Arts for Arts Sake; or, Humanities for Humanitys Sake
A Discussion Paper
When I was growing up in a remote and rural area of the world several decades ago, it was usual to divide farming families into three categories: those that were prosperous, those that were just getting by, and those that were likely to sell up. Remote and rural as they are, these categories seem to me to be useful as a means of understanding and then acting upon the perilous state and gloomy prospects of the Arts and Arts education in Canadian universities in the late nineteen nineties. Seldom prosperous and often just getting by as a consequence of reduced funds, declining enrolments, decimated faculty and staff complements, and mounting government and public scepticism, many faculties of Arts and their constituent departments in Canadian universities have been faced with the possibility, if not quite of selling up (some might say out), then certainly of selling off portions of their assets and operations. At the University of Western Ontario, for example, the Faculty of Arts sacrificed its Drama Workshop and disemboweled the English Departments drama programme in order to meet the budgetary demands of the University, and at the Université de Montréal the Department of English itself only narrowly escaped a similar fate. The undergraduate programmes in German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Classical Studies at Carleton University were less fortunate, and Carleton is apparently preparing to sell its librarys fine Hispanic collection to the University of Ottawa. At the Canadian Conference of Deans of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in Ottawa earlier this year, there was not merely a consensus [that] the humanities are under siege both from within their institutions . . . [and] from government forces, but also the expression of a growing concern that . . . the current state of humanities research in Canada might [be] undermine[d] by declining humanities enrolments and federal targeted-research funding initiatives such as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Canadian institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and the Canadian Initiative on Social Statistics (CISS).1 Our deans should be concerned, for the worsening conditions under which Arts faculties and departments across Canada now operate necessitates the urgent engagement of anyone who cares about the fate of the Arts in this country with the critical questions of if and how Arts education can continue to get by, let alone prosper, in a climate governed by the prevailing winds of enrolment-contingent funding, job-oriented training, and bottom-line thinking.
One way of approaching these questions is through an examination of some of the traditional and more recent arguments that have been advanced on behalf of the Arts and Arts education in Europe and North America. With Plato always as the exception that proves the rule, the Arts have been generally regarded in the Western tradition as valuable both intrinsically and extrinsically, as inherently admirable (beautiful) manifestations of human creativity and intelligence that can be enjoyed both in and for themselves and as a means of becoming emotionally and intellectually refined or cultivated. With the Renaissance, when, as in a Venn diagram, the Arts and education came more and more to overlap in a way that prefigured the study of the Arts in modern schools and universities, an emotional and intellectual engagement with, say, poetry came to be regarded as a means of ordering, strengthening, and elevating human faculties that had been damaged at the Fall a justification of Arts education that, as abundantly illustrated by the work of numerous twentieth-century critics in the humanist tradition such as Northrop Frye continued to be implicit in the study of the Arts in Europe and North American schools and universities until well into the second half of the twentieth century. One reason for this, of course, was the extreme complexity of high Modern art and the supposedly scientific methodologies that arose to decode it: to teach students to understand The Waste Land or Guernica was surely to give them not only an otherwise unobtainable appreciation of a work of great intrinsic value, but also the knowledge and methodology necessary to impart the same appreciation to others (for, almost needless to say, the tacit assumption of all university Arts instructors was, and in some cases still is, that they were replicating themselves).
Such, very briefly stated, were the beliefs and goals that sustained the study of the Arts in Canadian schools and universities until the nineteen seventies when, for the various social, aesthetic, and demographic reasons evoked by such terms as the sixties and postmodernism, the suspicion began to take root in public and political minds in Europe and North America that perhaps Plato was right after all that whatever intrinsic and extrinsic value the Arts might have is secondary to their subversive, anti-social effects. With respect to Arts education, suspicions were increased in the United States and therefore also (but to a lesser extent) in Canada by the articulately vocalized perception that universities in general and Arts departments in particular are incubators of the attitudes and activities associated with the term political correctness and, perhaps even more damagingly, by the not-entirely unfounded apprehension that much of what passes for research and scholarship in the humanities these days is rarely read and scarcely readable floccinaucinihilipilification whose main purposes are to baffle outsiders and advance its authors career. By the eighties, two results of these suspicions, together with the shift in political culture that they in part reflect, were becoming increasingly and glaringly apparent in Canada and elsewhere: a leveling and then tapering off of funding for the creation and study of the Arts and, perhaps more detrimental on account of the neoliberal (neoconservative) agenda that was more and more heavily laying its invisible hand on the public purses of the Western democracies, an escalating and then insistent demand for justifications of the Arts and Arts education in hard socio-economic terms. More and more as deflation, depression, restructuring, downsizing, and the other incubi and succubi of the late eighties and nineties took their toll in the form of scarcer jobs, greater social divisions, and, most recently, higher university fees and costs, parents, students, and the public at large have wanted to know the financial value, if any, of the Arts and an Arts education. Why support an art gallery rather than a hospital? and Why do a B.A. rather than a degree in Computer Science? are very different questions, but they both spring from the now wide-spread belief that, relative to alternatives that are more urgent socially and more rewarding financially, the Arts and Arts education fail to meet the test of promising a public or personal return that is commensurate with the investment that they require; in short, they fail to justify themselves at the bottom line.
