Last week I had an unfortunate conversation with a student from the Secular Student Alliance. We had our conversation about the nature of the divine: I claimed that forces can exist beyond a human’s realm of perception (our five senses) and he believed if something is not scientifically quantifiable then it does not exist. His argument deteriorated into a criticism of anything speculative and, by extension, theories in general.
His arguments deteriorated further into a criticism of any academic discipline not based in empirical, scientific data. He then claimed the English department at SCSU must be disbanded because art is simply decoding what the artist was “trying to say” and literary theory and English professors just get in the way of this.
This pessimism is not only grotesquely false, it is shamefully pervasive in the student body. I unfortunately must have this argument on a regular basis, as any outspoken social sciences student will as well. Indeed, too often people rashly assert that if studies do not produce a tangible, practical effect on the world then they are illegitimate.
Art does not “try to say” anything, it is ambiguous by nature and thus lends itself to an infinite number of possible interpretations. Art and literature do not have a “deep hidden meaning” to be decoded from a poetic language or artistic style.
And if art and literature have infinite number of interpretations, we need our professors to provoke questions that will lead us to new understandings of the work, and to gain insights and contexts we wouldn’t have ordinarily known.
But what exactly is pragmatic about literature? What purpose does art serve? How does someone outside the University benefit from my study of Romantic literature?
Art gives us a version of our world that is distanced from our own reality so as to show the defects and perfections of it.
A psychologist can’t study their own psyche, they must study the mind of another; on a larger scale, humanity can’t study itself, it must study a distanced version of itself.
The art of literature is more than a cute story with a beginning, middle, and end, it is a philosophizing of morality, of good and evil, and of the human condition. Thus, both art and literature help us understand ourselves, and their academic study gives us a clearer, fuller understanding of them.
But sadly, the job of defending poetry and the study thereof will never end. Critics of art, literature, and, more broadly, culture, will never achieve their goal, nor will they ever cease trying to limit the influence of art. Defending the legitimacy of poetry is a tradition that goes back at least as far as the 18th century, and realistically much farther.
Art and literature lacks pragmatism. That is, it is idealistic as opposed to practical.
They don’t build bridges or cure diseases—their effects on humans can’t be measured using our five senses. It is fitting, then, that the Atheist would be the strongest critic of art and literature, for the Atheist does not accept things that cannot be measured by humans.
Listening to an Economics student philosophize about the nature of art and literature in society is just about the equivalent of reading Richard Dawkins writing about theology.
People need to be more humble about their academic disciplines.
We don’t all understand each other’s ways of finding truth in the world, but how can you say that the thousands of scholars and intellectuals, their millions of hours studying, are all false and illegitimate?
All forms of academic study are worthy of praise and none should be subtracted—what we need is more academic disciplines, more ways of finding truth about the human condition, not less.