The Value of Arts and Humanities

Over the past few years, and in particular, the last two, the meaning and function of the University as an institution and the value of Arts and Humanities have come into question. This is mainly due to the fact that everything is seen through an economic prism at the time of austerity. There are very valid reasons for this but one also has to be aware of other value systems (something that the university provides). Despite the assault on the Humanities, I believe that crisis can be something positive. It leads to us questioning our positions and beliefs, and reasserting some while leaving others behind. In this weekend’s The Guardian “Review” section Stefan Collini writes about the “use of universities”, suggesting that seeing them purely on a market-based value is misunderstanding the point of them. Collini seems positive about universities’ meaning and people’s view of them:

“Whatever the reality of the experience of actually attending one of today’s semi-marketised, employment-oriented institutions, there remains a strong  popular desire that they should, at their best, incarnate a set of ‘aspirations and ideals’ that go beyond any form of economic return.

It is crucial that attempts to make the case for universities in present circumstances should not lose sight of this deep and pervasive conviction. In saying this I am certainly not forgetting or underestimating the degree of misunderstanding and hostility that universities, in England at least, have encountered from some politicians and some sections of the media over the past two or three decades. But I suspect that among the public at large there is, potentially, a much greater reservoir of interest in, and latent appreciation of, the work of universities than this narrow and defensive official discourse ever succeeds in tapping into.”(Review, Guardian, 25.02.12, p. 4)

I hope that Collini is right in his belief in people’s appreciation of universities (I shall see what his argument is once I’ve read the book). Whatever the truth is, it is obvious that the university is a very controversial subject at the moment and the Humanities even more so. At an event organised by King’s College in 2011 “What is the public value of Arts and Humanities?” many of the speakers agreed that although we were all there because we believe in these subjects, what the we have to become better at is articulating and arguing for the value of Arts and Humanities outside our spheres of comfort. One of my favourite arguments is by the comedian Stewart Lee, where he suggests that it is impossible to engage in a discussion of the value of the arts using the language of economics.

I created this blog because I deeply believe in the value of art and literature and intellectual, critical thinking. Arts and Humanities seem to have become “The Faculty of Economically Useless Knowledge”. But art helps us to survive as humans, which is evident in memoirs of Gulag survivors (among many others) where reciting poetry and telling stories literally saved your life and figuratively your soul. If this seems far-fetched in any way, Aung San Suu Kuy has recently clarified for me the importance of literature (and BBC it seems…). In her first Reith Lecture broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the 28th of June 2011 she spoke of the meaning of Liberty for her and the people of Burma. In this lecture she referred to several works of fiction, intellectual thought and poetry, and how these helped her throughout her years of imprisonment: “Whenever I was asked at the end of each stretch of house arrest how it felt to be free, I would answer that I felt no different because my mind had always been free.” She further explains that “an inner sense of freedom can reinforce a practical drive for the more fundamental freedoms in the form of human rights and rule of law.” This inner freedom of which Aung San Suu Kuy speaks has been supported by literature of all kinds, in her lecture she quotes works by Akhmatova, Ratushinskaya, Isiah Berlin, Kipling and Vaclav Havel. She depicts a particularly dark episode of her internment when she kept thinking to herself “this is not me” and reinforces this episode with poetry:

“At that time, I had no recollection of Akhmatova’s lines: ‘No, this is not me. This is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that and all that happened.’ It was only much later, back in my own house but still under arrest, that these words of requiem came back to me. At the moment of remembrance, I felt almost as a physical force the strong bond that linked those of us who had only our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance.”

To me, this is the value of Arts and Humanities, of literature existing in its own right, of the opportunity to study and understand it. The value of the subjects under the umbrella of “Arts and Humanities” is an internal and personal value, but one that is equal to all people. It amazes and inspires me to think that the very real struggle of the Burmese people is somehow, even if very remotely, strengthened by poetry.* This is how something as seemingly abstract as poetry is transformed into something very practical.  As Aung San Suu Kuy suggests: “Akhmatova and Ratushinskaya were Russians. Henley was English. But the struggle to survive under oppression and the passion to be the master of one’s own fate and the captain of one’s own soul is common to all races.” It is interesting that in a society that is seemingly free the value of arts is questioned, while for people in un-freedom (as Aung San Suu Kuy calls it), literature is one of the paths to freedom. Something worth thinking about more deeply perhaps?

