Hard-working, pragmatic types, who abound in the United States, have always been suspicious of university education in the humanities. What good does it do to study the works of Milton or Rousseau, let alone the enigmatic pronouncements of Buddha or the Zen poet Basho? The unemployment rate hovers near 10%, and the Chinese are feeding their undergraduates a strict diet of engineering and accountancy. How can we pampered, decadent sorts possibly still be indulging our youth with lectures on Roman poetry and Renaissance painting?
Unfortunately, university professors in the humanities tend to get unproductively upset when asked to explain the importance of what they do. They know that their opposite numbers in the technical and scientific departments can justify their work in utilitarian terms to impatient government officials and donors. But fearing that they cannot compete effectively, the denizens of the humanities prefer to take refuge in ambiguity and silence, having carefully calculated that they retain just enough prestige to get away with leaving the reasons for their existence somewhat murky.
My own answer to what the humanities are for is simple…
—Alain de Botton Tells Us Why Art Is Important.
A writer is lost when he grows interested in such questions as ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is an artist’s duty?’
—Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, page 113.
Let’s approach this differently; in fact, let’s approach this whole subject in reverse, and turn the tables on our sacred sciences, mathematics, and engineering: what good are they? What possible good is there in learning how to build a bridge if I haven’t got the skill or the talent for it? Everyone knows that only the luckiest mathematicians and architects get rich and famous following their dreams; it’s as if they were already born with the immense power to create great things. What, really, did they ever learn from any of these unnecessary physics and engineering professors, after all?
No one would dream of asking such questions because in our drearily pragmatic culture we have decided that math is useful and that art is useless; we constantly question the usefulness of art, we constantly cut art programs at public schools and drive our humanities professors off of our campuses and back into the chain restaurant kitchens from their high school days—where all such useless folk belong, after all. I know that’s where I’d be if I hadn’t given this whole philosophy the finger and hit the road and gone to teach English in Korea.
Art has been too often turned into a tool to convey ideas—whether political or moral—to influence, to teach, to improve and enlighten and what not. I am not telling you that art does not improve and enlighten the reader. But it does this in its own special way and it does it only then when its own single purpose remains to be good, excellent art, art as perfect as its creator can make. The moment this only real and valuable purpose of art is forgotten, the moment it is replaced by a utilitarian aim, however commendable in itself, art [ceases] to be art, and through this loss of its ego, loses not only its sense and its beauty but also the very object to which it has been sacrificed: bad art neither teaches nor improves nor enlightens, it is bad art and therefore has no reasonable room in the order of things.
—Nabokov in Bryan Boyd’s biography.
I think people would burst out laughing if someone suddenly declared that the purpose of a skyscraper is to teach people how to live; a beautiful skyscraper, a beautiful work of art, cannot help but teach, and say look what people can do if they try their best and don’t decide to settle instead for the cheap and the gaudy and the merely educational. That purpose is built into the primary desire to simply create something beautiful. We don’t say that skyscrapers should teach us how to live, so why is Mr. Botton saying the same of art, when the genius behind a painting and a skyscraper is one and the same? Why do we differentiate the two?
Does it occur to anyone that the distinction between art and math is entirely an arbitrary one, and that the greatest artists and mathematicians have thought of the two as one and the same thing? Can’t you define the word symmetry as being equally artistic and mathematical?
The question itself invalidates any answer; the moment you ask yourself the purpose of art, you invalidate all art; the moment you ask yourself the purpose of math, the moment you have to justify it, you invalidate its existence. Vladimir Nabokov has said as much, and a number of my college professors—who were not upset at all about their perceived status as social leeches (as depicted by Mr. Botton), and in fact were quite vociferous about the whole thing—they defined all art as “useful uselessness”, the kind of koan, or gateless gate, that would have the virtuous hard-working pragmatists of Mr. Botton’s America scratching their heads and mumbling swears under their breath directed toward the wine-drinking arugula-eating sodomite intellectuals who infest the cities of our great nation.
A pragmatist might say, in reply, that you don’t have to justify the science of engineering, for example, because an engineer makes all kinds of useful things that you see everywhere you look. I would like to ask such a person if he thinks engineering is truly an artless science—and, furthermore, if he prefers a bare, boring, practical bridge that conveniently spans an inconvenient river, or a spectacular work of art like the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans a river and takes one’s breath away (as if one had fallen into the East River and drowned!), all at the same time? Which is better?
I cannot speak for Nabokov, but when I speak of art, I speak of science in the same breath.
The distinctions in our school’s curricula and, by extension, most of our minds, are entirely arbitrary inventions that largely came about in the last few centuries as a result of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Ancient luminaries like Leonardo da Vinci saw all of these subdivisions shaded into one another, sfumato-style, where everything blends into everything else, with the result that a truly great artist and a truly great engineer are, truly, one and the same thing.
Things that are separate shall be united and acquire such virtue that they will restore to man his lost memory.
Leonardo da Vinci, speaking of papyrus!, but a useful and I think correct quote for our purposes.
So instead of justifying art, or attacking science, we have to do away with these artificial and arbitrary distinctions. The immense artistic elegance behind e=Mc2 cannot be ignored any more than the psychological insight inherent to the stories of Leo Tolstoy; it’s time to start thinking of Tolstoy the Scientist and Einstein the Painter; we must destroy the destructive ideas that have divided the world; it’s high time we unified these disparate academic distinctions, and conceived of the world as it truly is—not as many different things, but as one!