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What use to a troubled world is the work of a Faculty of Arts?

7 May 2008

This was the question addressed in the third Annual BIRTHA (Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts) debate which took place on Wednesday 30 April.

The event was chaired by Professor Tim Unwin, Director of BIRTHA, and featured speakers from across the Faculty of Arts, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Department of Physics.

Professor Unwin began by welcoming the speakers and introducing the subject of the debate.  “It’s a question that concerns all of us fundamentally, all our working lives: what is the purpose of the work we’re doing?” he said.  “How can we make it more relevant?  How can we take it out there into the community?  We address this question not only privately but also beyond the workplace and to our own students.  It is absolutely central to what we do.” 

The first speaker, Yvonne Hawkins, Director of Knowledge and Evaluation at the AHRC, addressed the problem of assessing the impact of work done in the arts and humanities.

“Not everything that matters can be measured in economic terms so how do you articulate the use, value and impact of the arts and humanities?” she asked.  “There’s a wide variety of pathways through which the arts and humanities can create value.  In some, it’s possible to assign a market value, but in others it definitely won’t be.  The arts and humanities create social and economic benefits both directly and indirectly through improvements in social and intellectual capital, through social networking, community learning, skills and quality of life.

Not everything that matters can be measured in economic terms so how do you articulate the use, value and impact of the arts and humanities?

“They matter as they speak to important issues of the day, for example they can make a rigorous, intellectually informed contribution to the discourse on citizenship and cultural and national identity which is one of today’s central issues.  The arts and humanities have huge potential to inform public policy-making.”

She then touched on how the AHRC uses consultants to attempt to capture not only the economic value of the research they fund but also its broader impact.  “The pressure from government to demonstrate the utility and the influence of arts and humanities research findings beyond academia is only going to grow,” she concluded.  “We need an impact narrative that’s appropriate for the arts and humanities.  Simply adopting the science model is going to sell us short because not everything that’s valuable can be assigned a market value.”

A scientist’s perspective was then provided by Professor Sir John Enderby, Emeritus Professor in Physics.

“What intrigues me is not so much the question itself but why, in the first place, was it ever posed?” he said.  “To me as a scientist the importance of the humanities in addressing the most pressing problems of our time is blindingly obvious.  I wonder if the mere fact this question has been formulated is a symptom of a deeper malaise.  Have we become so focussed on the immediate and obvious application of knowledge to the exclusion of the more reflective and ultimately more important mode of working which characterises much of the work of this faculty?”

He went on to discuss the “absolute and fundamental difference” between the scientific method and that of the arts and humanities, taking the war in Iraq as an example: “In science we aim to focus as narrowly as possible on one variable and keep all other variables constant.  The arts and humanities are not like this.  Were we justified in going to war?  There’s no controlled experiment we can do; we cannot know what might have happened had we not invaded.  Only the deep analysis of the cultural, historical and social influences can lead to an understanding of the issues and the likely outcomes.  If a hundredth, a thousandth or a millionth of the money committed to military action had been spent on studying the religious, the cultural, the historical, the linguistic differences between the Sunnis and Shias our world view of the current conflict would be totally different.”

To me as a scientist the importance of the humanities in addressing the most pressing problems of our time is blindingly obvious.

In conclusion, he said: “Science and technology clearly have a place in addressing the issues of the day but to think technology alone can solve the challenges facing mankind is to make a serious and fundamental error.  The resolution of conflicts, the security of clean water, the provision of food for all the peoples of the earth: all require the combined effort of technology on the one hand with those humanising forces that lead to a deeper understanding of the underlying issues and to which faculties of arts can, and indeed must, make their special contribution.  I have absolutely no doubt that in a troubled world the work of the Faculty of Arts is crucial.”     

Professor Gillian Clark then offered a viewpoint informed by her work as Professor of Ancient History in the School of Humanities.

“I tell my students that there are two lessons of ancient history,” she said.  “The easy one is ‘Do not invade Armenia’.  The more challenging one is ‘It ain’t necessarily so’.  It could have been different.  It has been different.  That’s what people need to realise.  That’s why in this faculty we use everything we can to find out about how people and their communities work and how we try to understand that.

The Faculty of Arts says 'See how you might think differently so that you can see more clearly how you think now'.

“Some troubles do indeed need engineering and science and medicine: give people clean water and food and medical care and let them get on with their lives.  But some troubles need thought about who we are in this world and what people have done in it.  So the Faculty of Arts says: Look.  Look at this that I’m working on.  See how good it is.  See how people have thought about their lives and written and planned and made.  See how you might think differently so that you can see more clearly how you think now.”  

