Trump’s win shows how vital the arts and humanities are
As one of the commentators in the New York Times wrote yesterday in relation to the way the polls had missed the sentiment of the American people, notwithstanding that Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, “data cannot capture the human condition that is the blood of American politics”.
Clearly that is true in a fundamental way, that there are limits to the social sciences and the much lauded arts of big data. Indeed the Los Angeles Times poll which proved to be most prescient, used a more nuanced human centered methodology, which also points to the need to integrate the humanities into making sense of political questions. It is the humanities and creative arts that have the ability to synthesise complexity with meaning and emotion.
There is an interesting post-election meme floating around on social media – it is a pithy aphorism by Toni Morrision:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work, there is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, no room for fear, we speak, we write we do language, that is how civilisations heal.
Maybe our time has come.
We are living in extraordinary times, times in which we need the humanities and their ability to bring insight into the human condition, to ask and take the time to tease out the answers to critical questions, to dig into the past to help make sense of the future, to develop and test ethical frameworks for dilemmas that were once unimaginable, to explore empathy, to draw on the insights from the incremental new understanding thanks to genetic and neuroscience of just how infinite nature, as Spinoza famously remarked, can be…
It is a time when the humanities should be centre stage, at the top table, included in every conversation and policy debate – informing, shaping, and providing nuance and those annoying complications that show that the simple answers are often wrong because they are simple.
This new world is nothing if not undeniably complex – but thanks to the digital data tools of the age, capable of being known in a way that was also once unimaginable.
Unfortunately the humanities are rarely if ever at the top table, and the creative arts are all too often seen as a commodity, rather than the expression of human capacity of the highest order. Instead the humanities have been marginalized, ghettoized, ridiculed, over looked, dismissed.
This is a paradox – because while the oligopoly of transnational corporations at the heart of the Age of Innovation, the Age of FAANG, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google, like to style themselves as technology companies, they are making their extraordinary fortunes by selling culture – meaning, identity, entertainment – on their ingeniously technologically developed platforms.
There are signs that this disdain for the humanities and creative arts that has been present during the last few decades when the lingua franca of policy making was narrowly economic, may be beginning to give way.
There are early signs of policy makers and political leaders beginning to seek other solutions, other ways of seeing and responding. In the wash up of the Brexit vote, in the election of Donald Trump, and the appeal of Bernie Sanders in the US campaign, the minor parties here, there is growing recognition that a global economic system that on aggregate may have made more people richer, has thanks to the failure of the state to step in when the market reached its logical and inevitable limits, created a backlash that can not be ignored.
The tools for this will not just be economic, they will be regulatory and they will be cultural – addressing needs with more than confidence that people will make economically rational decisions based on a dispassionate assessment of self-interest. You don’t need to have read many novels to know that that is not the way most people work.
If we do not find a way to reintegrate the humanities and arts into the policymaking tool kit, the consequences will not be pleasant. Thanks to the resilience of the Australian economy drawn from the physical and human resources at our disposal, we have been particularly cavalier about this growing gap.
Sadly as a result when politicians talk about innovation and the economy it is in the important, but limited language of technology, capital, STEM and global markets.
Sinew and soul
Last week, Dr Heather Smith the Secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts, outlined in an IPAA address at the National Portrait Gallery a vision to intrude the arts and culture into the national innovation agenda. They were at the cutting edge she said, embracing risk, thriving on digital disruption. She quoted the Minister Mitch Fifield describing this domain as the “sinew and soul”: of the nation and the innovation agenda.
This is welcome and as an overview of the National Innovation Agenda quickly shows, long overdue. That agenda, like so many policy documents these days, sits on four pillars: Culture and Capital, Collaboration, Talent and Skills and Government as Exemplar.
Great to see culture there as the first item – and some nice words about ideas, risk, confidence – but sadly the appendix of measures reveal the definition of culture that was foremost in the minds of the policy makers. As we all know culture is a slippery word, and a concept that is difficult to define, even if we think we know it when we see it.
So in the minds of those developing the national innovation agenda the cultural measures that had dollars attached, the ones that really count – $219m of the billion dollar four-year total – were focused on capital not culture: tax incentives to angel investors, new arrangements for venture capital, access to company losses, intangible asset depreciation, a CSIRO innovation fund, a biomedical translation fund, an incubator support program, improved bankruptcy and insolvency laws, employee share schemes.
These are all worthwhile reforms, and may well help enable innovative transformation of existing businesses and processes – but they are transactional tools, not measures to inspire or foster creativity in what is, globally, the most rapidly growing sector of the economy: the cultural sector.
As the Australian Film TV and Radio School made clear in its response to the Department’s innovation agenda inquiry,
there is an undeniable connectedness between the arts and sciences…yet the two have come to be thought of as polarized. This is not the case with screen and broadcast, which history shows have always been defined by technological innovation for communication and art within a market driven business context…creativity and innovation are inherent in both the arts and sciences.
