Richard Howells, Professor of Cultural Sociology, King’s College London
“Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.” Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle II, 1734
There was a time when one did not have to make a case for the humanities. In the Renaissance, for example, to be considered a humanist was an honour, not something that needed to be justified, let alone apologised for.
But now we live in sadly different and instrumental times. There is a sentiment at large that the humanities -to say nothing of the arts more broadly- are really only hobbies, private pastimes and indulgences, unworthy of public support, let alone the public purse.
Even some of the bodies deigned to back the arts and humanities have been sucked (one hopes at least unwillingly) into the “justification game”, seeking to defend them on the basis of their contribution to the economy or other forms of demonstrable “impact”. It is all incredibly sad and, I feel, unworthy of those who should be championing instead of apologising for the humanities.
I have been here before -and yes, I confess to having considerable previous “form” in arguing for the intrinsic value of the humanities. Fortunately, I am not alone. Recently, I staged an event at my university, King’s College London, called: “Beyond Value for Money”. It was a symposium on the public -as opposed to the merely economic- value of the arts, humanities, broadcasting, education, and research. Sir John Tusa led the charge. Creating the arts, he said, was: “a public good” while the impact it had was “a private matter for the recipient”. If the arts were to stand any chance of being useful, he argued: “they must first be excellent and considerations of excellence fall outside the dreary parameters of utility.” And quite right, too.
A little before that, I contributed to a book The Public Value of the Humanities, edited by Jonathan Bate (now Sir Jonathan and Provost of Worcester College, Oxford). I argued for the importance of scholarly research in the humanities in the interests of the public good. I mentioned, among other things, what we could learn about ourselves from ritual sheep stealing in Morocco and cockfighting in Bali; anthropologists and maybe some of my own students will recognise where I’m coming from here. We contributors were all very pleased to be at the launch event held at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The star speaker was David (now Lord) Willetts, then Minister of State for Universities and Science. Willetts (who was also referred to by the nickname “Two Brains”), triumphantly waved the volume in the air, praising it is a fine example of “impact” –which was a shame as that was exactly not what my own chapter had been all about.
The point of all this is not to mention as many people as I can who were awarded knighthoods or peerages since the publication of The Public Value of the Humanities (I was subsequently made a full Professor, which although lacking in ermine is still fine by me). My point, rather, is that no matter how carefully one seeks to advance the arguments for the intrinsic value of creativity and research in the arts and humanities, there’s always the risk of their being appropriated by someone else in the interests of the agenda of the day.
The agenda of the day is something I approach with an intelligent disrespect. My last book for Palgrave Macmillan took me some ten years to research and to write, and reaches back beyond the English Renaissance and Thomas More to Greece and the Classical philosophy of Plato. In A Critical Theory of Creativity: Utopia, Aesthetics, Atheism and Design (2015; paperback 2017) I seek the links between creativity, Utopia and the aesthetic imagination. My case studies include planned communities in United States and the relationship between Navajo weaving and creation mythology. I see the so-called Fall not as a punishment but as a liberation, and argue that we should put our faith not in God or even markets, but in humanity. As the philosopher and critical theorist Ernst Bloch reminds us, life has been put into our hands.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
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