Thursday, April 10, 2008

Valuing the Humanities and the Arts

As a student of the humanities and an artist, I often feel the need to justify my vocation. On the way to school I regularly face a gauntlet of neighbours and family who, ignorant of my preference for late nights, remark on my late start. With every passing year, funding requires more work to for qualification and is harder to come by. Last year my choice of office was a dilapidated WWII era hut or a crowded room; I only complained once I saw the plush equivalent in engineering. Furthermore, I am not alone: Chad Gaffield, the new president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), now seeks to “make crystal clear the ways in which SSHRC advances knowledge and invests in human capital” to the Harper government, which can be argued is suspicious of SSHRC. So what is the value of the fine arts and humanities?

Fine art provides a way for humans to make sense of their world. It helps us grieve: just think of the powerful anthem, “like a candle in the wind,” belted out by so many at Diana’s funeral to expunge the grief from their souls. The arts provide us with a dialogue when ours has been lost. They speak the unspeakable. It is uncanny how often a song comes on the radio, a painting comes into focus, or a poetic phrase catches the ear which expresses the deep groaning that is even incomprehensible to us. Karen Armstrong, speaking of poetry, phrases it this way: “Poetry matters, among many other reasons, because it is by its nature revelatory, surprising, and liberating. It re-connects us with the familiar world we mistakenly think we know while offering glimpses of the mysterious and untranslatable worlds we know we don’t know” (Tapestry October 30, 2007).

It is pure wonderment how words find their way on to a page or into a melody. I love how Gwen Stefani describes the process: “Sometimes it's so hard to find out what I am trying to say. People might think you can turn creativity on and off, but it's not like that. It just kind of comes out, a mash-up of all these things you collect in your mind. You never know when it is going to happen, but when it does it is like magic. It's just that simple and it's just that hard.” Nevertheless, the artwork seems to take on a life of its own when released into the world. Alberto Manguel states, “Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of the underlying currents and depths. Stories can feed our consciousness, … .” (The City of Words, 9-10).

So art matters, it's inherently precious, even magical, but what value does it have? Ironically, although art helps us process the overpowering and speak out our inmost thoughts, the personal experience rarely has currency; namely, the cathartic love, anger, drama, and sadness soon fades when related to another. I can’t number the times I’ve tried to recapture a mood and failed; I always want to ask, “Didn’t that piece touch you, pamper you, and grant mercy to you?” Even when art is experienced together, each individual comes away with unique impression, never mind other factors that influence experience, such as trends and critics’ opinions. Art is enigmatic: personal yet communal and elusive yet accessible.

Art’s value is more than personal betterment and access to the sublime. Art speaks to us about the human condition: how and why people act as they do, what people experience and how they express this experience, or what causes humans to tick. The humanities are disciplines that examine multiple forms of art in their historical context and the context of other pieces of art to answer these questions; scholars revive, restore, preserve, and interpret artwork. Provided there’s not too much ivory-tower jargon, these scholars can disseminate the understanding on the human condition. They can accomplish this in oblique ways, such as The Lord of the Rings and Narnia series. This field also includes philosophy and history; scholars from Berlin to Ignatieff have disseminated insightful perspectives on their current worlds. Understanding the past and the cultures of the past does provide a lesson we can learn from.

Yet, despite the valuation of master artworks, record deals and box office profits, how can art and its study be valued in dollar terms.?It can’t. Although today's market-place has no way to value the abstract or intrinsic (the environment is a good example), some dollar term needs to be assigned to them. They need to appear in the budget since their value can no longer be assumed in today’s reductionist climate. Sure any value is ambiguous, but funding needs to continue. How can one value the work of authors, such as Günter Grass (despite his role in the Waffen-SS), have had a deep impact on their country’s ability to process trauma and heal; in Crabwalk, he states, “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising. … By now, after all, we Germans have come up with expressions to help us deal with the past: we are to atone for it, come to terms with it, go through a grieving process” (122). How about those who bring understanding of the plight of others, e.g., K'naan, or understanding among cultures, e.g., Solzhenitsyn? The media just brings new information, facts and figures, and no way to process them. As Louis Riel stated, the artists would be the ones who gave the people (Métis) back their spirit once they’d been asleep for one hundred years. Don't they do the same for us now?

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