece on “Oriental Nationalism” and the role of Gros in the court of Napoleon here). The arts help shape gender roles, cultural predilections for body shape and notions of beauty (see my piece of the impact of fashion photography and fashion in Vogue here). Art and artists have impacted global politics at times as well (for instance, Surrealism, see my post here). The arts bleed into areas of our lives we wouldn’t even think that they would: such as science and war practices (see my post on Performance/Body Art here, and my post on the nature of video and suicide bombing in contemporary art practice here).

Arts education, museums, galleries, theaters, and libraries are the keepers, the vessels of these great, impactful forces in our world. They are the ultimate democratizing force in the world today. The easiest way to restrict growth of a society, critical dialogue, opposition of thought and diversity of opinion is to restrict education, namely critical reasoning skills, skills that are central and foundational to arts and humanities curricula. Why are we so accepting of their dismissal from our national priorities? Stephen Colbert recently joked with the director of a forthcoming documentary on imprisoned Chinese artist Ai WeiWei that: “In American we know to ignore [serious] artists…serious artists are a complete joke.” Naturally, the knowing audience member realizes the bit Colbert has perfected on his show, the pseudo-Right Wing position he takes to mock such figures, such positions. But his statement is no joke. To many it is all to true.

American capitalism has made a MBA more valuable than analytical skills, than the ability to converse cogently about the broad breadth of humanity. We care not what people know, what they are capable of thinking deeply about. We only care about the object, the dollar amount they can produce.

In a country built upon innovation, where we pride ourselves on pushing the next wave of global development, why are we so uninterested in creativity? Why don’t we fight tooth and nail to keep the great bastions of our history of our creativity alive and funding and staffed to the hilt? We are so cavalier with culture, so flippant about art and art education, I fear that it will slip through the sieve of time without our noticing its loss till it’s too late. We are only as great as our ability to progress. How can we do that without knowing from what we have evolved? Our libraries, our museums, they hold within their walls the great majesty of our collective human achievement. Without them, what are we? What will we become?

11 Comments

Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History, Music, Politics, Religion, US

11 responses to “Why “The Arts” Matter

  1. cynicl1

    Art teaches critical thinking and a keen eye for the possible, something the bean counters with an MBA sorely lack.

  2. Pingback: Why "The Arts" Matter | Γονείς σε Δράση

  3. Kitteh

    Fantastic topic as always!
    My sibs and I are all considered “creative” and “artistic” people. We always have been. Quite frankly, we’ve always found it difficult to understand people who can’t think outside the box. We don’t even see the box. When I was working on my M.A. in Classical Studies, critical thinking wasn’t encouraged, unless it parroted or advanced already accepted views of the Ancients. Meaning, they wanted everything to be kept VERY European, Victorian even. It drove me insane.
    I think a major problem the Western educational system (Europe is suffering too) is that we’ve become too incorporated (most private universities which are small are tied now to corporations, but not necessarily giant ones) and therefore we are too left-brained in how we approach education. Education should balance the brain to create a well-rounded human being. It does not anymore. Now it’s all about test scores, sucking up to the right people, and getting a career that can be taken away in the blink of an eye by a heartless machine of a corporation.
    I don’t think like this. I take directions, sure, but not orders. It scares me to death that so many people who bother to get an education beyond high school are incapable of critical thinking, debate, reasoning, etc. They can’t do it. Most don’t even want to. I blame the absence of anything artistic. Our brains have specific areas which are there for processing the art, language and music, for Dali’s sake!
    Sports are not artistic, neither is business. Yet, it’s all that’s encouraged in our society. No one really wants to be a poet these days, even if they are fantastic writers. Why? There’s no money in it. But there is more soul and a better connection to the universe in a good line of poetry than any paycheck will ever give you, and we’ve forgotten that. Remember when people actually WANTED to be artists? Remember when artistic people were respected and admired? Vaguely, I bet. This needs to change. Like now. Seriously, when we make excuses for Ke$ha and call that drivel “music”, we are doomed.
    Do I think all is lost? No, not at all. Artistically, we are in our “Dark Ages” period, and it will pass. It may be quite a massive kidney stone, which I’m sure will have some giant corporate logo on it, but it will be passed. I think creativity and the art that comes from it are things that cannot be exterminated. The truly artistic people in this world will prevail, they always have, and thank Apollo for that.

