Sustaining university arts can give us the antidote to our toxic political culture

Carola Boehm explains why she believes that the arts offer a route to meaningful critique in an era of post-truth politics

While writing a foreword to a book to be published next year, all about the joyful topic of arts and academia, I am constantly astounded how our basic expectations of human civility in our daily Brexit-y lives are under threat.

Between our ability to be funny about the politics of the day and our seemingly biased media, we have become numbed to the routine of a disdainful pragmatism used by our political leaders, where anything – even referendum interference – is an acceptable means to an end. Between the current ongoing fear-inducing posturing of our UK’s current government’s attempt to get Brexit over the line and the rather suppressed and depressing outflow of news from burning rainforests and melting Arctic glaciers, I ask myself what is in my toolbox that can cut through this quagmire?

The end of enlightenment

There was recently a little bit of art-y news lost between the humdrum of big-boy politics. That news was of a former education secretary, Lord Kenneth Baker, writing a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, suggesting that the EBacc as it currently stands has managed to “squeeze out” arts from the school curriculum. How important art and music in schools is for individuals has been evidenced numerous times. There is also this article for Wonkhe by Loic Menzies and Anita Kerwin-Nye, or my own research on the impact on the creative industries – an industry that, it must be noted, is as large as the financial sector.

But in our current era of Brexit and increasing realisation of the onset of climate catastrophe – arts and music matters more than all of this and more than you might think. By the time I finish my own book about arts and academia, I am hopeful that some of the chaos within our political systems will have dissipated. But my assumption is that there will be a long slog for humanity to work itself back from the brink. And while the world continues to burn, and the political discourse continues to focus inordinately on economic superiority and sovereignty (a word with a complex underbelly), our creative professionals are already using that magic ingredient that allows us to fix various fissures in our broken societies, that powerful magic glue found in the power of arts and creativity.

Much discussion has been had on the demise of our democratic institutions in this era of Trump and Brexit, but what we are experiencing is more crucially (and shockingly) the long tail end of the age of reason. And if this seems too dramatic a stance, then consider how our current realities, shocked and shaken by what some have coined as the post-truth era, provides an environment where science and facts seem to be not sufficient anymore to turn the minds and hearts of our democratically elected representatives towards leading us (with my obviously too high expectations of integrity) towards a more sustainable common shared wealth and wellbeing. We live in a time where rationality, science and evidence seem to be not enough.

As much as I would like to bounce the blame back to the gaggle of fast-changing ministers in Westminster to solve the misery that they have created, I do passionately believe that universities are the key to ensuring that our future societies will cope with the substantial challenges ahead of them. One of the reasons for my confidence (or possibly desperate hope) lies in the knowledge that universities have started to use that magic ingredient of arts to ensure rationality and new knowledge have their needed impact. Universities see arts and culture as a way to make the university more permeable and evidence for this lies in the fact that there are an increasing number of universities that have created senior posts to provide strategic creative and cultural leadership for their institutions.

My personal belief is that when rationality has stopped working, art can cut through and ensure our messages have reach and impact. Thus, arts in higher education becomes increasingly important as it contributes so heavily to the essence of what it means to be human. And it is also important because we live in a period where we – as the Earth’s most thinking and creative species – have to overcome our own most pernicious man-made ecological challenges. This is happening – apparently coincidentally, but we know to be very much linked – at a time where we seem to discount that same rationality and critical thinking which would allow us to solve the growing number of disruptions in the political, economic, societal, as well as ecological sphere.

Disruptive forces

And this is where the power of the creative arts comes in. When rationality has stopped working, art can reach on an emotional level. It might appear as the biting image of Canadian political cartoonist Michael de Adder presenting a real humanitarian crisis in the face of detached political leadership that trended and raised awareness like no factual account could. Or take, for example, the depressing imagery of Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition with its imagery of its almost-sinking dinghies full of refugees in grey-brownish dark tints. Or on a more positive celebratory moment, the Repainting History project of photographer Horia Manolache, who in detail captured individual refugee personalities in exact poses and backgrounds of known portraitures of European royals.

There is the popular music boy band The Breunion Boys, with their cleverly constructed song “Britain Come Back” (Breunion Boys, 2019), which is as funny as it is poignant, evoking in any Remainer that yearning back for a united Europe. Closer to home, the love of a lived-in region as expressed in the DIY songs of Merrym’n from Stoke-on-Trent singing about past garden festivals in the local area. The DIY nature matters here, as Stoke-on-Trent was one of those left-behind places where residents and citizens have taken up the baton themselves and developed a powerful DIY can-do attitude, mixed with a powerful creative talent, a pragmatic work ethos, and mixed with a strong community spirit that has allowed Stoke-on-Trent to fast become one of the most uniquely creatively-driven post-industrial cities that I have ever had the privilege to experience.

