We've all heard jokes about arts majors working at Starbucks. In a still-unsteady economy, a swelling population, and a competitive job market, spending thousands of dollars and four to six years on a creative writing, art, or theatre degree seems, to many, naive at best and decadent self-sabotage at worst. There's sometimes a shade of judgement to these sentiments-maybe you deserve underemployment for not choosing to pursue something that would benefit society. Something with a purpose, instead of a hobby.
This article tries to defend the humanities, laying the blame for their decline in status on vague and purposeless curriculums that ignore the uses the classics could have. We should instead, it claims, be specifically teaching students on how to practically apply great works in their lives, proposing, "One would still study novels, histories, plays, psychoanalysis and paintings, but one would do so for explicitly therapeutic ends. So Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would be assigned in a course on ‘How to manage the tensions of marriage’ instead of belonging in a course on ‘Trends in nineteenth-century fiction.’"
This is a fun idea. The ancient Greeks, after all, understood that tragic drama provided katharsis, “purification” of emotions, through identification with the suffering characters. Is this what artists can say to those who would question why they gamble so much time and money getting better at something that is mostly “for fun"? That it’s an indirect kind of therapy?
Since humans first outlined their hands in pigment on cave walls, lots of things have helped to motivate art-love, lust, rage, despair, pain, God. What would you say the purpose of art is? Is it to foment rebellion, stir social change, and protest the status quo? To help us heal old wounds?
In Fahrenheit 451, one of the reasons society has collectively decided to ban and burn books and stare at giant television screens instead of reading, Ray Bradbury tells us, is that “books are to remind us what asses and fools we are.” They give us a reality check, they make us uncomfortable. This is wise. But do you imagine Ray Bradbury wrote his many novels and hundreds of short stories to make you feel like a fool?
We know that hugging or kissing a loved one reduces stress. How would you feel, though, if somebody told you the purpose of loving relationships is to reduce stress?
Art, good art, does a lot of things. But it does not have to do anything. Those who create do so to expand the universe, to communicate something they cannot communicate in any other way, to fulfill a deep and powerful instinct. Trying to assign a utilitarian purpose for something that comes from something so irrational, or at least mysterious, is limiting. A good movie, song, novel, poem, play, or painting may inspire us to protest war or social injustice, or to pursue our dreams. It may inspire us to learn more about a topic, to profess our love for someone, to come to terms with a loss, to convert to a different religion, or move to New Zealand because woah, that majestic mountain range wasn’t CGI, but it is not for any of those things, not in the way guns are for killing or beds are for sleep. Art is art because it does not need a purpose, it is a purpose.