  4. Show me a math or engineering major who could write that essay…

    • Gwen

      I have 2 sons. One just graduated with an engineering degree, but he is also a good writer, can play the piano, ran cross country in high school, and is intensely interested in politics. The other is an acting major in a highly regarded program, but was always a good student in math and the sciences. He studied Latin in high school, played baseball, and is also an excellent writer.
      Our goal as parents was to raise well rounded sons, not necessarily all-A students, but interesting people prepared to make their own choices in this world. Thus, they had a wide variety of activities, and we shunned the “travel team” mentality that has kids specialize at a young age. So far so good……

  5. Kim

    Thoughtful, beautiful piece. I’m not considered an artistic person, but it is a big part of me. It’s how I view the world.
    Let’s see, I agree with we seem to be the money driven society, however more time in school is not necessary for the youngsters(k-12). In fact I believe they spend too much time sitting on their duffs getting fat or bored. Sitting in a class for 6-8 hours does not suit every child. Time in k-12 should be 50% core and 50% art, music and sports/movement. In middle school, some don’t even have recess or pe and what’s to wonder as to why we are hefty in America ?
    The arts, music and humanities make us feel, no one has time to feel anymore as they are rushing around to and fro. I think we would be a kinder society all they way around with more arts and literature, music too. Too busy making money to then spend it. Possibly the recent hard times, may help to change some of the direction we have been in for awhile/since the eighties! Capitalism is good in that it drives jobs and people do need to work for goods but they don’t need to get burned out in the process. I would rather have capitalism than live in a repressed society with little or no freedoms, then I could educate myself to become my enlightened best.

  6. Wonderful Article, thank you for that.

    When one discusses the notion of the arts, it is impossible to do so without engaging the very faculties that they employ. It is a tautological fallacy to engage upon any argumentation in relation to the arts without first accessing the very fundements from which your argument derives. So to say we no longer need the arts, is like saying, we no longer need to have this discussion.

    From the arts, sprung the wealth of human knowledge, it is the wellspring in the center of the town, from which the entire populous draws its life giving water. Civilizations come, and civilizations go, but the well that has been dug to reach the water remains. Humanity could no longer do without the Arts than a person could do without water. Although we would like to think that we are separate from that water, when we take a closer look, we find that we are composed almost exclusively of that water, and the assemblage of minerals that have been skeletally constructed to make our form, are done so because of that water. So it is with society, It would be foolish to believe that the construct of our social fabric is independent of the silent foundation upon which it is constructed. For it is constructed upon the bedrock of human sensations, sound, sight, sensation in all its guises, and the imaginal creations that make these sensations meaningful for each person, and by so doing make life itself meaningful for each person.

    Art, seeks to manifest the imaginal and marry it with the moment, the moment that is forever in a constant state of flux, flowing ever onwards towards a future state that is as yet unformed. The formation of that state is dependent upon the creative imagination of the meaning makers in the present moment, those that can forge a meaningful structure in not only the physical world, but the world of the mind. The individual mind, as well as the collective social mind. For meaning is the very basis upon which each individual lives, and without it, the most basic drives and instincts dissolve into a nothingness and hopeless ennui. This is as much true for society at large as it is for each individual within it, for the derivation of meaning from which each individual functions and creates in the temporal flow of their lives demands that there be a connectible continuity to that meaning, as we move from a history to a present and create a future. It is here that we have arrived at the greatest asset the Arts contribute, for it is at the forge of wonder, the mighty confluence of temporality that smelts the raw material of the past, and adds the carbon of the present that the steel of the future is forged. The creative possibility of future circumstance is born from such a place. Epiphany, transcendence, imaginal leaps often centuries ahead of their time, formless resonances that are as yet not even describable through words, find themselves planted as seeds in the creative imaginations of artistic sensibilities that are sensitive in ways that no logos oriented automaton could fathom, for pathos has its own language, and it is often not the language of rules. For it is here at the mighty confluence of the present moment, that the past meets the future is a clashing tide of possibility.