In The Postmodern Condition (1984), Jean-François Lyotard offers an analysis of the preferred function of post-secondary education in a postmodern or neoliberal society that, as anyone familiar with the policy currents now flowing around and mainly against universities in Ontario will readily attest, has proved clairvoyantly accurate as much in its details as in its general outline:
Compounding the policy decisions that have adversely affected the universities in general and Arts faculties in particular in Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions is a pragmatism that is less the product of a systemic re-orientation towards skills and the professions than a manifestation of the neoliberal calculus of the social classes and groups whose members were once deemed to be the needy and therefore necessary beneficiaries of exposure to the humanizing influences of an Arts education. When asked, few university-educated Canadians of the generation that came of age before or shortly after the Second World War will express doubts about the value of studying, say, English or Canadian poetry, but, as John Guillory observes in Cultural Capital (1993) apropos the recent canon wars in the United States, the emergent professional-managerial class has made the correct assessment that, so far as future profit is concerned, the reading of great works is not worth the investment of very much time or money. The perceived devaluation of the humanities curriculum is in reality a decline in its market value.3 Nowhere, at least in my experience, is the large scale capital flight of which Guillory writes more evident than in current student attitudes to poetry: once the very foundation of humanistic studies, the reading and analysis of poems is now anathema to all but a very few students in the honours-graduate stream because a knowledge of poetry is no longer widely regarded as a necessary or even desirable component of an education for social and financial success. Of course, the near absence of poetry on the secondary-school curriculum in many provinces is both a partial cause of the devaluation of poetry and a further symptom of the capital flight behind the devaluation.
In their attempts to counter the assertion that the Arts provide insufficient public and personal benefits to warrant support, recent advocates of Arts education have built their cases on essentially three arguments, the first two of which are closely related and quite traditional and the third very much a product of the neoliberal era:
All of these arguments have some merit and value as means of making a case for Arts funding in a society where the bottom line has become the most persuasive (because the most convenient) basis for making judgements of value or worth. But, as intimated especially by the foregoing comments on Argument 3, this does not mean that each argument has appealed equally to all sectors of the Arts community or proved equally effective in all the quarters to which that community has turned for support. Clearly, Arguments 1 and 2 speak, at least in part, to the career goals and financial ambitions of university students, whose stamina for study and tolerance for debt are fed by the expectation that after graduation they will move quickly into professional and managerial positions (an expectation also fed, incidentally, by university presidents, recruitment brochures, and statistical compendia such as the Council of Ontarios Facts and Figures that trumpet the higher income and lower unemployment enjoyed by university as opposed to high-school graduates).6 Just as clearly, the humanistic resonances of Argument 1 will appeal to individual donors with fond memories of explicating the Canterbury Tales, and the Gradgrindian calculus of Argument 3 will at least spark the interest of people who have come to accept neo-Austrian economics as the framework for determining merit. (It is not fortuitous that in Russell Smiths Noise , the argument that the Arts are worthwhile because they contribute to the economy is given to an obnoxious jock from London, Ontario whose various nicknames Cud, Bucky, and Bonk are indicative of his utter inability to conceive of the Arts as intrinsically valuable or educationally beneficial.)7
Persuasive in their different ways and arenas as the arguments so far outlined may be, however, they have not been more than marginally successful in slowing the deterioration in perception and funding of the Arts and Arts education that, if anything, has been increasing in momentum during the last decade. In 1997, Premier Mike Harris of Ontario caused paroxysms of anger and disdain in Arts and Social Science circles when he questioned the value of university degrees in such disciplines as classics and geography,8 and in 1998 a survey of Ontario residents on the subject of education and employment revealed that [o]nly 3 percent thought a university degree in arts would provide the most valuable education for the work force 10 years from now.9 The inferences to be drawn from these and other findings were clear, at least to Robert Bell, the spokesman for the company (Ernst and Young) that commissioned the poll from the Angus Reid Group: the provincial government should begin a total reassessment of its spending priorities for post secondary education. . . . The implications for educators and the government are significant in how they restructure for the future.10 If political attitudes and public perceptions are anything to go by, the next decade will be as lean, or only marginally less lean, as the last for Arts funding.
