The Value of the Arts

It’s been one of those days; I had to take my son to school, which I hate doing as getting up early is always detrimental to the old chronic fatigue, and then I got caught in a traffic jam on the way home, and finally arrived back to find the cat had had a hairball that needed quite some cleaning up. So I wasn’t thrilled then to end up in an online discussion defending the arts against a blogger who felt quite strongly that it was futile to study them. I hate this row because it’s pointless: we need to study BOTH arts AND sciences and if it’s hard to see why, here is a story about one of the most spectacular public disputes between them.

It all began with a lecture given by a Cambridge man, C. P. Snow. Snow has fallen off the map these days but he was one of those multi-talented souls, who trained as a physicist, became an important civil service administrator, wrote novels, plays and journalistic articles and was for a while a fellow of Christ’s College. In 1959, Snow gave a lecture entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in which he extolled the clear material benefits of science and technology and criticized the traditional culture of ‘intellectual persons’, a very ill-defined collection of literary types who were supposed to have deplored in a short-sighted way the damage wrought by the Industrial Revolution. And he accused them of infusing culture with a kind of snobbery that held Britain back from participating in the international scientific revolution that was about to transform the world.

Like any polemic, Snow’s argument packed an emotional punch but rested on a number of prejudiced or undefined assumptions. Enter the English literary critic, F. R. Leavis, in pugnacious mood, having been invited to deliver the Richmond Lecture in Downing College in early 1962. By now, Snow’s Two Cultures in its published version was being taught in sixth forms as received wisdom, its message clear that of two equal cultures, sciences and arts, the latter was intent on crippling the former. The underlying implication, that art could have nothing but limited, personal value, as opposed to salvationary science that could rescue the world, was the kind of red rag that turned Leavis into a sleek and fearsome bull.

Leavis’s lecture was an intense attack. He was too smart to argue against the march of technology, or to seek to undermine its significance. Instead, he argued that Snow was ‘portentously ignorant’, or that he was not looking far enough ahead to see what the wider consequences of scientific progress might be. He drew his audience’s attention to the complex factors that combine to make quality of life, and suggested that our nebulous sense of contentment was a matter for the world of the spirit, not technology. What he meant here was that we might have all the gadgets and gismos in the world, that we might discover cures for illnesses, and that we might STILL not know reliable contentment. And in this prediction he was correct – the technological progress that we’ve made since the 1960s has been incredible, and yet, the Western world has never been so unhappy. America is the worst of the English-speaking nations, in fact, with just over a quarter of the population admitting to mental health difficulties in 2007 (my stats come from a lecture given by Oliver James, the psychologist who has studied this area most rigorously). Whatever it is that makes us feel happy and secure, it isn’t down to progress in science and technology alone.

Continuing to look ahead, Leavis spoke of ‘a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds of tests and challenges so unprecedented … that mankind – this is surely clear – will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity’. Leavis might have guessed at the crisis in the environment, the lure of genetic engineering and many other fraught modern issues – such ‘unprecedented challenges’ he saw would require the operation of a certain kind of intellectual mind upon them; a mind fuelled by the desire for accuracy, insight, and judgment. He was arguing that the training given to students in the arts, the sort of critical thinking that is often dismissed as pointless, would offer an essential counterpart to the fierce march of science. He foresaw the need for an attitude that would refuse to compromise truth or disquieting consequence for short-term gain, or simple, weary relief. The rush to embrace scientific solutions because, as Snow would say ‘a fact is a fact’, could only be countermanded by the sort of difficult, unbending folk who know that no fact exists outside a narrative of its own creation, that facts have no life in airy isolation from the cajoling and the scare-mongering that would seek to exploit them.

This paved the way to Leavis’s other main point. Snow had described two distinct cultures, the literary and the scientific, in such a way as to suggest that they were equally accessible to all individuals, a matter of choosing one method of perception over another. But the language of science reduced those not professionally involved in it to the status of children, held apart from the adult’s talk by insurmountable barriers to understanding. Leavis argued that the literary world, by contrast, was open to public appropriation, required it, in fact, as the necessary counterpart of its existence. Books came to life when read and discussed and their contents were pertinent to all. Leavis described the discourse of literary criticism as the basic exchange: ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ to which the answer is, ‘Yes, but….’. Literature was something everyone could have an opinion about, and as such, it was a social activity, a communal activity. It brought people together in the contemplation of the human condition, in the way that science, with its exclusive authority and elite circle of participants, did not. By implication, literature was the place where the course of human development was discussed, science the realm in which the course was imposed.

