It's a Long Time Since I Was at School

Sean Doyle, who completed the Foundation in 2013/14, on why the arts and humanities matter, why Immanuel Kant warned us about Google, and what art history can teach us about Banksy.

Studying the arts and humanities: it’s a bit wishy washy isn't it? I don't think so. Granted they generally are not subjects than can be easily calibrated, in the way one can with things like maths or engineering. Yet we use the Arts and Humanities as a measure of cultural impact. Now if you have read this far I suspect that you on some level may also think that this is the case. Hopefully I can demonstrate why I think this too.

I grew up on a council estate in the 1980s and went to a pretty rough old comprehensive school, where the arts were met with what I imagine was the bare curricular minimum. I don't think this was necessarily the fault of jaded and unimaginative teachers but of an education system that sought only to prepare people, not inspire them. The estate did not have a cinema or a regularly open community centre and the public library seemed to be merely an addendum: located on a distant corner, a bit like an appendix, away from the daily school traffic.

There was, and I imagine still is, the remains of a Roman villa on the main road that runs through the estate, fenced off, and with an interpretation centre, a valuable learning resource offering a tangible link to the history of both the area and the country. At least I think it was: I don't remember it ever being open. Self-expression usually involved smashing shop windows or badly executed graffiti sprayed on the local bus shelter. Now within this environment there must have those who sought more than the most basic of education, enough to equip them for the jobs it was expected they might do.

The eighteenth century Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that we can all, no matter who we are or from where we come, learn. All it takes is, put quite simply, to question everything. Sapere aude [dare to be wise]: have the courage to make use of your own understanding and not to take everything at face value. A simple maxim but perhaps one that takes practice: and is that not what learning is, practice? I think that there is a sense of satisfaction that one can enjoy from learning something through one’s own efforts. Kant even warns us of, without knowing about it of course, the perils of Google, that fount of instant wisdom soon forgotten: ‘If I have a book that understands for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me.’ If we take this sentiment on board and learn to develop our own critical abilities, we can then have the confidence to use them across the range of disciplines we might encounter throughout the arts and humanities.

Now, what do I mean when I speak of the arts and humanities: what do they include? Graffiti? Take the 'Breakdancing Jesus' mural by the street artist Cosmo Sarson on Stokes Croft, Bristol, close to where I now live. When we look at it our first thought might be, well that’s big. But then we might ask, is that blasphemous? Asking this question may then raise other questions about the nature of blasphemy. Does one have to be religious to blaspheme? Is taking the image of Christ out of traditional context new? This might then lead us to look further into representations of Christ in art. The piece actually references a performance by a breakdancing troupe given to Pope John Paul II in January 2004 at the Vatican. I did not know that until I decided to engage with it and investigate further.

Opposite this piece is Banksy's 'Mild Mild West'. We might look at this and think that it is a witty piece of work. Underlying that thought, maybe, is the question: what does that mean? what is he trying to say to us? Is that not critically engaging with the piece? All this from ‘street art’. What I think this demonstrates is that we all have the facility to engage with art, even if we are not yet fully aware that we are doing so. Learning to develop these skills at school or university helps us to understand not just ‘street art’ but to learn to develop the understanding to engage with all art, whatever it may be: painting, literature, film.

I spoke earlier of the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant and did so deliberately. For learning to understand those and other philosophical ideas and their historical contexts I think helps us to understand our own culture: where we have come and how we view where we are going and to have courage to explore these issues. But that all sounds a bit high falutin' though, doesn't it? Or is it merely asking why?

I hope that this shows that the arts and humanities are not really all that ‘wishy washy’ but are valuable tools that help us to understand our own culture as well as other people’s culture. When we speak of culture we do so not as an elevated thing that exists only in museums, the writings of long dead philosophers or impenetrable text books but something modern, tangible and ever changing. Something that can be seen on streets in which we live and is as useful as plumbing or engineering.

Finally, Raymond Williams (1921-1988), a pioneer in the field of cultural studies, wrote ‘culture is ordinary’. By this I think he means that culture is embedded in our everyday lives: not something separate from them. For example, when we think of Shakespeare we might think of it as high culture, but if he were around today he might have started his writing career as a staff writer on EastEnders and you can't get any more ordinary than that. We need ordinary tradespeople that work in the arts and humanities as practitioners or curators to make sure that it operates efficiently and does not break down while being used by everyday by ordinary folk.

Sean Doyle, June 7, 2014

Breakdancing Jesus by Cosmo Sarson in Stokes Croft Image credit: Sam Saunders under the Creative Commons Licence

Mild, Mild West by Banksy Image credit: MontanNito under the Creative Commons Licence

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