Nor have the implications of the attitudes and perceptions exhibited by Mr. Harris and the Angus Reid Poll escaped the concerned attention of those entrusted with securing funding for the Arts and Social Sciences at the federal level. In the Fall of 1998, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada conducted a campaign to counter the very evident fact that, in the words of the President of the SSHRCC, Marc Renaud, the social sciences and humanities . . . are either ignored or profoundly unappreciated in Ottawa.11 At the heart of the SSHRCC campaign to raise the profile of the Humanities and Social Sciences in the eyes and minds of federal politicians was an attempt to demonstrate, again in Renauds words, how research in these fields could prove useful that is, beneficial to Canadas elected representatives and policy makers.12 A more precise sense of what this meant can be gleaned from Renauds briefing notes to the researchers who were invited to meet with politicians in Ottawa in early November:
Without necessarily casting aspersions either on the profile-raising efforts of the SSHRCC or on the strategy of representing research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in the neocon/neolib terminology of outcomes and government target[s], a member of the Arts community may be justified in wondering whether and at what cost to independent enquiry and disciplinary integrity research in the Arts can be made to seem actually or potentially useful or beneficial to federal (or, indeed, provincial) politicians and policy makers. It is, of course, possible to invent or inflect (or spin) many research projects in the Arts in accordance with such governmental priorities as globalization, social cohesion, and even health, but this is much less feasible in some disciplines and fields than in others, and, even where highly feasible, courts the danger of intellectual dishonesty or, at least, legerdemain.14 Researchers in all but a very few fields in the Arts are surely justified in suspecting that such disciplines as Economics, Sociology, and Political Science will be the primary beneficiaries of profile-raising efforts that promote research in terms of its pragmatic relationship to a list of government priorities that begins with growth and includes the economy and governance.15
Timely and well-intentioned as they are, the strategies and emphases of the SSHRCC may prove to be more damaging than beneficial to research and education in the Humanities because, like the three Arguments outlined earlier, they acquiesce to the assumption that funding for any and all aspects of the Arts can and must be justified in merely utilitarian and monetary terms. As efficacious in certain fora as the pragmatic and economic arguments on behalf of the Arts have been and may yet be, they all involve capitulation to a rationality and rhetoric that are deeply at odds with the creative and critical assumptions upon which the making and the study of the Arts are based. The Arts are the Arts precisely because they do not entirely belong to the day-to-day world of jobs and business in which, inevitably (if not rightly), the watchwords are efficiency, cheapness, practicality, competitiveness, and exploitability, and where judgements are made on the basis of short-and middle-term uses and benefits. To the degree that they have exercised awesome material and explanatory power in the economic sphere, the laws and mechanisms of supply and demand have become almost universally accepted in the last two decades, with the result that the ideology and the terminology of the market have invaded social and cultural spheres where, as thinkers as diverse as Michael Waltzer and Mary Douglas have recognized and warned, they may be profoundly inappropriate, ethically damaging, and even harmful to the well-being of a pluralistic society.16 Under the pressure of what Waltzer calls market imperialism, universities have come to think of themselves as corporations and to envisage students as clients or customers. More and more, scholarship has become a commodity to be advertised and marketed on the basis of its utility and relevance, and scholars are being asked not only to justify their research and teaching in market terms, but also to become marketers of their university and its products. Perhaps, as Ann Dowsett Johnson argues in the 1998 Universities issue of MacLeans, its best to buy into the rhetoric of the training-earning connection if this will help the political powers-that-be [to] understand just how central . . . students are to the hopes and ambitions of society as a whole.17 Or perhaps, as the Toronto playwright Jason Sherman has argued in an open letter to the Russian writer Pavel Mnistokovich, the Canadian Arts community allowed a Trojan Horse into its midst when it accepted economic impact as the criterion for judging the Arts and the time is ripe to insist once again that the true worth and value of the Arts and Arts education lies in their unique combination of instruction and delight.18