The lecture caused an almighty row when its full text was published in The Spectator. And C. P. Snow took the rebuff badly, believing in later years that Leavis had obstructed his chance of the Nobel Prize. This was a sort of baffled wishful thinking – there is no evidence to suggest that Snow might have been awarded the Nobel and fifty years in the future his vision turns out to have been the tenacious one. Science, medicine, technology, these are still our favoured disciplines, in fact we’ve now entered a phase that the philosophers term ‘post-humanism’, which is to say that we’ve placed all our faith in science and technology to save us from the difficulties of our current situation. But nothing has changed: we know that what makes us happy is indeed a matter of the spirit, even though we give less credence and value to it than ever before. We know we need to debate what happens in challenging areas of progress, like genetics, like artificial intelligence, like stem cell research and not be bamboozled by the promise of facts. And for those of us who aren’t research scientists, we have few tools at our disposal beyond the cultural ones – books, films, television, journalism, radio – with which to represent the pros and the cons, the fears and the challenges as we see them. So we need to keep producing art that considers what all forms of invention and progress might mean for us, and we need to keep talking about that art because it’s the only way we can engage as a community in the unfolding of our world.


17 thoughts on “The Value of the Arts

  1. Thank you for the fascinating bit of cultural history! I hadn’t heard of Leavis vs Snow, but this is a conflict I’ve seen a hundred times on a smaller scale. And as a humanities girl who also loves science, it has always saddened me that it has to be a conflict at all.

  2. You know I am in 100% agreement with you. I have Snow’s book on my TBR pile and see his novels at the used book store. Did Leavis’s lecture get published as a book too or only in the Spectator? Have you read Muriel Rukeyser’s Life of Poetry? I think it was first published in 1949 but was reprinted in the 90s. One of the things she talks about in it is the spilt between poetry and science and how it is a false and dangerous split. It’s a wonderful book I know you’d love. I’ve been thinking recently of reading it again.

  3. I have literally been off the internet for anything but research for what seems like forever. I’m printing this post out so I can read it later since I have to dash off again in a second. But I was so intrigued by your hashing it out with another blogger I had to read that first. You go girl!! If anyone’s noggin has all cylinders firing, it’s yours.

  4. I’ve heard of C.P. Snow but wasn’t aware of the context or of his speech. Thank you for that. As I finished your post, what occurred to me, was that the reason this idea that the arts aren’t useful has been pounded into us is that it’s such a lie. I think it’s just a byproduct of convincing people to keep consuming consumables. Science as science is as vulnerable as art, really, because what is actually funded and valued is “practical” science. That is science that can make something, not necessarily useful or important or life enhancing, but marketable and profitable.

  5. Leavis’s attack on Snow is one of the things on my list to read more about. I read a brief article this summer about how much Leavis disliked what Snow was saying, and it piqued my interest. Once I attended a lecture by a physicist who quoted Snow very admiringly (perhaps he didn’t know about Leavis), and I remember he (the lecturer, not Snow) said that people in the humanities don’t want warfare, they just want parity in funding. That pleased me but I hated the quotes he read from Snow’s writings.

