Why Arts and Humanites Matter

As explored in The Point of Art, the Arts and Humanities matter because each human culture naturally values its creations, art objects, and its procreations, people. To explain it so simply is considered dubious, only because we are taught to suspect that intuition, pleasure, and the nonargumentative are inadequate, if not somehow nonsensical or nontruthful. Because, we live in an era of Science prestige that operates with the learned assumptions of suggestion and refutation, hypothesis and falsification. Ironically given social science aims to describe human nature, the most basic and universal aspects of human-nature are elided for what can be evidenced by metrics.

To appeal to human-nature for a cultural explanation may seem dubious, but at the root of our behaviour is human nature—better called the expression of our evolved dispositions. Behaviour culturally varies with various art styles and mediums and rituals changing by the culture and the era; but at the base Art, Media and Ritual have been continuous through the space and time of human populations. Rather than ‘change’ these cultural behaviours ‘vary’ from a set biological repertoire of possibilities. As Wolfgang Goethe said, Homo Sapiens is also Homo Aestheticus. And as anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake writes in her book of the same name, anthropological evidence confirms this. The omnipresent manifestation of Art, Media and Ritual, in each society proves that their value taken as a whole is indisputable—not relative nor subjective like their pleasurable or displeasurable, effective or ineffective, art object instances—but inevitable. Despite recent suspicions of the merits of artforms, they endure regardless. But only when popularly endorsed, as institutions with students of Arts and Humanities endorse, do they flourish. Only then, does the pleasurable benefit of artforms and narratives have a strong effect. Society is constituted by both: languages, societies, fine arts, music recording and performance, dance and exhibition, literatures, video media and advertisement, animation, object design, civil law, building architecture, and the logic, rhetoric and ethics of philosophy are necessary for our societal world to rotate in a way the indifferent planet just does by nature. As I argued in my undergraduate dissertation, humans will say such things do not matter, but would change were they taken away by an apocalypse or catastrophe. A hypothetical loss is a great thought experiment means to discover and better appreciate genuine—as opposed to fashion imbibed—human value.

Humans with our excess of prefrontal cortex brain matter would live dull and abysmal lives without books, music, television, film, theatre, games, art, photographs, philosophy, and writing; in fact, the lives we lead are, statistically, mostly them and sleep and paid labour. The lack of economic market demand for artistic and humanistic jobs is often argued as an indicator of their lack of value, but on the contrary, the fact they are oversubscribed attests how valued and desired they are by selectors; despite the money to lure and demand for science, engineering and technology insufficient people care as much, in their heart of hearts, about STEM as they do arts and humanities. While STEM is essential to our society and economics, it is not as pleasurable or emotional or enticing when compared, though of course citizens and funders know they also matter.

The boundaries between Art and Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science are often misleading—to the contrary of natural difference their division is more to do with logistics and specialist success in the economic market than it is nature, or betterment. The Social Sciences, in particular, blur the boundaries of The Disciplines since they are more predictive, model providing, explanatory and quantifiable than the Arts and Humanities yet are not nearly as objective as natural science. Yet they still have the contemporary prestige and for some the intimidation, of science in their title. While the science focus of society has had benefits like inarguable medicine and labour saving devices, the incontrovertible status of objectivity and science becoming confused with everything that can be important, is harmful. The most intuitive and instinctive still matters, regardless of their resistance to hab testing and peer review. Utilitarian or democratic importance does not account for how people live in western civil society, which is lucky, rich, liberal, abundant—the argument that we have to sort out survival does not apply in a society that fulfils its promises for human welfare.

The function of a society’s universities is to teach and research, investigate and cultivate, knowledge delimited but intersected through its Faculties. Yet the premise of university going, as well as the proliferation of many mediocre universities, has recently become: a rite of passage in a training institution where you practice skills for a specialised work role and thereby contribute to the economy and nation with the declared motive of self-interested salary, gratification, and pride. Academics contribute research to their disciplines that are materially useful, thought-provoking, entertaining, or forever forgotten. Thought provoking and entertaining and ideological matter just as much, and by context more, than mere object invention and description of how molecules and bodies behave.

The vogue training explanation works for commerce, medicine and the comparably straightforward disciplines; it works for science, technology, engineering, and finance, but becomes hazy in the oversubscribed—because more popular and valued yet less market demanded—Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities. We depend on scientists for our way of life and the technology we are addicted to so they have prestige whereas the rest and alternative professions are, too often implicitly, seen as dubious and less useful if not useless.

However, that they are not useful for everyone in an immediately apparent statistical way, does not preclude usefulness at all. For instance, everyone consumes entertainment, and the difficulty of creating publishable and respected entertainment is stupidly underestimated by people that have never even tried, and the Arts and Humanities provide excitement, meaning, diversity, political activism from The University to Society so ought not to be undervalued, as they routinely are. The intellectual giants of the past, our models, like scientific geniuses Einstein, Goehte and Newton loved humanism, philosophy and the arts because they provide enough pleasure to justify staying alive in an entropy universe where we inscribe more meaning onto the universe than we discover in its indifferent, inhuman, nature.

