Re-Branding the Arts and Humanities

This whole rambling train of though started with a Willliam Pannapacker tweet this morning:

His notion of building projects points out that , at the moment, there is little demand for those with graduate degrees in the arts and humanities outside the academy. So why would anyone build the kind of projects to which he refers?  I suggested that, in order for those sorts of projects to be built, we need to re-brand the arts and humanities.  Pannapacker  quite sensibly then asked :

At this point I must confess to being stuck for a good answer.The crux of the problem lies I think in perceived utility, or lack thereof.  Natural sciences are accepted as valuable because natural science research sometime leads to useful techne.  Research in the social sciences contributes to the improvement of societal systems to solve problems.  I don’t see a similar utilitarian endpoint for the arts and humanities.  Instead, we are left with secondary justifications like “exposure to the arts improves mathematical reasoning.”  It is then pointed out that if you want to improve mathematical reasoning and have limited resources, shouldn’t you just focus on math.

The value of the arts and humanities is reliant ,to a great extent, on accepting the premise that knowledge and understanding have intrinsic value.  Pannapacker pointed out that such an idea has long been held suspect here in the USA, reminding me of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  I will confess to not having read the book, in part because I worry I’ll find it quite depressing. (Disclaimer:  I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and French, so I take take pronouncements of the uselessness of the arts and humanities as an implicit questioning of how I spend more than a decade of my life)

I can’t escape the sense that re-branding the arts and humanities almost compels one to make them into a means to some end. If you do that is art still art, or is it instruction or something else in the form of art, akin to a Venus de Milo jello mold?



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