    All faculties must be employed to capture the infinite opportunity of that moment, and reshape it into a meaningful construct, by which those who traverse that ever changing moment might manifest it into a continuity of meaning, out of which invention and possibility are forged. It is nothing less than the creative moment itself, and to hamstring that moment, by denigrating its most subtle quality is nothing short of an assault upon the very basis of humanity. Logos gone crazy, out of kilter with the pathos of its invention, and a bludgeoning imbalance of the ethos by which it must exist.

    The artist, in whatever form they choose to create, are the bastions of the creative moment, they work and forge new meanings by which the great confluence of the past and the rising tide of the future might meet in the present and be constructed into some semblance of conscious continuity. There are times at which great leaps of understanding overwhelm us, and they are disseminated to the masses by way of the artful exchange, through these bastions of the creative moment, so that the artist transcends the station of creator and becomes inculcator, the educator of the society as a whole, the herald of that which has been born in that frightful forge. In this way, that which would barely be knowable can become understandable by those with differing faculties of comprehension. Yet it is not as inculcator that the Artist, finds their greatest social merit, it is as shaman, as watcher, as critical thinker, as individualist, as prophet, as dreamer, as maker of meaning, as bridge, as lift, as the connective sinew that weaves the threads that hold the social fabric of the entirety of human existence together, not just the individual disciplines of the present moment, but the inter temporal moments from deep antiquity to the future possibility, for all these faculties and histories, functionalities and possibilities would be disparate chaotic cacophonies were it not for the weave of the Artist, whose great craft is the stitching of meaning into the shroud of human civilization.

    Armies come and armies go, civilizations rise, and civilizations fall, but the well remains, and those who have the ability to draw from the cool waters of that well, give life and meaning to life for all time.

    • Kim

      To Richard/enjoyed reading your reply to Sarah’s article. Especially like the following: foolish to believe the const. of our social fabric indep. of the silent found. upon which it is const. All tied together, correct. Also like the meaning makers, basic drives and instincts dissolve into nothingness & hopeless ennui, that’s good, need more understanding of it though. And love the ‘weave of the Artist whose great craft is the stitching of meaning into the shroud of human civilization.’ That’s excellent!

  7. When one discusses the notion of the arts, it is impossible to do so without engaging the very faculties that one wishes to employ or destroy. It is therefore a tautological fallacy to ignore the fact that in order to engage upon any argumentation in relation to the arts, that seeks to conclude the redundancy of the arts, it is impossible to do so without first accessing the very fundements from which the argument derives. So to say we no longer need the arts, is like saying, we no longer need to have this discussion, in fact it is impossible to have this discussion because to do so would repudiate the proposition that the arts, and the teaching of the arts are redundant, for in the proposed redundancy, grows the seed of the redundancy of the argument against them. Yet there are more powerful arguments, than mere logic in favor of the Arts, and in defense of there expression and inculcation in the schools and universities, and indeed within society in general.

    From the Arts, sprung the wealth of human knowledge and creative possibility in each civilization. It is the wellspring in the center of the town, from which the entire populous draws its life giving water. Civilizations come, and civilizations go, but the well that has been dug to reach the water remains. Humanity could no longer do without the Arts than a person could do without water. Although we would like to think that we are separate from that water, when we take a closer look, we find that we are composed almost exclusively of that water, and the assemblage of minerals that have been skeletally constructed to make our form, are done so because of that water. So it is with society, It would be foolish to believe that the construct of our social fabric is independent of the silent foundation upon which it is constructed. For it is constructed upon the bedrock of human sensations, sound, sight, sensation in all its guises, and the imaginal creations that make these sensations meaningful for each person, and by so doing make life itself meaningful for each person.