  6. Thanks for an informative and vigorous post. About a year ago, I read an article on American Scholar (Aug. 2009) entitled: “The Decline of the English Department”, by William M. Chace. Beyond the tug of war between the ‘practical’ and the ‘aesthetic’, Sciences and English majors, Chace points out a third factor, and that rests within the English department itself. But of course, he’s talking about American universities. Nevertheless, I just thought you might be interested to explore his argument. Here’s the link to that article:

  7. I was listening to a great podcast this morning from the BBC’s World Book Club, an interview with Egyptian novelist Nawal el Saadawi. It’s a fascinating and inspiring interview in general, but this one remark caught my ear especially because of this post (and the one it responds to): paraphrasing, she remarks that Egypt has many well-trained engineers and technicians but they are ignorant of the world “and that is why we are oppressed.” Her insight, then, is that without what we might calll a humanistic context, their specialized knowledge and expertise does not liberate them or help them live free, meaningful lives. Politics, culture, society, humanity: it’s ridiculous to think that these are somehow inessential frills or so transparent that they don’t need to be studied in any thoughtful, systematic way. Perhaps people fail to recognize that many key thinkers and documents that we understand to mark the advance of our civilization are fundamentally humanistic and philosophical. Our democratic systems, flawed though they may be, are not the results of technological innovation or computer programming. Women did not get the vote because of work that went on in laboratories. Abolitionism, the civil rights movement…well, I could go on. Of course science is important. Of course technology is important. But look at, say, the iPod, surely one of the most successful tech inventions of the last little while. Why do people love it? Because they can use it to listen to music (and more, of course). They don’t want to sit around and admire its parts. I just read another headline about yet another university closing humanities departments. The whole scenario makes me sick and tired!

  8. Excellent and very timely post. I was thinking a couple of things as I read this. Firstly it struck me that you and Mr Litlove represent a marriage of Art and Science (and so you complement each other in the way of opposites). Sorry to personalise the issue! But then I was thinking how much the two cultures need each other. Art can get lost in its own imagination and Science can be blinded by its own ‘truth’. And then I’ve noticed in a few online publications that people want to read about Science. Perhaps we should constantly strive for a happy balance of the two.

  9. Hear hear!

    I think this is the only quote I’ve ever seen from Leavis that I passionately agree with 🙂 But it seems he had to spoil even that by a self-righteous and belligerent attitude towards a different view.

  10. What a lively, articulate summary of the dispute! I’m only really familiar with Leavis from his views on close-reading, so learnt a lot from this post(and also enjoyed it very much.) My partner’s a hard science man, whereas I’ve always been one of those ‘airy-fairy artsy types’ (sigh). I can’t tell you how many times we’ve clashed over whose discipline is more worthwhile – a stupid argument really, given when we’re not in the mood for a roisterous debate we can both acknowledge the importance of the other discipline. I guess because we just happen to be stronger in one area ourselves we’re more inclined to argue for its (and our own) validity. As Pete commented above, a happy balance between the two does seem the sensible route – and when you think of all the recent novels – and not just in the sc-fi genre – that seem to be grappling with scientific topics (Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’ etc) and all the ‘scientific’ authors who seem to be adopting a more deliberately narrative prose style (‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’ etc), maybe this is where we’re heading. Fingers crossed.

  11. A tremendous post. First – Thank you. I had not heard of this discourse previously and am very grateful you brought this to my attention. What I’ve found so very interesting about the nature of science, and particularly the politicization of it, is how very much of it rests upon a kind of belief these days. The nature of empirical data and the ceaseless pursuit of isolating variables while keeping measures constant seems to slip and slide away when it favors certain notions of policy. That is not to say that there aren’t some purists out there who truly are the tireless individuals seeking an ultimate truth as related to their study, but that these voices seem to be very soft these days against the din of those who simply believe.

    Unfortunately, the literary sphere in the US seems to do little better. Genius, doing something unique and unusual, seems to put an author into the realm of “snobbish” or “full of themselves” (apparently being secure in one’s ability is a bad thing?) while those who pander to the common mentality with half cooked notions gets lauded as brilliant. For my part this seems to be indicative quite of the loss of humanity. The more we are told “we’re all the same” the more we diminish the uniqueness of each individual and, subsequently, obfuscate humanity itself. It’s as though we’re not created, through gifts/curses of nature, but rather made on a conveyor belt where individual importance can only be measured by whether or not the mold was cast exactly proper and that is to say it doesn’t matter until/unless there’s a perceived flaw. That mold being approved by a “society” or a “system” not one or two people. Happiness, in turn, is unique and derided; a sign that someone is mentally ill or simply not grasping “reality”.