And perhaps in the political climate of the very late nineties, the goals, means, and assumptions canvassed by Johnson and Sherman are not as incompatible as they might initially seem. Almost everywhere in Europe and North America, there are now signs that the political pendulum is swinging from the right towards the centre and left, that under such rubrics as the third way and ethical conservatism the Wests entrepreneurial and communitarian political cultures are entering a stage of dynamic equilibrium. If this is the case (and, admittedly, it has yet to become very evident in Alberta and Ontario), then the logic of the day for proponents of the Arts and Arts education must be both . . . and rather than either . . . or: to the very extent that the learning-earning connection and other economic arguments are a realistic response to a political culture and social attitudes that will not disappear, they must be used whenever and wherever they are likely to be effective, and to the extent that such arguments fail to take adequate account of those aspects of the individual and the community that for shorthand purposes may be called their heart and soul, they must be grounded in passionate and articulate affirmations of the intrinsic and humanitarian value of the Arts and Arts education of the Arts for the Arts and the Humanities for Humanitys sake. In his famous Conclusion to the 1873 edition of The Renaissance, Walter Pater recounts the tale of the intellectual excitement experienced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire, contrasts the listlessness of day-to-day life with the wisdom and quickened, multiple consciousness provided by the Arts, and claims for Art the capacity to give nothing but the highest quality to [our] moments. 19 This is an extreme statement even for Pater, but it helped to rescue Art from the logic of a utilitarian age, and it may yet help to do so again.
As regards the current predicament of Arts faculties and their constituent departments in Canadian universities, the implications of the foregoing discussion seem clear enough: the various but fundamentally economic arguments on behalf of the Arts and Arts education that have been articulated during the last decade or so should continue to be refined and reiterated in quarters where they may be effective in securing or stabilizing funding, but they should be deployed whenever possible in the context of an insistence on the Arts as worthy of study in and of themselves for the intellectual excitement, expansion, and elevation that they provide. The champions of Canadian Arts faculties must not ignore the cognitive, communicational, practical, and financial aspects of Arts education, but they must tirelessly argue that, however useful and beneficial they may be to an individuals career or to societys economic well-being, these externalities are secondary to the enrichment that inheres in doing, encountering, knowing, and studying the Arts or the Humanities for the Arts and Humanitys sake. If asked what gives the Arts this special status and claim, they must be prepared to assert that the Arts in all places and times are manifestations of human thought, human feeling, human striving, and, indeed, humanity itself on the highest conceivable plane, and that no culture or civilization worthy of the name should expect or demand a reductively pragmatic and pecuniary justification for the exposure of its young people and the dedication of its educational resources to the study of humanitys highest aspirations and achievements. In short (and less euphuistically), they must affirm that language, literature, history, philosophy, music, painting, sculpture, film and the disciplines to which they have given rise are not the preliminaries or the adjuncts of the best education but its very core and essence.
Of course, it will take more than assertions and affirmations to convince the politicians, the pollsters, the public, and, in all-too-many cases, the university administrators of the centrality of the Arts to post-secondary education. If faculties of Arts are to get by and even prosper rather than sell up (or out) in the coming decade they will need to take decisive steps to put their ideals and beliefs into practice. The precise nature and extent of these steps will vary from university to university and, within any given Faculty of Arts, from department to department. A few possibilities, some of which are already in place or contemplation in various universities, follow as food for thought and discussion:
Quoted in Mackie. [back]
Prior to the awareness-raising event, two members of Renauds team, Jocelyn Charron and Marcel Lauzière, e-mailed participating researchers a document whose very title Discussion Paper on the Promotion of Social Sciences (October 26, 1998), scant the Arts or Humanities, as did most of its content: [t]here would be no museums without the Social Sciences.... There is probably no ready-made solution of th[e] problem [of the invisibility of the social sciences. In fact, it will likely continue as long as social scientists pursue the same objects of research as common sense . . . and so on. Acknowledging that their approach is better suited to the social sciences than to the humanities, Charron and Lauzière conclude with the suggestion that the promotion of the social sciences and humanities aim at two objectives:
1. To position social science research as a crucial factor in the economic, social, and cultural development of Canada.
2. To foster broad and diversified support in favour of increased
funding for research in the social sciences and the humanities.[back]