    Art, seeks to manifest the imaginal and marry it with the moment, the moment that is forever in a constant state of flux, flowing ever onwards towards a future state that is as yet unformed. The formation of that state is dependent upon the creative imagination of the meaning makers in the present moment, those that can forge a meaningful structure in not only the physical world, but the world of the mind. The individual mind, as well as the collective social mind. For meaning is the very basis upon which each individual lives, and without it, the most basic drives and instincts dissolve into a nothingness and hopeless ennui. This is as much true for society at large as it is for each individual within it, for the derivation of meaning from which each individual functions and creates in the temporal flow of their lives demands that there be a connectible continuity to that meaning, as we move from a history to a present and create a future. It is here that we have arrived at the greatest asset the Arts contribute, for it is at the forge of wonder, the mighty confluence of temporality that smelts the raw material of the past, and adds the carbon of the present that the steel of the future is forged. The creative possibility of future circumstance is born from such a place. Epiphany, transcendence, imaginal leaps often centuries ahead of their time, formless resonances that are as yet not even describable through words, find themselves planted as seeds in the creative imaginations of artistic sensibilities that are sensitive in ways that no logos oriented automaton could fathom, for pathos has its own language, and it is often not the language of rules. For it is here at the mighty confluence of the present moment, that the past meets the future is a clashing tide of possibility.

    All faculties must be employed to capture the infinite opportunity of that moment, and reshape it into a meaningful construct, by which those who traverse that ever changing moment might manifest it into a continuity of meaning, out of which invention and possibility are forged. It is nothing less than the creative moment itself, and to hamstring that moment, by denigrating its most subtle quality is nothing short of an assault upon the very basis of humanity. Logos gone crazy, out of kilter with the pathos of its invention, and a bludgeoning imbalance of the ethos by which it must exist.

    The artist, in whatever form they choose to create, are the bastions of the creative moment, they work and forge new meanings by which the great confluence of the past and the rising tide of the future might meet in the present and be constructed into some semblance of conscious continuity. There are times at which great leaps of understanding overwhelm us, and they are disseminated to the masses by way of the artful exchange, through these bastions of the creative moment, so that the artist transcends the station of creator and becomes inculcator, the educator of the society as a whole, the herald of that which has been born in that frightful forge. In this way, that which would barely be knowable can become understandable by those with differing faculties of comprehension. Yet it is not as inculcator that the Artist, finds their greatest social merit, it is as shaman, as watcher, as critical thinker, as individualist, as prophet, as dreamer, as maker of meaning, as bridge, as lift, as the connective sinew that weaves the threads that hold the social fabric of the entirety of human existence together, not just the individual disciplines of the present moment, but the inter temporal moments from deep antiquity to the future possibility, for all these faculties and histories, functionalities and possibilities would be disparate chaotic cacophonies were it not for the weave of the Artist, whose great craft is the stitching of meaning into the shroud of human civilization.

    Armies come and armies go, ideas become popular and ideas lose their popularity, civilizations rise, and civilizations fall, but the well from which all quench their thirst, remains, and those who have the ability to draw from the cool waters of that well, give life, and meaning to life, for all time, and through all circumstance, no matter how fleeting or permanent it may be.

  8. Excellent article. As I writer/poetess, it saddens me to see the arts disappearing from the schools all over this country. Are we raising children to be free-thinkers with dreams and vision, or to be a spoon-fed, closed-minded, materialistic twits? If people do not stand up and start revolting soon, we are doomed.

  9. I think that you and previous commenters, will take a significant interest in the following link. With the strong push in “practical” BA degrees and Sciences to better the dwindling “financial” economy of the US, I hope more people touting liberal arts as necessary to the human condition and thus society, will continue to spread support of such.

    I am also an art history major, and am pursuing graduate study this Fall semester. In regard to the discipline, art history is very interdisciplinary. This made it more attractive to me, originally a history major, primarily because experience with philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, political science, et. al, opens more pathways for the critical interpretation of visual studies. Though, I do have to admit that my undergraduate papers felt like piece-mealed references to other fields of study because I can only defer to higher authorities and authors for field-specific conclusions, I feel reinvigorated at the opportunities I’ll now have as a graduate student to better my understanding of the liberal arts. I hope this directly effects my studies in the history of art and architecture.

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