Capturing the chaos and creativity
The challenge for the humanities is particularly acute. In our work we tease out the complexity in apparently simple propositions and questions, and then face the challenge of making the complexity accessible, of finding points of intellectual, emotional and creative connection. While the sciences have embraced the need for better communication, those in the humanities face a similar challenge. We work with ideas and words, so communication is assumed, but it is just as challenging as each discipline evolves its own language and rubrics.
Yet in enduring ways it is the humanities that define an era, embody it, give it meaning and life beyond the science, the technology, machines and capital that fuel the fire.
Maybe I can illustrate this with an example. As many of you will be aware, there is a remarkable exhibition on at the Royal Academy in London, an almost overwhelming display of the phenomenon that was Abstract Expressionism. In room after room there are the canvasses of Rothko and Still, Pollock and De Kooning and the often invisible women artists, gathered for the first time since 1959 in London (and after January going to Guggenheim Bilbao).
The exhibition generated fleeting interest here when a new young senator from Victoria suggested that the centerpiece of the exhibition, the painting that is replicated in all the collateral, on posters, postcards, scarves and other paraphernalia, Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, on loan from the National Galley of Australia could be sold to meet a temporary budget shortfall.
Just about money – we bought it for a million and could sell it for hundreds of million – (who gets it anyway?) was the not-so-sub subtext of what passes for public conversation these days.
But the point I want to make is not about the prescience of James Mollison and Gough Whitlam in buying the painting, in demonstrating that Australia could engage with a global moment, or the crassness of the recent discussion, but that that exhibition captures the complexity of a time. The chaos and creativity of the twentieth century. The style and method of the art varies, but making sense of what was described at the time as the “crisis of man” cries out from the works.
The artists featured came of age in the wake of the first world war, and the great depression, they then lived through the second world war and its horrors from the Holocaust to the Atomic Bomb, the extraordinary reconstruction of places, institutions and values that followed, the chaos of decolonization and revolutions, the threat of the cold war, the growth of corporate power and technological transformation, the rising standards of living, education, expectation and even IQ. Through their art they were exploring the ability of humanism to make sense of the world.
This exhibition takes you there – deep into that century – because like other great epochs it is the creative arts and humanities that provide the enduring record. The art, the music, the literature, and the philosophy – the best of which endures when the technological tools have long since been replaced by the next generation.
The Abstract Expressionists do this for the 20th century, which will go down in history as one of the great epochs, even if it is shrouded in the ash of millions of lives lost – the breakthroughs were amazing and created the firm shoulders from which the next epoch could leap.
This is time honoured. We look back at the artists, playwrights, architects, theologians and musicians whose work enduringly embodied the Renaissance, the composers, philosophers and political theorists who defined the Enlightenment, the from the four corners of the world, the great dynasties of China, India, the Mayans, Khmer, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Roman, Greeks so on.
Science and warfare may open and secure new terrains, but the humanities and creative arts are what endure to essentially make sense of every great age.
I had the privilege of seeing the Abstract Expressionism exhibition with a couple of young people who are deeply engaged in the study of art, in the creation of culture and meaning, who understand the power of history and story. So I asked, “what do you think will be the art that defines this period”?
A new epoch
Clearly we have entered another epoch. The election of Trump confirms what we have known was happening for some time. Whether it started with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, or with chipping away at the post-war economic and social institutions that began under Thatcher and Reagan, or with the attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in 2001, will be judged by future historians. But I think it is clear that we are living in a very different age to the one anyone over 30 was born into.
Climate change, genetic science, digitization and its disruptions, automation, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, globalization and the shifting geopolitics and distribution of wealth that follows in its wake, population growth and dislocation – are the characteristics of this age, now marked by the resurgence of populism.
Science and capital may be driving it, but if it is to make sense for people, the humanities and creative arts need to be present.
My young friends were hesitant when I asked them to think about how they might define and in the process, help shape, an era. They identified artists and approaches, thinkers and other creatives.
But as the Abstract Expressionism exhibition demonstrates this is not just about the art that is made, but about the critics and scholars who define and interpret, about the benefactors and states that support the artists and thinkers in their work to make it possible. Those who define and make it possible for the rest of us to see, what is all around us but fragmented and disconnected – especially now that the era of mass media has been displaced by social media’s isolated echo chambers.
Which is where the humanities are so important – synthesizing history, critical thinking, philosophy, literature, finding patterns, sub texts, precedents and relationships – so we can see, feel and make sense of what is before us.
It is interesting to see this realization dawning – that the humanities and creative arts have something unique and distinctive to public sense-making, to turning up the level of civilisation.
I mentioned the speech by Dr Smith last week, which pointed to examples of how the cultural sector is both adapting to and leading change and innovation – embracing digital disruption in positive and creative ways, engaging with an ecosystem of connections.
It is a useful analogy, but not one that can thrive without being nurtured. It is undeniably true that this ecosystem is one which continues to be disproportionately underfunded, and weakened by the failure to maintain systems of collecting the data and information needed to develop robust ways to measure its real impact.
