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Why is Obama Bashing the Liberal Arts?

Who Needs Art?


I’m an art teacher and head of the art department at the high school where I work.  One of the courses I’ve taught the longest is a class in art history.  So you can imagine my reaction to President Obama’s sneering about the unemployability and uselessness of an art history degree.

The first premise–that a career path in the arts leads students to a life of poverty–is easily refuted by a 2011 survey revealing that among 13,000 art majors polled, 92% were employed, 41% as professional artists, with far more working as art teachers and administrators.  Fifty-four percent of those working outside the field said their arts training had been relevant to their non-arts jobs.  More recently The Atlantic reported that the difference in wages between humanities majors and non-engineering science majors is ten thousand dollars–hardly enough money to give up a dream for.  As the essay’s title (“Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major”) indicates, there are more things at stake in choosing a career–like happiness, for example.

This should come as no surprise to people in the arts.  We already know the financial deck is stacked against us.  Most of us, including myself, are willing to take a pay cut if it means we get the freedom to do something we love.  The only problem is, increasingly, we’re not even given the option because either we are terrorized away from a career in the arts or worse, they’re not even taught or funded in our schools.  The reason stems from a wide-ranging and long-standing attack against the arts from those in power and those who serve them.

C.P. Snow fired an early salvo with his influential lecture on “the two cultures” that bemoaned the poor state of science education in Britain, arguing that science and technology–not the arts–were more essential to meeting the needs of humanity.  Obama simply followed suit in denigrating art history and by extension all of the humanities.  For these men and their ilk, the arts are instrumentally useless–both in making one money and in introducing material benefits to society as a whole.  This institutional prejudice against the arts is ingrained in the very nature of American public education.  Science and math are core subjects.  Art and music are not.  In fact, they’re often cut out of the school day completely, especially in the current climate of economic and intellectual austerity.  My department has to sell its courses annually, begging students to take them so we get the proper enrollment.  Otherwise our classes are cut.  The same thing never happens to what are called the core classes.

I think it’s fairly easy to explain the cause of this.  It’s because we live in a technocracy dominated by a methodology called operationalism, which insists on the quantification and measurability of any concept.  For corporations, it’s their life blood–a scientific management of people, resources, and ideas that relentlessly promotes ever-greater efficiency, profits and wealth concentration in the hands of a privileged few.  It runs rampant through the school system, aggressively proselytized by policy-makers and administrators.  Subjects like math and science, which easily lend themselves to operationalism, become the beneficiaries of public and private largesse, acquiring the lion’s share of grants and funding.  These disciplines emphasize objective, material, and measurable results which can be repeated again and again.  They see reality as determined, mechanistic, predictable and programmable. The arts and humanities on the other hand, ostensibly do the opposite.  They stress subjective approaches to knowledge that emphasize interpretation versus measurability and unique, spontaneous acts of creation.

I said, ostensibly.  In fact, public education has since its inception mitigated this tendency by reducing core subjects like English and History to the memorization of measurable and supposedly objective bits of information: linking verbs and literary terms, congressional acts and key dates.  Students are taught to omit the “I” from any papers they write, abstracting themselves from what they’re studying with the clinical detachment of any good research scientist.  They are discouraged from interpreting or judging historical facts.  They must simply define them.  In this way, the humanities are made to fit the operationalist worldview, where anything that can be known must be measurable and quantified.

Most of the arguments coming out of higher education that seek to justify study of the arts continue this process of recreating them in the image of the sciences.  Carole Becker, dean of Columbia University School of the Arts, recently argued that art education is relevant because it’s a form of “research” like the sciences and that artists–just like engineers and other scientists–are “problem solvers.”  But if that’s the case–why not just be a scientist?  It pays more.  Becker replies that art, as opposed to the sciences, privileges creativity, where students work in an “experimental laboratory” with engineers (for example) to create “beautifully designed solar light-source solutions for underdeveloped societies.”  You’d think that a discipline like art that teaches students to be decorative and creative would be reason enough to continue its support in schools.  Who doesn’t want nice looking solar panels?