Drama provides catharsis; literature can inform us about the contingency of the world and our relationships; art alters how we perceive the world; history gives innumerable case studies of how society can and cannot, ought and ought not, to work; philosophy gives ethics, rhetoric, logic, the scientific method; politics how we organise, and re-organise, society. But that these are in need of defending as I do myself here, presupposes that there are deliberate choices or orchestrations to not have these – funding allocations deplete and are the deliberate choice, but when institutional support for these wither it is when an economy and society is less just and equal, and in some ways less liberal and pleasurable.

The arts and humanities subjects have always been practised in forms cooperative with technology and, if Law of Averages is correct, which on inevitable average it is, they always will. The apparent need to justify–that is, provide ‘the point’ of art and humanism that in turn feeds and gives credence to the doubts of the value of Art and Humanity overlooks that are very personalities are constituted by them and our thinking, spending, and prized time are subsumed by them, whether we acknowledge that or not – that fact remains factual.

While some care to the point of dependence on art and others seem indifferent to culture and art, both parties still use them, one way or another. The arts and humanities feed our souls, a taboo word nowadays, replaced by the orthodox ‘self’, ‘selves’ or ‘personality’—feed our selves, make our self ‘who’ we are rather than the ‘what’ and ‘how’ which is inducted by the scientific method.
In our materialist, capitalist, and fairly newly secularised society, evaluations have become more mechanical, immediate gratification and profit orientated than in the less high technological, more spiritual and closer-knit communities of the past. Rather than current fashion and economics decrying and even shaming the arts and humanities as secondary to human life and nature, rather than primary—the emergence of STEM is the sociohistorical product contingent on recent developments, rather than the natural all-pervading matter of art and humanistic creating, explained by anthropology in the wonderful Homo Aestheticus.

With the current trend more natural environments, for instance, are perniciously read as commodities to be tamed and made useful (as in parks and greenbelt) and humans become resources to be mined (as in competing employees). There are human resources where humans are instruments for business, banking where humans are numerals on a webpage, there is social media where a human is their avatar and bone-structure. This commodification and overlay of economics onto how things are rather than describing the ‘natural state of affairs’ often claimed for them, is true all the way down to the apparently ‘unfinished’ land that becomes ‘countryside’—because not the city, that matters as it generates income, parks as not housing or commercial building, and even these reformed are reduced under austerity. (Austerity is not natural or right by nature or science or correspondence to facts, given societies like Finland and The Netherlands do not operate austerity.)

Poignant commodification is, of course, present in universities becoming training institutions and increasingly private business. And in cultural values: the commodifying, economic and materialist drive has made abstracts seem suspicious and ridiculous. The Meaning of Life, for instance, sought and, believed by so many to be found—in pleasure, understanding, service and communication—over the centuries has become either a no-go or a dark joke. Forgetting by distraction is the modern coping mechanism; whether that’s for the best is uncertain, and a stone left belligerently unturned.

The meaning of life fell slowly from favour in colonially influential Europe as the displacement of the church and forwarding of secularisation meant living had become widely accepted to having no purpose outside of itself; even more so today with the discovery of indifferent gene perpetuation. To an extent, Nietzsche, who certainly contained multitudes and inconsistencies, celebrated knowledge and self-aware Reason, but also lamented the downsides of Reason being so good for us that it turned bad. That God was dead (though sick would be a better analogy) meant life was nihilistic, and he prescribed culture as in his famous line “without music, life would be a mistake”, as the cure or treatment for our pointless lives.

Heidegger can help us also, in seeing commodification and its dehumanising effects: the tools that we think we use are using are, in a sense, using us. We become dependent and beyond choice. No one in civil society can choose not to use the Internet, not to use a phone, not to use electricity; we are plugged in. And in Hannah Arendt’s analysis in The Burden of Our Time, it is this commodification, excessive utilitarianism, and “technological thinking” that fosters Totalitarian regimes. For Arendt, it is this objective and ‘scientific’ and technological drive that gives rise to the inhumane rationalisations for horror like the Holocaust, through eugenics. Because through such ideology Function annihilates Form, obedience trumps ethics, and humans are machines without souls or differentiated selves that cannot be justified unto themselves or within themselves but always in reference to criteria decided upon by the majority.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go is a useful case study. (This and the next paragraph contain spoilers.) The novel explores post-human ethics: the clone characters are manufactured, mechanistically, but they have “souls”, minds and pleasures, because they intuitively feel they do – not because it is proven. In spite of artificiality they are – in effect – still human; still deserving of the whole knowledge of life; still biological with the need for ideological. To the main characters Kathy and Tommy it is obvious they have souls and therefore rights; for them too, it is obvious that their art creations matter because it represents their souls or reveals who they really are. But from the rest of British society in this eerier alternate timeline, art creations and souls do not matter, because their value is intangible. This alternate English society does not believe in souls, selves, non-utilitarian ethics or socially constructed Rights because they are unproven by science, merely subjective. Right and Wrong and soul-selves are not real, for they cannot be tested in a lab. As their headteacher, Miss Emily, says: “We didn’t have The Gallery to look into your souls. We had The Gallery to see if you had souls at all”.

