I wrote this piece for my blog, Mashrabiyya, some time ago, but given the piece in the NYT today and Boston Review’s forwarding of it, I felt compelled to pass this on. Spread the word.
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 posthere). 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 Arthere, 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?