For his contribution, Dr Mark Horton, Reader in Archaeology in the School of Arts, drew widely on his own experiences.  He began by describing how he had been invited by the Iranian authorities to address an international conference in Tehran on security in the Persian Gulf: “They wanted me to go along to provide that long-term historical perspective, the history of the Persian Gulf and how the Iranians and the Persian people have been involved in commercial activities going way back into deep pre-history.  That’s a clear example of how my research was deemed relevant by a national government.”

He also argued that, in our post-industrial economy, the arts and humanities are more relevant than ever, using an example from his work as a presenter on the TV series Coast, which included several items based on his research.

My research was deemed relevant by national government.

“About four weeks ago I had my Jamie Oliver moment,” he said.  “I didn’t actually improve people’s school meals but the government published its marine bill which is going to create access around all our coastline.  This is something that we managed to promote through Coast in which we said it’s a scandal that people have not got access to many of the places we filmed.  The series has probably put, at a rough estimate, between £500 and 1000 million into the economy in terms of reviving the coast, reviving our coastal resorts and making people go to visit our coastline rather than travelling overseas.  This is the way of the future.  This is a way we can use our research to make real change.”

The final speaker, Michael Basker, Professor of Russian Literature in the School of Modern Languages acknowledged the practical benefits and ‘transferable skills’ that studying the arts can provide before going on to suggest that the question should actually be ‘What use are the arts in a troubled world?’.

“I think this was formulated best by Bazarov, the nihilist in Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Children who says a decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet. He comes to stay with his friend on a country estate and is horrified to see his friend’s father playing the cello badly and reading Pushkin so he gets his friend to take Pushkin away from his father and substitute Büchner’s Stoff und Kraft which he says will be far more useful to him.

“Is Bazarov right or wrong?  I don’t know.  The landowner is pretty feckless; he doesn’t make a good job of running his estate and many such Russian landowners in the end deserved a revolution.  On the other hand, the nihilist telling people what to do and read leads straight on to the Russian revolution and the mentality of the 1880s and so to Lenin and all that followed.

The conclusion might be that a society that asks the question about the utilitarian value of research in the arts is troubled and misguided. 

“In other words, there’s a danger in asking these utilitarian questions.  The conclusion might be that a society that asks the question about the utilitarian value of research in the arts and the arts themselves is itself troubled and misguided.  It’s a dangerous question.  Faculties of arts should be left alone to think and create and teach people – even if it’s to play the cello badly.  They should be allowed to do it and to enjoy Pushkin.  Life without these things is limited, brutal, ascetic and dull.”

After questions and comments from the floor, Professor Robert Fowler, Dean of the Faculty of Arts was invited to respond.

“Arts people are trained to challenge the terms of any debate and part of me wants to react by saying: Actually we’re useless and that’s great!” he began.  “I treasure the motto which Ravel put on his Noble and Sentimental Waltzes which refers to ‘the delicious and ever-fresh pleasure of a useless occupation’.  There’s something in that and also in what Debussy said: ‘Pleasure is the only law’.  The sheer joy and quality of life that arise from the pursuit and study of the arts and humanities without any immediate reference to practical use is something I’ve always thought worth remembering.  However, that sort of argument is unlikely to cut very much ice with the Treasury who are very much interested in practical benefits.”

Professor Fowler then touched on some of these practical benefits including the transferable skills arts students acquire, the economic benefits provided by the creative industries and the ability of researchers in the arts and humanities to influence policy decisions.  He also mentioned some of the less easily quantifiable benefits such as how an understanding of history can inform decisions made in the world today.

The sheer joy that arises from the study of the arts and humanities is something I’ve always thought worth remembering.

“I think we can win those kinds of arguments,” he continued, “play that game and work with the AHRC to persuade the government to provide money from the Treasury for our work but in the broader sense what we’re doing runs much deeper than that.  The ordinary politician doesn’t understand the importance of ideas.  Do ideas matter?  Well, it’s pretty obvious that they do because we have spent most of our history trying to combat the consequences of some pretty sinister ideas and we’re still doing that.  Good ideas too can have wonderfully beneficial effects.  But politicians can’t get away from simplification, can’t get away from the immediate answer, from the practical benefit in terms of pounds and pence, from pragmatic policy initiatives.

“We need to encourage an attitude of mind about understanding the need for analysis and the broader perspective and here I very much agree with what Sir John was saying.  The problem is that our analyses, unlike many scientific analyses, are not going to come up with the kind of straightforward answers that politicians want.  For example in the case of Islamic fundamentalism, politicians want clear lessons from history.  They want to use history as a sort of crystal ball-gazing, want historians to tell them what’s going to happen tomorrow – and historians can’t do that.  Our challenge is to persuade these politicians that they shouldn’t be disappointed by this, they should embrace uncertainty.  They should understand that you might not get a straightforward answer b

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