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Do the Arts and Humanities need to justify their existence?

There has been a recent controversy in the UK over proposed cuts to university Arts and Humanities budgets (see here, here, here). These cuts are to the scale of £600 million by 2013 and are joined with a call for stronger ties between universities and business. There are also moves to make research funding depend upon the 'impact' of previous research in that university department (see here). The moves have been very unpopular with researchers in Arts and Humanities and prompt questions about whether it is right to measure these areas in terms of their contributions to the world.

In my view, the Arts and Humanities must ultimately be judged in terms of what they bring to the world. The money that is spent on these fields could instead be directly saving lives if spent on the health budget, or advancing science and technology and we do need a positive reason to spend it on the Arts and Humanities. That being said, the Arts and Humanities as a whole have delivered an immense amount of value. They have helped to let us think about big issues, to learn from the past, and to foster deeply important social change such as women's liberation.

However, the real problem is that such benefits are very diffuse and difficult to measure. The impacts take place over decades or centuries and are not traceable to a single invention. This means that simple attempts to measure 'impact' will often push researchers to look to short-term measurable approaches rather than core research and it is quite unclear whether this will actually produce more impact. It may well just distort the field, making it more self-concious and less beneficial to the public in the long run.

Researchers in the Arts and Humanities should thus oppose the details of the measures but not the central idea of striving to add value to the world in the long run.
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5 Comment on this post

  1. I agree with Mr Ord’s instinct that the money spent on the arts and humanities could be spent on saving lives instead, and thus this expenditure should be called into question. However I believe that it would be a grave mistake to underfund the arts in order to press ahead with what may initially appear to be more benefitial areas (e.g. health, defence, science and technology). Ultimately, we must ask why we are saving those people’s lives in the first place. In the sense that our lives can be greatly enhanced through our exposure to the arts and humanities, saving people to send them into a world where there were less writers and philosophers and comedians and film-makers of lesser quality would be less worthwhile. There is therefore a balance to be found between the funding of extremely important areas and the funding of seemingly less critical ones, and that balance may well be not ideally placed today, but it is worth being careful not to over-correct. Funnily enough, one of the best things that could come out of this debate is a greater exposure of many people to the value which the arts and humanities can have in their lives. Debating why we fund them ultimately leads to the question of why they exist and what value they can have, and if more people can be made aware of that possible value for their lives that would indeed be a noble, worthy and maybe even measurable outcome.

  2. Hi Toby:
    I agree with you that the arts and humanities must be justified by the way they “contribute to the world” (who wouldn’t?!) But opposing, e.g., impact measures in the REF because the contribution of arts and humanities is “diffuse and difficult to measure” seems to me, in part, to miss the forest for the trees. That’s because a significant part of the value of the arts and humanities is intrinsic to the subject matter itself.
    To take a simple example: If you asked what makes the Mona Lisa more valuable than some of the amateurish daubings you can buy at the seaside, one of our New Breed of bean counters would probably tell you that its value lies in the sum of the museum receipts, or the number of visitors and tourist dollars it draws to Paris, or its worldwide fame (as measured by surveys). Your response is something like: well, you’re missing other important values that really can’t be measured; the intellectual pleasures those visitors might enjoy from contemplating the work after they get home, or the way that the Mona Lisa has influenced later painters, etc. That response is right, as far as it goes. But the Mona Lisa’s ability to wield the influence that it does, to provoke contemplation, and indeed to generate museum receipts, is rooted in the fact that many people have recognized the more fundamental intrinsic value of the work itself. It is a great painting, and not an amateurish daubing. The fact that someone produced such a painting, and that others get to experience it, is itself a great (and unquantifiable) value.
    The unfortunate thing about Bean Counters is that they cannot understand how there could be value of this kind; value apart from price. All value is just exchange value to them. One thing that exposure to the arts and humanities should teach us is that that premise is simply mistaken. The arts and humanities, when they are done as well as they can be done, enrich our lives by their intrinsic nature, without necessarily generating any exchange value at all (this certainly happens when their intrinsic value goes unrecognized). The question: “But what can you _do_ with it?” is simply out of place with respect to such values.
    Of course, we could take the resources devoted to arts and humanities and devote them to, say, making bigger plasma screen TVs widely available. Nobody asks “But what can you _do_ with it?” about plasma screen TVs. That may be because there’s no effort involved in properly engaging with a plasma screen TV; you don’t have to learn anything or think very deeply to understand why you might be fortunate to have the use of one. The fact that plasma screen TVs have a high and reliable exchange value makes them a good business investment. But it doesn’t make them better or more valuable than great works (including largely unrecognized works) of art and of scholarship.
    Society must decide whether it will run its universities like just another business, producing only the “useful” and “high impact” work that will help us make plasma screen TVs. Or whether, rather, it will continue to invest in universities to produce those kinds of intrinsic values that will not otherwise be produced by market forces alone. I think the question boils down to this: Are we, as a society, still interested in providing education, or shall we now only provide training?

  3. “That being said, the Arts and Humanities as a whole have delivered an immense amount of value. They have helped to let us think about big issues, to learn from the past, and to foster deeply important social change such as women’s liberation.”

    Do they continue to deliver much value on the margin today? I suspect the well of practically useful information from the humanities may be running dry given pretty similar questions have been posed in the humanities for thousands of years. Contrast that with science, where the questions change rapidly as progress is made.

    I would also suggest that women’s liberation was not actually a consequence of novel ideas within the humanities, but rather an inevitable change induced by rising incomes, contraception and changing demands in employment which rendered most previous gender norms obsolete.

  4. There are two questions, one of which is easy to answer and one harder. The easy question is this: are the arts and humanities good for us, individually, and as members of a social system which we want to be intellectually vibrant and aesthetically interesting. Yes.

    The hard question is whether government money (or corporate money) should be used to support them. In the US there is a great deal of corporate and rich-person support for the arts and for universities and colleges. There is also Federal and state support, but that is relatively small and is rarely useful, being subject to politics and government administrators. I don’t think “Angels in America” was government-funded. In any case, the absence of Federal or state funding would harm, but not seriously impair the development of the arts, so long as there are corporate boards and rich donors of various tastes and interests to provide money to help the arts. Of course, that money is never enough to support a very unpopular production that can’t get audiences. For that, you have university language, drama and theatre departments.

    On virtue of a system primarily dependent on private donors and paying audiences is that we don’t have to think in terms of choices with respect to government funds. Such thinking is, in any case, fallacious. If money is withdrawn from the arts it does not follow that it will be spent on the alleviation of human need for food, shelter, education, health, etc. Over on this side of the “pond”, the likelihood is high that such diverted money will provide unnecessary weaponry or highways, or support for various businesses, whose gratitude is expected by the legislative donors in the coming election. I suspect it’s the same on your side.

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