What use is art?

At the moment it seems as though the arts* and humanities are being put on trial and found wanting.

Unlike science, technology, engineering and mathematics, these are not disciplines that can cure cancer, explore distant galaxies or even invent faster and cleaner transport. In short they appear not to do anything much of use.**

Since what they offer is only a bit of entertainment, runs a popular argument, they should not be so presumptuous as to expect state handouts. If people want, they can subscribe to Sky, or buy a bestseller from Amazon – and that will do thank you very much. Taxes frittered on humanities could pay for research into diseases – don’t you know there are babies dying?

And yet. Human beings seem hard wired to make art. No matter what else may be going on: soldiers write poetry in war, children paint in refugee camps. Anne Frank wrote her diary in danger for her life.

You could argue that this shows art will happen regardless. It is probably true that without a scrap of money children everywhere will continue to make up stories and paint with mud. Lovelorn teenagers may still write poetry in bedrooms. But unless we support researchers and practitioners working in the arts, we become disconnected from our culture and our heritage.

Indeed, as the British Museum’s exhibition of Ice Age Art shows, we have been creating arts for around 50,000 years. Real art, drawings whose delicate lines sketch in forms and perspectives as skilled as classically trained artists do today. Bone pipes that can play notes recognisable as music. We have been making art for as long as we have been human.

Even if ‘science’*** goes back as far as classical antiquity, let’s be generous and say 1000 BCE, we’ve spent only around 6% of our (at least) 50,000 years of existence in exploring ‘science’ – and all of it making art. The disciplines that develop today’s artists and tell us about our cultures also deserve our support.

*All the many glorious and varied forms.
**Admittedly “explore distant galaxies” sounds like more fun than use, when you think about it.

***It’s only recently that we’ve declared science to be hermeneutically sealed off from other disciplines and started wrinkling our noses up at them. There are no hard and fast boundaries between disciplines, these are terrains that shift – as any historian of science will be happy to explain.

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