In defense of art, continued

In my last post I asserted that art is worth learning precisely because, regardless of some practical utility it may or may not offer, its primary use is to be beautifully detached from physical necessity — which is also true of many of the loveliest things in Creation, like) joy and love and golden light falling on rolling hills or brightly edged clouds; flowers, songs, dances, feasts, poetry, stories. Yes, I am aware of the argument of necessity behind each of these things. No, I am not buying any of it.

Yet I also alluded, as I sometimes have, to a certain frustration: I have a difficult time being articulate on this to begin with — I hardly can in writing, and not at all in speech — and then I have to try to articulate what I mean from within contradictory frame of reference. Our primary frame of reference is mercantile: our culture is a very capitalist one. Education is good for its own sake, but, if pressed: education is good because it increases your marketability. Attractive designs are good for their own sake, but, really, they are good to make a good impression on people so that they will invest in our company. The arts should be liberal… because people who know them are more adaptable workers. We should learn math and science because it’s amazing stuff… but really we should learn it so that we can compete in a global economy. Learn this so that you can do well in school, so that you can go to college, so that you can get a good job. Why this in particular? Because it’s on the test. Why is it on the test? Because it’s what educated people know. What the people with good jobs know. That one ought to want a better job and compete in the global marketplace is recognized as self-evident; if pressed we might bring up images of people starving on the streets.

This train of thought is poorly aligned: it’s always trying to jump the track back toward a good job being the telos of the student. Even for those who believe this to be wrong — for those who are absolutely convinced that this is wrong. I am convinced that it is wrong, that Jesus taught it as wrong and a lie; that, if anything, he taught exactly the reverse. Still, my arguments go there anyway unless I am very free and very careful to say precisely what I mean and not care too much if people are convinced.

How strange. Why would that be? Here I think of de Tocqueville — we live in a capitalist democracy, and with that comes a certain set of social expectations. One of them is that we will work very energetically not only at our actual work, but at learning, finding, and keeping work we are good at. The gain is efficiency, a higher standard of living, and the ability to choose work we are suited to. The cost is how precarious that work often is, so that for years or decades or even most of our lives we must constantly evaluate and reevaluate and adapt the match between us and our work. School and society — so many messages in society — teaches us how to evaluate such things; we learn how to hedge our educational bets in case we have to change to something else, and about what we really need to have and know, and what we can get by without. We learn to be very calculating about the kinds of experiences that will matter in the path toward work, and the kinds that won’t. Those that won’t are evaluated as a nice extra by this line of thought. It’s a very firmly impressed line, even in those who disagree.

Our national tradition is that of democratic capitalist puritanism. That means not only the above, but a tendency to equate work with vocation, and to be suspicious of superfluous beauty. Even for those of us who disagree, this is an awkward conversation to have:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a mystic and a lover of God, truth, beauty, and goodness.”
“Heh. But, really, what do you want to be?”
“A sort of a poem?”
“Uh… but how will you earn money to live?”
“Oh. I teach. Perhaps I’ll continue to teach. Or perhaps something else.”

That sounds irresponsible. Even if one is quite determined to work and not be a bum, it still sounds a bit irresponsible. Modern society has even made “I want to raise children” sound irresponsible. I suppose that’s why Josef Piper talks about living in a “world of total work.” Wanting to be in a stable relationship and raise children, and thinking that more worth saying than what job you have, sounds irresponsible. Meanwhile, there’s Christ condemning those who won’t come to the feast for seemingly responsible reasons: I have to evaluate some oxen… I bought some land… I just got married…

Having studied teaching for three or four years, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear myself saying, before I had a chance to be more careful, that someone should go to the feast because it will improve his ox evaluating skills. He should go to the feast because it will improve his social skills so that he will be more likely to stay in college and get a good job and buy some quality land. How strange and absurd.


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