Thus I do believe that arts schools in our higher education sector play a huge role in this context, because cultural participation has an indirect, but also demonstrable effect on innovation, welfare, social cohesion, entrepreneurship, local identity and the knowledge economy, just as Luigi Sacco pointed out in 2014. Art and culture is important as it is “not simply a large and important sector of the economy, it is a ‘social software’ that is badly needed to manage the complexity of contemporary societies and economies in all of its manifold implications”.

In this challenging climate, our universities and specialist institutions represent some of the largest arts hubs in Europe. Art, more often than not, lives in the intersections between university, society, industry and government. Art is inherently permeable, and constantly asking for an audience. Its actors live and survive through being social and business entrepreneurs within a seamless continuum. University-housed art schools allow institutions to make use of art’s inherently permeable nature to create intentional and curated interfaces between what is within a university and what is outside of its boundaries. However, art subject areas are also inherently one of the most vulnerable disciplinary areas in today’s higher education system as their highly fragmented impacts on the economy and society are less quantifiable in monetary terms, and thus less understood.

However, most importantly, art has the power to move us in ways that no facts or rational arguments are able to. It can touch us, and with that touch affect action in times when the process of normalisation, fear and societal trauma seems to have paralysed us to the point where we seem to allow the most basic human civilities to be undermined. When we feel the most helpless and consequently are in danger of becoming numbed by some of the acts of barbarism forced upon our fellow human beings, art is often the way we can communicate and cut through the barriers of partisan divisions to affect change. This is why we need arts in the academy to stay, and why retaining art in its diversity within our university sector is sustainable, and is actually essential.

4 responses to “Sustaining university arts can give us the antidote to our toxic political culture

  1. Thank you for this article Carola. While I agree with your argument in principle, to the point where I might argue that a university without the arts is not really a university, I am not sure I am happy to see art being somehow set as “emotional” and opposed to science that is set as “rational”. This seems to me to compartmentalise art and science in a way that does not really ring true, either to many practitioners of either category, or to non-practitioners when they encounter science or art.

    If we look at the history of art we find it has often been concerned with highly rational thought processes and not primarily the emotions – think of the paintings of Piero della Francesca or the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth. Similarly scientists often talk of making creative leaps and a love for the sheer beauty of what they might see under a microscope or in the perfect mathematical equation. I think of the physicist Paul Dirac’s claim “A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data.”

    I think, from a personal perspective, I would be happier with an argument that simply does not separate art, science, politics, economics, life and so on into separate spheres. To me that seems to risks running into an argument for creating a hierarchy based on personal preference and prejudice. I could be wrong of course, but I would argue that all these things are part of a pluralistic human experience and so all have a place in our educational system, without trying to tie any particular one of them to a specific type of human experience. I think rationalistic art and emotional science are just as legitimate terms as emotional art and rationalistic science.

  2. Yes, I think I do not disagree (and I am myself a STEAM person, science and arts, tech and music). I am suggesting that arts more predominantly provides a richness that adds to the mix of different ways to communicate meaning; be it by embodied, gestural communicative, haptic, mimetic, metaphorical, or many other methods. It provides us with many more tools in our box to communicate meanings, concepts, truths, realities. And many of those are emotionally attached to our lived experiences as humans … (So I guess I do come back to emotions but, yes, we need everything ‘in the mix’).

    As Trevor Wishard tends to say, there are universals, such as voice. Everyone has experienced voice. So vocal art plays a large part in our creative lives as everyone can experientially relate to this. So truths and meanings can be constructed differently when one can draw on this experience. And I have a feeling that this contributes greatly to what we need right now, in order to increase our capability to be empathic, to understand ‘otherness’, to experience ‘togetherness’, to pull together for common purposes, to understand the scale of the challenge but not be numbed into passivity, to survive….

  3. In social isolation it was very inspiring to read Carolas’ views about the Arts written before the Covid 19 pandemic.Being in the book trade times are challengng to keep afloat but thanks to social media we just keep our heads above water.
    Before I retrained at Staffordshire University I was a PE teacher so am aware of the physical contribution to health and fitness. The Government recommends daily excercise to fight Coronavirus and of course this with the maxim ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ is very important to staying safe.As William Shakespeare said ‘If music be the food of love play on’ and not only the Arts in its many forms but Science are all part of the combat.If the Pharmaceutical Industry can come up with an antidote we may all have a reprieve.

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