    If you have not read any Heinlein I would strongly encourage it. The man was brilliant and, while very much pop fiction, it was philosophically rich and a blatant treatise for people to embrace their humanity in all their flaws. In my opinion he managed to communicate what Huxley did in “Brave New World” by showing the warmth and love in people and the sacrifices they sometimes make in “Stranger in a Strange Land (Uncut Version)”.

  12. Harriet – you’re welcome, thank you!

    Nymeth – it would be so much better for us all if arts and sciences simply respect each other and recognise how much they have to offer one another. And I love literary history – it just fascinates me!

    Stefanie – Leavis’s lecture did get published, as I read it a while ago. It’s called ‘Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow’ and it’s a controlled, careful, intellectual rant. He is SO rude to Snow! I haven’t read the Rukeyser book but I am definitely going to search it out now – it sounds fantastic!

    Grad – aw bless you. There are days when I feel I can’t count beyond the number of fingers and toes I possess. But I like a good literary story!

    Kathleen – thank you! I love to hear that!

    Lilian – you hit the nail on the head there. The sciences (in the UK at least) are stuggling under the latest government directive that there shall be no funding unless the research has direct practical application, ie, that it can make money. This is anathema to them, as practical applications so often come secondary to the pure quest for information. The same situation applies to the arts – make money or disappear. So how can arts say things they really need to say, but which the community may not want to hear?

    Jenny – parity, equality, now that would be great. But it’s true that Snow’s lecture was an odd piece of propaganda, dressed up to look insightful. It’s a really interesting story, and one that is of course much broader in its implications than I had time to discuss here. I do love this sort of history of ideas – it’s always so intriguing.

  13. Arti – that’s a very interesting article, and one that tries to understand what has happened in depth. But I’m far more persuaded by his argument (one he soft pedals) about students being concerned about the job market beyond university. He says himself that he could study English because he had time and space to consider his role in the world, to follow his inclinations, to explore cultural history. The one thing that seems to me to have changed drastically is that students don’t look on university as an end in itself, but as a big expensive step on the way to a career. We hear a lot about how our society needs more scientists (certainly in the UK) and all the incentives point in that direction. But then again, the English course at Cambridge hasn’t changed in decades, so that might be influencing me, too. Have things changed a lot in America?

    Rohan – what a fantastic comment. I haven’t really anything to add to it except that I agree completely!

    Pete – absolutely! It’s one of Mister Litlove’s favourite remarks – ‘never let it be said that business doesn’t sponsor the arts’! Interdisciplinary research is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and I think that’s a fascinating field opening up. Let’s get everything working together, rather than champion some disciplines at the expense of others. We need all the help we can get to live well.

    Jean – alas, you are so right. I have to deplore Leavis’s methods even if I admired the result in this case. He could be such an aggressive bully.

    Baker’s daughter – I am all for the productive marriage of arts and sciences however it plays out! I also think though, that whichever way your brain is wired – towards the no-nonsense factuality of science or the sensitive creativity of the arts – you can’t change it. You can only see through that perspective, and it takes a lot of effort and will to view existence from the other side. It’s very hard to discount what feels so completely natural, but I read somewhere (Elaine Aron’s book on highly sensitive people, I think) that a smaller percentage of the population belongs in the arty group – and so we just don’t have the majority view. This is sad for us but we need cossetting by scientists as they’d miss us if we weren’t there!

    Kimberly – I do agree with you. I feel that we are ever more subject to a process of ‘normalization’ in our culture today. That quirks and foibles and eccentricities are viewed as things we need to iron out with education or therapy or a kick up the backside. We are theoretically more accepting of difference, so long as difference actually looks just like everything – and everyone – else. When our brute culture – the culture of the media, for instance – comes up against real difference, then there’s an outcry and the question – how can this be changed or rehabilitated? I haven’t read Heinlein but you’ve really intrigued me. I will definitely search him out!

  14. Wonderful post and I heartily agree. I’ve never understood why it’s always an either or argument and why people can’t understand how important it is to be well rounded. Unfortunately the sciences always get the better funding (at least here at the university) and the arts often suffer–they’re the first thing cut when cuts are needed. Maybe we need a modern Renaissance.

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