Suddenly scientists leap into the argument and proclaim: We’re creative too!  Look at Einstein!  Look at Darwin!  Look at Watson and Crick!  Creativity, for them, is not a special characteristic of the arts but a human capacity for imagining novel solutions to problems.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe creativity is an instrumental and universal quality.  We spend great amounts of time and money creatively manufacturing wants and creatively killing and torturing people.  In fact, corporate motivational speakers and technocrats argue that there is no difference between creating a poem and creating a new landmine, a drawing of your son or a genetically modified corn cob.  In that case, who needs art?  We need landmines and corn syrup.  We need to make things that make us money and satisfy our physical needs.  If the creativity of the two cultures is functionally equivalent, then artists deserve their reputation for uselessness.  They merely make things look pretty while scientists do the hard work of inventing and discovering things that demonstrably improve or protect our lives.

I don’t think, however, that this instrumental, operational definition of creativity is what artists mean when they talk of their own creative process.  One could argue that what artists call creativity is a process by which we externalize an internal appreciation of beauty and the wonder of life.  Once again, however, others will argue that science and math do that perfectly well.  Of course, as Curtis White has convincingly written, the minute scientists speak of “wonder” or “awe” at the “beauty” of a fractal or a spiral galaxy, they are speaking in unscientific metaphors that describe emotions and subjective states that resist the repeatability, measurement, and objectivity that define the essence of science.  The sciences can discover things like the Big Bang, but they can’t tell us what they mean.   Quantum mechanics doesn’t mean anything.  “It is sufficient,” science historian John Gribben writes, “that quantum mechanics works.”

Art, on the other hand, does not find that sufficient.  It is all about meaning-making.  As much as we live in a material world, we also inhabit a symbolic order in which we can’t help but wonder why there’s something instead of nothing, who we really are, and what death means for us.  Art may not provide the answers but it gives us an outlet (that science does not) to ask insoluble questions without resorting to the dogmatism of institutional religion.  And it is this capacity that policy-makers and politicians strangle out of existence.  Part of it is their narrow-minded, ignorant contempt for qualities that cannot be instrumentalized and rendered profitable.  They may begrudgingly accept the need to study history (if only to propagandize) or literature (if only to create a literate workforce) or even design (in order to make products more attractive).  But in each case they reduce these disciplines to functionality and evaluation to an operational and mechanistic exercise.  Thus we have the current obsession with standardized tests and instruction–a technocratic perversion of education that I’ve written about previously.  While reformers claim the point is to make it easier to measure both student learning and teacher effectiveness, the actual result of education reform and its attack on the arts is to stifle their very essence–their ability to mount a critique of the systems of power.

For this art teacher, what distinguishes art from operational science–the de facto religion of state power–is its emphasis on the primacy of the individual self, its unique vision, and a concomitant urge (as John Berger writes) to draw “closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it: the countours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.”  Art is inherently and intrinsically a way of looking at life that privileges human freedom and radical empathy.  How this plays out depends on the medium.  And while science extends to humanity numerous benefits, one of them is not a philosophical emphasis on the dignity of the individual or a moral compunction to maximize compassion.

Herbert Marcuse described this capacity of art long ago in One-Dimensional Man and The Aesthetic Dimension.  Marcuse argued that it was art that could imagine an alternate reality beyond the one-dimensionality of operationalism and the totalitarian powers it serves.  Art is an “inner history of the individual” that serves as a “counterforce against aggressive and exploitative socialization.” At its best, art as opposed to institutionalized science, “alienates individuals from their functional existence” and allows them to contradict and indict what passes for the objective, real world, and envision a new kind of reality based on “emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity.”  No wonder arts education doesn’t get any love from corporate capitalism.

Why do we need art?  It provides something essential to us.  Jack Kerouac described it as “the unspeakable visions of the individual.” Marcuse as a “liberating subjectivity.” Berger as a dissolution of self and other. Art teachers like myself and anyone who values what they are talking about needs not only to support the arts in education but also to reimagine them as something more than a beautifying adjunct to science’s monopoly on productive knowledge and profitability. Pablo Picasso, who knew a little about art, had the right idea: “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.” Maybe the arts won’t make you rich or famous. But teaching, learning, and practicing them are just about the best ways we have of imagining and creating both a better world and a better way to live our own lives.

Mark Graham is a high school teacher in the Lehigh Valley. His books include: How Islam Created the Modern World and Afghanistan in the Cinema. He can be reached at his blog, Intense World.