A crucial point of time in every person’s life is when he or she stands at the threshold of embarking upon a new phase of life-choosing the academic field, which in turn entails the lifelong career he or she has to endure, slog through and build a life and living upon. When I was confronted with this vexing dilemma, my choice of the Humanities stream, with respectable grades (more than enough to guarantee me a seat in the Science stream at school) was met with a somewhat inordinate amount of surprise, derision and even pity by a few people.
In an era of STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics- being the raging trend of the educational curriculum and source of some he highest pay-packages procurable, the question of the need and value of arts or literature has become increasingly relevant, pressing today.
After all why should we study literature or arts? What benefit do we derive from it? In an industrialized and digitized world, where machines, A.I, computers have percolated down to every sphere of life and activity; in a world where everything is measured by the numbers yielded,– the money; where economic imperialism is the mode of power and control, what practical benefits come from arts? It brings to my mind the title of an essay by Kenneth Burke- “Literature as equipment for living.” What is the pragmatic, practical value and worth of studying literature? Advocates and supporters of the arts field would scoff at suggestions of relegating arts and literature to the status of mere tools or instruments to be measured by the parameters of efficacy and utilitarianism.
This debate over the significance of art and literature dates centuries back, to the era of ancient Greek civilization. Plato, the Greek philosopher was one of the first to initiate this critique, where in The Republic he harangues art and poetry, even banishing poets from the Republic. One of the several grounds of his rejection was that art is thrice removed from truth and reality, for it is merely a mimesis, an imitation of the real ideal “forms.” A criticism which is still today shared by a section of the population today, who dismiss arts and literature as mere imaginary, fictional fabliau-detached from truth and reality, with no concrete applications or ramifications whatsoever. For Aristotle, experience and appreciation of art leads human beings to lexis, that is, knowledge. All men are predisposed with a longing for knowledge; this inclination to learn and understand separates him from other living beings. Art stimulates its beholders to undertake a process of cognition, by which they can arrive at a certain understanding of reality, the world.
Man since time immemorial has been driven by an epistemological quest for truth, knowledge. Life is a journey for unraveling the deepest mysteries, for discovering for meaning and purpose–propelled by an urge to arrive at an epiphanic discovery of the essence of existence. Hamlet wrestling with a continuous nudging doubt “to be or not to be,” Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy’s struggles to let go off debilitating feelings of pride and prejudice; Marlow’s search for answers about right and wrong; Araby’s abrupt awakening up to the harsh realities of life- are among few of the numerous insights and realizations, moral and psychological complexities of life, which are aptly, and so viscerally, brought to life in literature. Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, Faustus’ uncontrollable greed, Gatsby’s all-overpowering love, Othello’s insecurities and paucity of trust: stand for all those human beings reeling under doubts, dilemmas, conflicts; men and women torn apart by flaws, failings, vices, struggling to find solutions and answers.To them literature offers not only a mirror to identify and relate with, but also scope for realizing possible alternatives and correct choices.
Intensively personal, yet extensively universal at the same time, art and literature serve as a blueprint for human life and civilization. Artistic and literary productions enable us to transcend space, time, and cultural barriers- giving us access to a period and place centuries, and miles apart. History indubitably offers us information about a particular period, or life of a person, yet it lacks the exploration of the emotional element, the deeper impulses which drove those men and women. Moreover in the era of post-modernism where all narratives are subjected to scrutiny and review, most historical accounts being metanarratives of the ruling-class ideology, literary books and film productions reignite debates and investigations about the the ideological forces which have silenced the voiceless and propelled the search for micro-narratives.
Returning to the central question of this blog, practically how beneficial are arts and literature, yes indeed in comparison to the subjects in the fields of science and commerce, arts and literature do not produce much tangible benefit, or outcomes which can be gauged in numbers or currency. Yet artists, writers, literary scholars are among that class of people who are raising a voice, questioning the deep-seated ideologies which have penetrated surreptitiously into the deepest layers of society and living. Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit: Why Society Needs the Humanities echoes a similar sentiment:
“If a nation wants to promote democracy dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to each and every person, what abilities will it need to produce in its citizens? The least following seem crucial: The ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue and debate, deferring to neither tradition nor authority.”
Artists and litterateurs may be called “armchair revolutionaries” or “armchair activists”, but indeed many writers and their books have become the source and driving forces of activism and socio-political movements like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring(1962), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Msytique (1963) which have been credited with launching and empowering the environmentalist and second-wave feminist movement. Most people may still not subscribe to this ground being of much importance. Keeping aside political actions and implications, art and literature have a higher object. They inspire and elevate men and women, goading them to broaden their mental horizons, granting them newer perspectives; empowering people to better understand, recognize and engage with the intricacies, subtleties and complexities of life. And probably their greatest practical gift is the gift of escapism, a release from the mundane realities of everyday life, an Aristotelian catharsis to the weariness, the fever and the fret. The ability to immerse oneself for a few priceless moments in a Wordsworthian countryside, a Shakespearean Eden , the profound depths of Mona Lisa’s smile, the Spielbergian World War battlefield, or even the Nolanesque parallel universe. Art liberates us all, even the tired seven-digit earner (who comes home after a long day to switch on Netflix or an MCU movie) from the tyrannies of modern existence. This is why the legacy of art, literature and cinema needs to be recognized, respected and carried forward into eternity.