In some ways it was even more surprising to hear the minister talking about communications and the arts being the “sinew and soul”. This might suggest that the importance of culture as one of the key pillars of a successful society, along with people, land and resources and institutions, might be beginning to enter the public and political discourse again. If nothing else, the Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump election in the US shows that this is increasingly urgent.
Last week, Jennifer Westacott head of the Business Council of Australia made an impassioned plea at another conference on the humanities and business saying,
Humanities is about giving people an organizing framework that goes to the heart of the human condition. It’s about giving people the philosophy and understanding to apply values, ethics and morals to a range of situations. Its about giving people a world view and an historical perspective to allow them to balance complex views and make good judgments … Twenty first century leaders needs this mindset … rather than an abstract appreciation for Aristotle, leaders need to be grounded in a deep understanding of what is going on in the world.
Although clearly an understanding of Aristotle is of undeniable value in developing a robust organizing framework.
In a speech to the Committee for Economic Development in Australia about the need for innovation to trigger growth and improve productivity, the head of the Prime Minister’s Department Dr Martin Parkinson said,
We tend to think of innovation as being done by start ups or people in white coats, but it is much more than that. By and large our greatest gains have come from building a culture that adapts and diffuses the ideas of others.
The Chief Scientist Dr Allan Finkel commented recently that the challenge of science particularly in relation to climate change, was less the proofs or hypotheses, but getting the narrative that made sense of what the scientists knew to be true.
Narrative, emotion and automation
Narrative is an essential tool, skill and expertise of the humanities, so we need to be present. And the creative arts can activate emotion, the key to action, more powerfully than the average demagogue.
The other example of a dawning awareness relates to the future of work. By now I expect you are all familiar with the research that points to an inevitable and fundamental change in the nature of work thanks to digitization, automation, artificial intelligence.
The Oxford Brookes research which has been replicated here
and in other countries, points to a 40 percent drop in jobs in the next couple of decades – as even skilled jobs are automated thanks to articifial intelligence – some in what are still the most privileged of professions.
The jobs that remain require human contact, and the ability to synthesise, empathy and human skills. There is a great tool to understand this, a website developed by National Public Radio, where you can check the long term future of work in a way that makes it real – and confronting.
I fear that those of us in the humanities and creative arts have become so harried by the public disdain that many of our best thinkers have retreated into the safer world of their own research, avoiding the public domain with its reductionist certainties.
In this environment, the human sense making disciplines of the humanities and creative arts will be more important than ever, but to engage in the public domain will require a degree of fortitude which does not come easily. It will be a tough world, and while our expertise is more important than ever, the robustness of the push back will not make it a comfortable place to be.
Even in the research world, the relatively low cost nature of much humanities research pushes it out of the league tables of grants – this doesn’t make it any less important, just less impressive to count. And I wonder whether in this retreat we have left the field a bit too soon, and stopped trying to intrude into the big issues that define these times.
As Liz Boulton has found in her doctoral research at ANU the study of neuroscience makes clear what we have known intuitively forever : that it is through art that people can make sense of daunting and complex matters. She called for 60 000 artists to make climate change real, convinced that they could connect with people in a way that abstract, fear inducing and complex scientific papers could not
Clearly there is a need to ensure that students are equipped with skills in science, technology, engineering and maths, but there is also a need for the creative arts, for the humanities, for the skills of critical thinking and synthesis, of story telling and emotion – of opportunities for all because we know that we don’t all think the same way.
It was disappointing then to see the disproportionate defunding of VET/TAFE courses in the creative arts, reduced from 70 to 13, with dismissive talk about ‘lifestyle choices’ – even at a time when we know that jobs will disappear and lifestyle choices might be pathways to meaningful engagement in a very different world.
The insights from neuroscience underline the power of the humanities and creative arts to make sense of the human condition in all its complexity. Similarly the innovative use of data can bring things to life in a way that was once unimaginable, the ability to unpick the way people respond to story, image, sound can be a force for good, as well as for the commercial and economic gain.
Having talked about the power of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition to embody an era that was at the time considered the most complex and confounding in human history, I want to draw attention to a wonderful new exhibition now at the Art Gallery of SA.
It features work produced by an ensemble of artists engaging with war in a lived and visceral way. One of the centrepieces is work created by Ben Quilty after a tour he took with Richard Flanagan to the refugee camps housing those who are fleeing Syria and the other troubled, once great civilisations of the Middle East and southern Mediterranean.
It may be that the tactile, historic and crafted works in the exhibition including the stunning room that features Quilty’s life jackets, and bundles of UNHCR blankets, juxtaposed with the elaborate white gowns created by his collaborator who had seen ISIS up close, will move people and trigger a moral conscience in a way that countless political arguments cannot.
Morality lies at the heart of the humanities, it is its power and its threat to demagogues, and transaction-focused policy makers.
We need to use it wisely, but we need to use it if we are to help address what in an earlier age was called the crisis of man, but we would be better calling the crisis of humanity today. By taking the lead, as Toni Morrison said, “we might be able to help civilization heal”.
This is an edited version of a keynote address to the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Research Centres, Annual Meeting in Adelaide on 10 November.