I just rolled my eyes so hard I detached my cornea.
Look, I know I’m biased. I’m a writer. I never wanted to be anything else. And I love books and stories and non-fiction, and I love art and music. So I am prepared to believe that we are better off with them than without them. Even if the only evidence I have is that humans are the only animals on Earth that create art.[i]
We’re the only animals who do that symbolic analytic thing:[ii] that music thing, that computer programming thing, that economics thing, that storytelling thing, that math and science thing, that language thing, that civilization thing, that dancing thing, that money thing. That’s all part of that symbolic analytic thing where the falling angel meets the rising ape.[iii]
So if that symbolic analytic thing is what makes us human rather than animal, hadn’t we better be doing a whole boat-load of it? I mean, here we are; everybody on all sides of the political/religious/economic spectra agrees that the US is in a bit of a pickle just now, and we are moaning about the end of the world and the collapse of civilization and the loss of everything that makes humankind admirable. So, if humankind is in dire straits, shouldn’t we be putting all our resources into the thing--that one special thing--that raises us above the merely animal? Doesn't this seem like exactly the time we should be feverishly showering our schools and communities with music and literature and drama and art along with the science and math?
It’s not a fluke that students’ math and science skills improve when arts programs are introduced into schools. We may be built to do that symbolic analytic thing, but we’re also built for tennis and ice-skating, and we have to practice those, too. [iv]
It’s one thing to see the importance of math and science and even architecture. Those are useful; they’re productive. You can turn out millions of little math drones or science drones who will pass the tests and follow the steps and reproduce the formulas, without breaking any new ground or introducing any scary new ideas. It will all be very clean and safe and neat, and we’ll look around and see everybody in their neat little compartments doing their neat little jobs, and we’ll wonder why all those messy countries are so much more prosperous than we are.
Because those useful little math and science drones, bless their hearts, can’t really exercise their symbolic analytic skills. They can’t solve a problem; they can’t imagine a better way to do the job. Because, see, you can’t just exercise one small part of your symbolic analytic nature any more than you can exercise just one muscle of your body. The whole thing has to work together, or it doesn’t work.
I actually have a better opinion of humanity than that. I don’t think we could ever suppress that…that art thing. Not entirely. Not for everyone. There will always be a few irrepressibles who break out into dance or song or wanton banking[v] when they can’t contain it anymore. But you can stunt it. You can withhold light or air or water or whatever it needs to flourish. You can put people in stunted environments where they don’t have enough to eat, where they miss school due to chronic illness, where both parents come home worn down from struggling to get enough money to pay the rent in a community too poor to pay for arts programs in the schools.
But of course, we can’t afford to pay for extras like the arts until after we fix the economy/society/political system. Once that is done, everybody will be able to better themselves who really wants to.
That leaves us in a catch-22. We “can’t afford” to pay for arts programs in our schools and communities until after we fix the economy/political system/society, and the longer we continue to starve our citizens’ symbolic analytic faculties, the weaker our economy/political system/society becomes.
Because the United States is no longer an industrial economy. We aren’t creating repetitive manufacturing jobs anymore. At least not for our own citizens. Those jobs are being automated or sent overseas to countries where people can not only afford to work for a fraction of our minimum wage, they can actually get wealthier and make their own economies wealthier at those miniscule wages.
Those jobs aren’t coming back, and that’s okay. Somebody, or something, else can do them better and cheaper. What America is still exporting faster and better than anybody else, is symbolic analysis. We produce more art, more science, more research, more novel ideas and solutions, even more training and experience than any other country, and the good news is that not only is there an unlimited supply of that exclusively human quality, it is also self-perpetuating. New ideas breed newer ideas, and there is always a newer idea on the horizon. Sustaining and growing the US economy is going to depend in future on our ability to export symbolic analysis. To do that, we have to train people, as many people as we can, as many people as we can get our grubby little hands on, to do that most human thing. Create. And isn’t it convenient that we have a ready-made army of little symbolic analysts born right here in the United States, just waiting for a chance to stretch their little brains and go out and fill the world with a riotous and untidy jungle of new ideas and new designs, and new stories?
But even if none of that were true. Even if none of it mattered, what kind of world are we envisioning when we say that we can’t afford art? What Churchill says--so succinctly--is that without art, that most human of behaviors, there isn't a civilization worth fighting for.
[i] No, don’t direct me to websites on cats who paint or gorillas who play the tambourine. It doesn’t count. Okay, we can debate the issue re the gorillas, but it still won’t count, so drop it already.
[ii] Reason: Why Liberals Will Winn the Battle for America, Robert Reich : He introduced me to what he calls “symbolic analysis”, which is an elegant term for something I have been studying for decades without having a concise term to describe it.
[iii] Terry Pratchett, The Hogfather --That line is just too pretty to pass up, but I can’t take the credit.
[iv] Don’t nitpick about ice-skates. We were able to invent them because somebody way back when exercised his symbolic analytic brain, and made it possible for someone else to turn stumbling around on the ice into an art form.
[v] But wouldn’t it be nice if they stretched their symbolic analytic muscles to the point of being able to understand why they should do that wanton banking honestly?