This hurts because the curtain is drawn back so slowly and intimately from Kathy H’s first-person perspective. A perspective that jockeys from the present, past, and future we feel we know her soul, that she is real and the injustice real also. Indeed fMRI has proven reading neurologically affects empathy in the brain. One can feel it reading, almost blissfully but with melancholy in Never Let Me Go
There is a point other than artistic experience and pleasure to Never Let Me Go. For in Emerson’s phrase, “in every work of genius we recognise our neglected thoughts”. I would not say every but the point does stand. We rediscover dormant thoughts and re-think differently; we re-learn the importance of ethics, love, soul and community. The discourse of Humanities and Arts contributed to by Never Let Me Go is also the material of Never Let Me Go. The naming of the Hailsham school teachers as The Guardians, for instance, is lifted from Plato’s Republic where well-trained warrior rulers must protect the state and the good. Arts graduates made the film adaptation, and Ishiguro studied English and Philosophy plus Creative Writing.

The discourse between humanities disciplines is reciprocal with society as a whole. Hence fashionable dystopias, Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999) and most recently— a genre revival of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). All share inspiration in writing that address perennial themes—novels, a short story, and even contemporary critical Theory from Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, to Descartes’ Demon and Biblical Messianic narrative encountering futuristic technology and displaced humanity are weaved into the fabric of The Matrix, for example.

The Arts and Humanities matter because they are useful. Our cultural genealogies make us human as much as our biological genealogy. The sciences and social science encourage us to think in second or third person, as instances of generalities rather than unique and particular persons. Generalisations are useful and necessary but do not do complete justice to the variety and the sum of the parts. And much of what we think is knowledge, moreover, is actually probable opinion or contingent to time place rather than nurtured nature; culture and physiology when interlinked constitute the human, where Homo Sapiens constitute our parameters—and to appeal to common sense, afterall, the senses of our world comprise more of the human experience than our discursive knowledge and writings ever will, the experience of arts and narratives make us who we are and provide a logic for life that without it would not be sustained.
The uproar over golden statuettes at the Oscar more than Nobel Prize winners shows we have skewed values, valuing the extraordinary disproportionately and celebrity harmfully highly. Yet such comparison does also show the more popular ergo democratic evaluation of film art since it is more attention and evaluation than the sometimes deemed more valuable social or scientific advances. A claim of sciences being more important to most people is contradicted by the actual particulars of how most people spend their time and attention. At their best, the Arts and Humanities give the perennial and human; condoning the rare, lonely, non-normative and the banal as moving and part of a glorious mess rather than an indifferent chaos. Nonetheless, that so much bland media abounds is due to a commodifying culture that overlooks what art and history have to offer for quality over profit, just as the consumers that doubt the value of arts and humanities, in their spending, encourage it when they are given genuine choice – as in online streaming – rather than served up by subscription or the chance of ‘what’s on’.
Arts and Humanities also naturalise values and behaviours, en-masse, to a communicable standard with a solidarity led population, as condoned by my hero philosopher – Richard Rorty. It is fine to be ugly and ordinary: most people are, and likewise, you are human, unique yet not alone.

The consensus task of prior arts humanities universities (when they began popping up in 18th and 19th centuries) was nationalistic. But with globalisation and globalised curriculum, they have become international. The instances of arts and humanities are in a process of always-becoming and when institutionalised play part in changing the world, setting agendas, as in the recognition of queer communities and the social contingency of racial prejudice. Such is also clear in the happy deconstruction of either/or thinking from binaries in gender to high or low culture; that I believe had its origin in the grey shades between black and white in the logic of Hegel’s dialectic, the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. We must realise the borders of maps are more like the borders of bodies and selves than we recognise. It is self-determination; self-identification, education and fairness, and true democracy that matters. The Arts and Humanities work from the self to non-self, individual to collective, general to particular. The seemingly alien other to the universality of humanity, and ultimately, toward inclusion and solidarity and the enjoyment of what human life has to offer, on being, rather than on what human organised life can achieve or manage. The Humanities and Arts do deal with ideas and arguments, but they do deal with sensations and feelings also. Our sensations comprise the greater part of human experience than our analyses.

The humanities and arts can appear inessential in the widest scheme of things – but curtain-fall death considered the inessential argument applies to everything, science included. While medicine allows sticking around for a long time, arts and humanities allow sticking around to be more worthwhile than a biologically inherited fear of extinction. It is the disciplines together, art and humanism especially, that gives this fleeting often terrible life solace and meaning. As Nietzsche says: “art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement raised up beside it in order to overcome it”. Art objects and narratives work to overcome it, and the depriving of funding at the university level is a pathetic misconstruction of human priorities, where constructed wants are valued above serving the natural, necessary, human desires.

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