Penman No. 197: Why the Arts Should Matter

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Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

FOR THE first time ever, the University of the Philippines held a Knowledge Festival in Tagaytay last week, showcasing the most significant and interesting projects being undertaken by UP scientists, artists, and researchers, with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I was asked to present a keynote talk on “Why the Arts Should Matter.” Herewith, some excerpts:

It has become practically a cliché to say that our lives, and certainly our learning, would not be complete without some appreciation of the humanities. Our tradition of liberal education has primed us to the necessity of cultivating the “well-rounded individual” schooled in the basics of various disciplines.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

But conversely, let me ask: Why indeed are the arts and humanities important? I’ll turn to conventional wisdom and quote what should already be obvious, from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:

“The humanities enrich and ennoble us, and their pursuit would be worthwhile even if they were not socially useful. But in fact, the humanities are socially useful. They fulfill vitally important needs for critical and imaginative thinking about the issues that confront us as citizens and as human beings…. We need the humanities. Without them we cannot possibly govern ourselves wisely or well.”

What strikes me here is the word “govern,” which seems to me to be of utmost importance to us at this juncture of our history, and which is key to our topic today. The role of the humanities in our intellectual and cultural life is to enable us to govern ourselves wisely and well. They deal with issues and value judgments, with defining the commonalities and differences of human experience, hopefully toward an affirmation of our most positive human traits, such as the need to work together as families, communities, and societies. In sum, they help us agree on a common stake, based on which we can make plans, make decisions, and take action.

That notion of a common stake is crucial, especially on this eve of one of the most contested elections in our history. Despite all the predictable rhetoric (and the real need) for national unity, we find it difficult to unite beyond short-term political expediency because we remain unable to agree on our most common ideals—the national dream, as it were, or the direction of the national narrative. What is our story? Who is its hero? Are we looking at an unfolding tragedy, a realist drama, or a romantic myth? To go further, what is important to us as a people? Where do we want to go? What price are we willing to pay to get there?

These are questions that are answerable less by scientific research and inquiry than by artistic imagination and insight. It will be mainly the humanities and the social sciences that will provide that vision, in all its clarities and ambiguities, as it will be science and technology that will provide the means.

This does not mean that scientists and engineers will have little or nothing to contribute to the crafting of this vision; I firmly believe they should, and that one of our worst mistakes has been the fact that we have largely left national policy to the politicians, the priests, the lawyers, the soldiers, and the merchants. Scientists have had little say—and artists even less—in the running of this country and in plotting its direction. We may canonize our boxing champions and beauty queens—and even elect them senator—while our National Scientists and National Artists languish in obscurity and indifference.

Ours is an appallingly innumerate society. Most of our people do not know the simplest numbers that describe our lives, and much less what they mean. We are raised on concepts like the national flower and the national bird and the national tree, but even in college we are hard put to say what the national population, the national birth rate, or the Gross Domestic Product is, and why they matter. This innumeracy is balanced, sadly, by cultural illiteracy. Our notion of culture often consists of pretty images, pleasant melodies, theatrical gestures, and desirable objects.

We have much to do by way of cultural education, and artistic expression is a vital means by which this can be achieved. The arts are the key to those parts of us that reason and logic alone cannot reach.

But I came here this morning to go beyond the obvious, and to present an aspect of the arts that few national and even academic policymakers ever think about, and it’s this: the arts should matter not only because they’re good for the soul, but because they’re good for the body as well—taking the body to mean our economic and material well-being. In simple words, and moving from the philosophical to the practical sphere, the arts can mean big business.

The arts underlie what have been called “creative industries,” and these industries have made tremendous contributions to the economies of countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China, Japan, Brazil, and Thailand.

In 2009, when the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines initiated a focus group discussion on creative industries in the Philippines, they defined the sector as embracing “a wide array of subsectors including advertising, animation, architecture, broadcast arts, crafts, culinary arts, cultural/heritage activities, design, film, literature, music, new media, performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P661.23 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from 4.82 percent in 2006 to 7.34 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11.1 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to 14.14 percent four years later.

There seems to be a greater awareness on the Philippine government’s part of the economic utility of our artistic talent. In 2012, for example, RA 10557 was passed to promote a “national design policy” highlighting “the use of design as a strategic tool for economic competitiveness and social innovation.”

However, culture as a whole remains a low priority, often subsumed to other activities like tourism, entertainment, and sports. And it’s getting worse; very recently, cultural funding by the NCCA—the largest source of government funding for the arts—practically dried up because of onerous conditions imposed on cultural organizations in the wake of the pork-barrel scam, requiring them to undergo a tedious accreditation process by, of all things, the DSWD. Unlike many progressive countries, we do not even see it fit to have a standalone Department of Culture, so the DBM and even the DSWD can push the NCCA around.

We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends. Just as we need to develop more PhD-level scientists and researchers, we need to support advanced practitioners and theorists in the arts, as they have every capability to achieve world-class status, with the right incentives.

Let me end with a message—perhaps even a plea—to those who hold the purse-strings of our institutions. That journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert, or that workshop is always more than a line-item expense. Supporting and patronizing these artistic endeavors is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.

 

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