Defense of the Arts

Although the humanities have generally been a favorite of your average white person, (if you don’t know what I am talking about note post #47 “Art Degrees” in the popular blog Stuff White People Like), they have been on the decline. And that decline has been aided recently by a failing economy that is unable to guarantee jobs, even for  talented graduates.

Columnist David Brooks says, “So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.”

But, as a liberal art major myself, I feel like I have to throw in my 2 cents of defense. They are useful, in more ways than one. Recently Yann Martel attended a celebration of Canadian artists, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was there. Harper never even looked up during the whole ceremony, so Martel decided to introduce him to art by sending him a book and a letter every two weeks. Martel justifies his action thus:

“As long as someone has no power over me, I don’t care what they read at all. It’s not for me to judge how people should live their lives. But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. What is [Harper’s] mind made of? How did he get his insights into the human condition? What materials went into the building of his sensibility? What is the colour, the pattern, the rhyme and reason of his imagination? These are not questions one is usually entitled to ask….but once someone has power over me, I have the right to probe the nature and quality of their imagination, because their dreams may become my nightmares.”

Art majors learn how to write, how to defend, how to think. They delve into the incredibly complicated world of humans and their inner workings. Granted, in this area there is a lot of work to do. Political science, for example, is hardly a predictive science. But we need to understand humans and their relationships just as we need mathematical formulas.

Martel continues about art: “Art is water, and just as humans are always close to water, (to drink to wash to flush away, to grow) as well as for reasons of pleasure (to play in, to swim in, to relax in front of, to sail upon, to suck on frozen, coloured and sweetened), so humans must always be close to art in all its incarnations, from the frivolous to the essential. Otherwise we dry up.”

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