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Randomness, Year 2
Issue 60

In Defence of the Arts

Wow, the sixtieth issue. Its sort of mind-bongling to think about how long Ive been doing this and how much Ive said. Here we are at Issue 60. Its being sent at 1:00 AM on May 14, one day before the second anniversary of Randomness. In two years (kinda like the first) I've covered topics ranging from why on earth I almost never win free pop to the Salvation of humanity through Jesus Christ. And today, we go on a journey into the wonderful land of Art . . .

In Defence of the Arts

Before I begin, I must inform everyone that I feel no animosity towards scientists, engineers, manual labourers, businessmen, nurses, pilots, medical doctors, astronauts, cashiers, or anyone else not directly involved in the arts. Therefore, unlike the actions of some people whom I have met, I will not defend the arts by tearing down the sciences, engineering, or whatever. I recognise the value of all of these things for our society to work properly. Indeed, if it weren't for computer engineers, electrical engineers, electricians, et cetera, I would be unable to send you guys this work so quickly and easily. We need all of these people in our society from garbage men to engineers to musicians.

And for those of you who are very in touch with God or are very fundamentalist, I would say that for many, it is the arts that bring them to contact with the Almighty, whether it is through writing a poem, listening to a symphony, or painting a picture. The arts are often ways to bring us to God; therefore, the defence, study, creation of, and participation in the arts are noble and godly things for people to do. And there we have one argument in favour of the arts.

Before I go on, I must provide a definition of "the arts." What are the arts? Most obviously, the arts include such things as painting, sculpture, sketching, etc.--the visual arts. As well, the arts include the performing arts--music, dance, acting, etc. The arts include other disciplines such as philosophy, literature, history, languages. The artistic disciplines include the study, analysis, and creation of the subject matter--except for obvious areas of study such as history and language, which use rather than create examples of the subject matter. According to Websters New World Dictionary, art is "any branch of creative work" or "the liberal arts (literature, music, philosophy, etc.) as distinguished from the sciences." Those two definitions are the two I use when I mean the arts. Just as an aside, I once heard an engineer wondering aloud that the main branches of learning are arts, science and engineering. If we go by his definition, well have to actually say arts, humanities, science, and engineering. The most basic divisions are arts and science because all branches of knowledge relate to those and are influenced by them and their methods. A chemical engineer must know the science of chemistry just as a sociologist must know the art of essay-writing. But that is neither here nor there.

I think one of the chief ills of contemporary society is its utilitarian nature. By this, I mean that everything must serve some sort of explicit, practical purpose. For example, many people are in university not because they love knowledge or because they enjoy their programs. Many people are in university because they want to get a good job. Having the letters BA, BSc, etc. after one's name is useful--people with university degrees get better jobs, get better money. I am constantly defending my program because Classics is not seen as "practical" or something like that. Some fools do not see it as relevant, but that is their loss. I am often ribbed about what sort of job I could get with a degree in Classical Studies. Why should I even care? I'm not studying Classics so I can have the letters "HBA" after my name. People often regard many or all of the arts in this way. They question the "usefulness" of a music degree, the "worth" of a philosophy degree, the "practicality" of a history degree. People instead look to the "practical" disciplines--computer this, that, and the other thing; engineering of all sorts; health sciences; business/administration; the sciences. I recognise the value of all of the above disciplines--and that value is not greater than that of the arts. As a result of this utilitarian outlook, people do not see the worth of the arts.

But the arts are, indeed, worthwhile. The arts have been integral in the creation of who we are as a people (ie. Westerners). It was the art of music that gave teenagers an escape in the 50's and allowed them to challenge the world they saw (for good or ill). It was the art of philosophy--not the purely physical sciences--that allowed Descartes to question Aristotelian physics and set us on the track of modernity. It was the art of rhetoric that convinced countless politicians to create programs that are currently feeding most of the worlds population and hundreds of other innovations and events. The music of Beethoven has left an indelible mark on us all, whether we know it or not. The philosophy of Nietzche, Marx, Kierkegaard made us question the world we live in and our solutions to its problems. The literature of JRR Tolkien has put an imprint on Anglophone culture that cannot be removed. The scholarship of CS Lewis made us look a little bit differently at the world and a lot of old texts. Whether or not we like it or acknowledge it, the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to today has shaped the way we look at the world, God, and our selves. The historical analysis of men like Granatstein and Berton has filtered its way into the way we look at history and Canada--even if we never read any of their books. The poetry of King David has brought people to God, and whether or not you lot like or believe in David's God, those people of God have helped shape our world. The history of Thucydides addresses the issues of genocide and capital punishment in ways that are still relevant to us today. The epics of Homer still inspire people to do great deeds.

Much of humanity's creative impulse lies in and is given birth by art. The engineer makes sure the bridge won't collapse, but that work is not creative. There is no room for creativity in civil engineering. A millimetre off here or put on the wrong spot of the shore or made from the wrong material or set on an unstable foundation or a million other things and that bridge will collapse. The creativity is the job of those who come after. The Roman engineers made sure the Colosseum would not fall. The Roman artists used their creativity to encase it in marble, erect its statues, and make it beautiful. It is in artistic design that beautiful web pages are made, not in the austerity of the scientific html coding behind them. In Mozart's music, every note is chosen for its capacity to create something new, something special. In the design of IBM computers, they were getting "creative" when they made Aptivae--er, Aptivas--black.

Yet the arts are still disciplinary. A sonnet of Shakespeare is creative in its choice of words and beauty of language, yet it is confined to the sonnet form. In historical research, how the researcher examines the events, how the essay is formed, what literary devices are used, what arguments are used, how the data is presented are all the creative work of the historian. But with all of that work comes the rigour of historical analysis and explanation. The historian must continually ask "So what?" as the paper is written. A paper that is well-formulated and artistic in a literary sense can very easily get a B instead of an A because the writer did not analyse quite . . . properly. A novelist cannot simply transcribe every event, scene, and thought of his characters and hope to have a masterpiece. He (forgive my gender-specific pronouns--I'll make up for it) cannot simply leave the story as his creative kernel of might. He must go through and edit the work, removing and refining some of his precious, creative thoughts to create a coherent, cohesive, readable, masterful piece of literature. The musician cannot simply play the notes she sees on the page. She must make true music from them. She must properly accent the notes. Her dynamics must be both at Everest and at the base of the Atlantic. Her tempo must be steady. Her tone must be rich. Yet with all of the rigours of art, the artist is up to his or her own discretion at how to apply them to his or her own special art. The application, interpretation, and analysis of the rigours of art are done creatively by each artist, creating an endless stream of beautiful works of art, each unique, special, and creative.

Finally, art is within each of us. We cannot escape it. People sometimes say that they have no artistic impulse. But, although I defend the more "intellectual" arts, there is art in each of us, in each of our lives. There is art in the cooking of a meal (and rigour--never put in two tablespoons of salt when you should really put in two teaspoons of salt). There is art in the designing of a dress. There is art in the pleating of a kilt (oh my goodness, is there ever). There is even art in the wearing of a kilt. There is art in sanding a board. There is art in cabinet-making. There is art in writing a single word at times. Art is within every human being. Humanity is defined by art. Art gives us imagination. Art gives us music to listen to, paintings to admire, instruments to play, poetry to read, novels to enjoy, films to vegetate in front of, philosophy to ponder, perspectives on history to consider. Art is a sort of spice, adorning and permeating our lives. Without art, humanity would be considerably less creative, exciting, enjoyable. Life would be less varied, less bearable, less textured. Without art, we would be dull, our homes would be duller, our friends would be incredibly dull.

Copyright 2002, Matthew Hoskin