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Narrating History

To continue on the theme of music…

I have been thinking a lot about how history is depicted and embraced by creative narratives. History informs many novels. Sometimes it is a backdrop and other times it is the very subject of the novel. As shown in the previous post, it can also be a subject of music, or an inspiration in music. Creativity does not happen in a vacuum but is a direct response to experience or knowledge. Our present becomes the future’s history and therefore responding to it may be rather complex. Does one make it personal or general, could it be both? How exactly does one depict events that are horrific or even traumatic? And how does one respond to events without becoming too dogmatic and judgemental but at the same time respond to them from a moral position? The recent investigations into the riots in London attempt to understand or explain history as it is happening. Perhaps, we are hoping to understand the present so as to make sure it will be remembered in a certain way, that it will fit in with some kind of a master narrative of Britain’s “lost decade”.

I believe that sometimes creativity allows for a different kind of memory. This year PJ Harvey was the first woman to win the Mercury Prize for a second time. I listened to her album before this was announced and I was very pleased to see something rather difficult being recognized as an outstanding contribution. By difficult I mean that the subject of the record is difficult, rather than than the music itself. Harvey deals with the darkest aspects of our present lives in sometimes rather horrific depictions. I was listening to the album on my way to the Grossman events in Oxford in September and the words: “death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds” took me straight to Stalingrad. BUT this was not written about a safely distant past but about our present. It made me wonder, what will people think of our era when they look back on this album?

What most fascinates me about this album is how listenable it is. Harvey explains this very well and I think her observations are very representative of a lot of art and fiction. I can both see Iurii Dombrovskii’s approach to literature where he depicts the Great Terror of 1937 through a very creative and uplifting language (more on that later). And the work of Grossman who depicts war through the “human emotional perspective” (Harvey’s words). In the interview with The Guardian below, Harvey explains the need to make the music on the album rather uplifting to support the heavy and dark lyrics. The interview is very interesting and it makes me happy to see such wonderful artists out there who respond to the traumas in our world by giving this suffering a voice.

I love the way that she suggests that the album belongs to the times and not to her. I think that shows the elusive nature of creativity, which is born within an individual but exists independently outside that individual.

I thought I would also attach a song from the album as an example and it is so hard to choose one. I’ve decided on the clip below as it is a performance in front of David Cameron and involves a little confrontation. Go Polly!

WWII in Song

I have written quite a bit about the battle of Stalingrad and its depiction in Grossman’s work. So I thought I would put something a bit different now. It is still war but depicted by someone very different to Grossman. I found this song when I was studying History at school and it made an impression on me then. I find it quite odd that someone would use the Red Army as a subject for a song, but it is also nice when music takes some interest in history. Apparently the song was based on a book by Viktor Muravin called A Diary of Vikenty Angarov. I like the idea that literature or history inspires music. Funnily enough though, the wikipedia page devoted to the album from which the song below is taken, explains that the album itself is a reference to another novel, something of which Mike Scott was unaware of.

Sometimes it seems one can be influenced by something or refer to something of which one is unaware. I wonder whether the band Beirut were aware of what exactly they meant by the title to their album “Gulag Orkestar”. But then, does it really matter? One can go down an endless route of titles, especially as controversial as Joy Division, or perhaps as intellectually challenging as The Fall.

Here is the song that narrates the story of a Red Army soldier. It reminds me of Serezha in  Grossman’s two novels, as he is also a 17 year old boy at war. I chose the clip that includes the lyrics, however, please ignore the exclamation marks, the song obviously aroused a lot of emotion in the person who wrote the lyrics down.