Do you ever feel that you’re living in a loop? Not exactly Groundhog Day, but a loop of déjà vu that suggests something in the Matrix has been changed—or rewound?
Fashion is like that. As our icons die off and we look back on their contributions to popular culture, we notice that even they made mistakes. David Bowie, for example, didn’t invent the mullet but he wore one. And the mullet was not invented in the 1980s but was a recycled fashion from nineteenth-century fishermen who just wanted to keep their necks warm.
I suppose it’s inevitable that if you live long enough you eventually begin to see the déjà vu of déjà vu, like Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (which looks a whole lot like the original Star Wars, I’m told).
I began to notice this eternal return when I was in graduate school studying Victorian literature and art. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 1860s—with their art communes, sexual freedom, and return-to-nature ideals—was reminiscent of the flower-child generation of the 1960s (which happened to be my generation).
Lately we hear reports on the “crisis in the humanities,” as though if the humanities aren’t careful they might sail blithely off the edge of the (flat?) earth. These pronouncements come fairly regularly: “Poetry is dead.” “The novel is dead.” “God is dead.” In these cases, I am reminded of Mark Twain’s response: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Reports of the death of the humanities have been greatly exaggerated. I can see, though, why it makes some of us nervous, especially those of us who make a living teaching the humanities, who extol the virtues and skills that an experience of history, theatre, and philosophy provides, not just for individuals but for a free and tolerant society.
Like mullets and sexual revolutions, these dire predictions of the humanities’ death run in cycles. I suspect that some such predictions are just wishful thinking by those who feel threatened by free thought.
With some regularity the pendulum swings in the other direction and suddenly the arts and humanities go from being worthless luxuries to being the saviors of mankind, a new kind of religion that will restore our lost faith, as the Victorian Matthew Arnold thought. Later in the same century, Oscar Wilde would proclaim that art is valuable in the exact ratio that it is useless. Or Théophile Gautier, who pointed out that we should be careful not to demand utility in our art because, after all, the most useful item in our lives is the toilet. At which point some wiseacre like Marcel Duchamp is likely to put a urinal in an art museum and call it “Fountain,” creating one of the world’s most iconic works of modern art.
It sometimes takes a Duchamp to get us thinking and talking about the utility of art (or the art of utility). In the Victorian Age it was the “art for art’s sake” movement reacting to the strictly utilitarian view that only what contributed to the quantifiable “greater good” was laudable. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, a ragtag and dandified army of eccentrics, artists, bohemians, and Bluestockings claimed that the individual had his or her rights too and that green carnations, velvet waistcoats, rouge, and walking skirts were aesthetic necessities and basic human rights.
The argument is easily caricatured, but we see their point. When we think about it, how much of our material life really contributes to either the greater good of utilitarianism or even to the lesser good of everyday materialism? How much of what we demand is really just an aesthetic choice, something to quench an appetite rather than a hunger? And why is Apple Inc. so successful?
Seriously, it seems to take a Steve Jobs with the authority of monumental financial success to say something as clearly true if counterintuitive as pointing out the utility of beauty. This liberal-arts-educated dropout from Reed College often attributed his success to just such a formulation of the value of the arts and humanities to the design principles that became what is now arguably our most utilitarian object, the personal computer having superseded the toilet as that icon of usefulness, just as Steve Jobs predicted it would.
I’m going to go out on a limb here to make my own prediction. We are about due for another pendulum swing back to a new altruism, a new enthusiasm for art for art’s sake, ethics for ethics’ sake, and learning for learning’s sake. This would be a boon for all disciplines in the university, but especially for the arts and humanities, which have been libeled with the mischaracterization of being “useless.” They are anything but.
John Henry Newman, an Oxford don and later rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that we had created a false dichotomy between an education that was either “liberal” (as in a liberal arts education that teaches how to think) or “useful” (as in a trade or professional education that trains us what to do).
But of course he would, wouldn’t he? Just as Plato (a philosopher) thought that states should be ruled by philosophers, and just as Xenophanes pointed out that if horses had gods they would surely look like Mr. Ed.
Here’s how Newman stated the importance of knowledge for its own sake in education in his classic essay “The Idea of a University,” published in 1851:
“Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind.”
Indeed, it would be useful to have at least a good basic education to be able to read that sentence (for it is only one sentence, a well-constructed one, although it might look like a paragraph).
We are often told that knowledge is power, power is money, and in a “free marketplace of ideas” money often comes from having the knowledge to produce ideas, and beautiful ideas like Steve Jobs’s computers produce lots of money. The “free marketplace of ideas,” by the way, comes from another Victorian thinker, John Stuart Mill, the over-educated son of a philosopher, who himself expanded the notion of utilitarianism to include the quality of the “greater good” as an ethical guidepost. Adding to the quality of our lives is what the arts and humanities do, turning what was once called a merely useful “microcomputer” into a thing of not only use but also some megrim of beauty, the “personal computer.”
Being able to read Newman’s sentence, I would argue, is a good in itself. Not just for what it says but for how it says it, the beauty of its construction and its rhetorical flare.
It is the kind of balanced periodic sentence that can be heard frequently in the excellent film Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, about the screenwriter blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Louis C.K., who plays Trumbo’s friend, constantly implores him not to speak as though everything he says is going to be engraved in stone. Indeed, Trumbo’s eloquence gets him into a lot of trouble. Asked about the charges against him for “contempt of Congress,” he answers that he has plenty of contempt for a Congress that would bridle his right to free thought.
Today, when even political mistakes are being recycled and echoes of McCarthyism haunt our presidential debates, the ability to think critically about democratic principles and demagogic rhetoric should be one of our most valued human resources. The bad news is that we remain underfunded in the humanities. The good news is that the humanities are strong at CSUB.
Sadly, Trumbo, one of the most intelligent films currently playing, is being shown on just one screen in Bakersfield, just once a day (at 1:55 pm). The good news is: the theatre was sold out for that showing when I saw it. Go see it before it goes away because then all you’ll have is Star Wars VII on twice that many screens. So much for awakening the Force.
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities