Theory Teacher's Blog

Why Arts?: Ideology and the Dangerous Game of Cultural Politics, a rant

Many career services centers at colleges around the country like to show their students the results of a nation-wide survey of employers and business leaders. The survey question is simple. What skills do they want from college graduates? The answer won’t surprise you; number one is the ability to communicate (write, read, talk, listen, etc.). Also on the list are flexibility and creativity. In addition, these days, more and more, following the crash of our economy due to the unethical practices of a short-sighted corporate sector (including accounting scandals, investment scandals, etc., etc., too numerous to bother listing here), employers also value critical thinking and ethics. They see these skills as necessary for any professional labor force that is adaptive, innovative, reliable, and trustworthy. These skills are all the more necessary in an economy that is increasingly affected by globalization, increasingly dominated by information technologies, and increasingly protean — changing all the time in ways that are exciting and productive, but also unstable and a bit frightening. And what I hope is obvious to anyone reading this blog, these are precisely the skills one learns in the disciplines of the humanities such as philosophy, history, etc., and especially my own discipline of literature. This is why all students at almost all colleges and universities are required to take two or three classes in writing and other communication skills, one or two classes in cultural diversity, and sometimes even one or two courses in ethics. All standard stuff. Hence, one might think that if a university administration were going to support any discipline in this supposedly creative, global, social-networking age, one would want to support the departments of world literature and creative writing. But curiously, no. Shortly following the sad news of Joe Paterno’s death, which received a lot of media attention, Penn State’s English department (where I got my own Ph.D.) released some other sad news that received no media attention at all. Due to state budget cuts, the department will no longer be admitting graduate students to its highly ranked M.F.A. program in creative writing. This depressing event is not a unique one. Nation-wide, at the same time that universities have begun to funnel dollars into new, adventuresome “global” centers and initiatives, their programs in world literature (where the study of  “global” culture has been going on for two centuries) has suffered cuts.

There would seem to be an ideological contradiction here. What’s going on? How might we demystify this mystery?

And it’s not just America. Celebrated Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish, recently responded to some petty politicians in her home country who disparaged the worth of the arts. In her recent essay “Why Art?” published just a few days ago (almost at exactly the same time that Penn State’s English department made its decision), she describes her experience watching modern dance to explain the value of the arts. She explains that creativity invigorates new ways of seeing the world, that it enables individuals to ethically confront the ways that the complex vicissitudes of the world pull us apart, that it enables us to understand and relate to people from other cultures that we may not understand, and that it helps us value our own traditions and ways of life at the same time that we adapt to the new cultures of a rapidly changing world. All important things, few would disagree, but it’s hard to find a public university in Africa that supports programs in the arts. One of the legacies of European colonialism is its emphasis on the technical skills that the colonizer needed the colonized to learn in order to build the roads and administer its laws, but Europe kept the development of the arts for itself.

One might wonder whether governments and university administrators have simply gone stupid over night — while the rest of us were all sleeping — and for some unknown reason no longer realize the importance of the programs that foster the very skills they say they want fostered. However, this is not the case. To demystify this apparent ideological contradiction, we can play a simple game of “follow the money.” In fact, governments care about the arts quite a bit, and not always in the most honest of ways. Looking back in history, the most infamous and surprising example of this was discovered when some documents from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States were declassified; it turns out that the CIA was aggressively funding avant garde art. Holy cow! What does painting and poetry have to do with spying and national security? They did so for two reasons. First, in order to fight the culture war against the Soviet Union, America had to appear more free, more innovative… more better, or something. But they weren’t funding all kinds of art, and not even all kinds of avant garde postmodern art. They were promoting a specific variety of art and specific artists in order to de-politicize it and marginalize writers and painters who were critical of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, the United States has also been very aggressive in promoting its culture industry around the world (one of its biggest and most lucrative exports), not just the ability of Hollywood to market its films abroad but also the many small programs that are officially independent and non-governmental but receive most of their funding from the federal government program USAID. So, the government does care about the arts, and it does care about culture, and it does care about globalization, creativity, writing, etc., after all.  Just not the sort of art and culture that might lead young people to question the ideology of a government corrupted by Wall Street and the military industrial complex.

(A side note on the military industrial complex and where the money for large research universities comes from. Public and private universities receive millions of dollars from the federal government for the research and development of new military technologies and new pills. In other words, new ways to keep the population alive and medicated while refining instruments of death, all paid for by public taxes that serve corporate interests. Many of the new military technologies are actually worthless, but they keep the corporations who make them (and their stock holders) financially afloat. It’s a curious and expensive form of corporate welfare. Meanwhile, as for the state taxes that are supposed to pay for all the other, more peaceful programs that all undergraduates need in order to obtain the skills that employers actually want — these get cut, and the politicians explain that they have to cut them, so that they can cut taxes, so that individuals can go buy more crap at the store, indulging the commodity fetish, because our economy is based on the never-ending growth of the crap merchants.)

Responding to all the hype in the mainstream media and all the highly ideological incentives that politicians build into the system, schools are feeling the pressure to create new centers on global leadership, intercultural competency, and all the things that literature departments used to do, but now the administrators can do them the way its corporate-minded board wants them to, without having to deal with all those pesky subversives. In other words, in a classic political and rhetorical move, universities such as Penn State are co-opting the values of literature departments (values such as good writing, creativity, innovation, and cultural awareness), but changing the meaning and practice of these valued skills by shifting them to other centers that are more beholden to the short-sighted agendas of stock holders and speculators.

How to fight back? Unlike the military industrial complex, who wage their battles through instruments of death and by killing off (metaphorically speaking) the academic programs that foster creative, critical, and ethical thought, we fight back by creating. It is a hard battle, because the media (who, by the way, is sometimes owned by the same company that makes the death stuff) is constantly telling our students and the parents of our students that nobody with a degree in literature, philosophy, or history can find a job. We might worry that the prophecies of the network news pundits might be self-fulfilling. In other words, even though the pundits are flat-out lying or just plain ignorant of the facts on the ground, the lie will influence behavior if it is believed, and the new behavior creates a new reality. My own fear is that their lie might become the truth simply because they have the power to make it true, the way a rumor spreads like a virus, changing the behavior of everyone who hears it. But, given the set of skills demanded by employers, this is a battle we always inevitably win, even in the midst of our darkest hour, because the world needs creators; it doesn’t need killers. As the CIA case shows, governments are more successful at winning friends and influencing people through skillful communication and the arts than by dropping bombs and kicking in doors.

Fact is, they need us. This is our power. But we also need them. Hence, the dilemmas of the creative spirit. So, if they co-opt our values because they need our skills (as the case of the CIA demonstrates), then should our strategy be to co-opt their centers of power? How might we imagine such a co-option? If “global” and “information technology” is where they now want to put the money, even though some of the people making the decisions about that money may not really understand what the word global means or how information technology works, should we simply co-opt their center and make it smarter and more ethical than it might otherwise have been. (And, by-the-by, co-opting their ideology of the zero-sum game of the job market is exactly the rhetorical tactic of this blog post, as you may have noticed in the first paragraph.) In doing so, we enter the dangerous game of cultural politics, where meaning and ideological effects are beyond the intention of their authors.

February 8, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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