Corey Mwamba

rambles → Use.

Use.

I met with an good friend yesterday, and we talked about life changes, the value of meeting up with people and talking about ideas. This led me to think about John Henry Newman.

Newman wrote Knowledge its own end two years before he was rector of the Catholic University of Ireland: it is a chapter of the book The Idea of a University. Newman puts forward an ideal of the university as a place where people of different disciplines can interact and learn from each other's specialisms while focusing on their own interests. This wider learning allows those students a greater view on knowledge as a whole. Having a rounded outlook on knowledge (or "knowledge for its own sake") constituted a "liberal" education, and the outcome of a liberal education was to encourage "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom" within a person whilst improving their intellect. Newman argues that the outcome should be enough for anyone to see why a liberal education is a good idea for society, and that the pursuit of intellectual excellence (being able to use the mind to think, learn and examine) is a distinct goal from "useful" knowledge or "religious" knowledge, although it can enable a person to succeed in acquiring those types of knowledge.

This is not a viewpoint that sits well with the idea that a university course should provide marketable knowledge, or knowledge that can used as a commodity (which falls under Newman's class of "Useful" Knowledge): products of neo-liberal ideology. In an article titled Interventions: neoliberalized knowledge1, Wendy Brown provides the obverse argument: where Newman partly argues against a knowledge shaped only by religion, Brown rallies against the drive for knowledge to have solely scientific or economic value.

These issues are not confined to the university. "The case for the arts" is a real thing, with arguments and studies made over several years made for examining the return on investment. But these arguments—although rigorously researched and full of detail—rarely work, and certainly here in Britain we see an eternal cycle of political parties seeing the arts as essential, and yet pledging to not fund the arts.

So: what use is the arts anyway? Is this really a sensible question?

There is a pressure not to create but produce. In a neoliberal mode, music (or Art) is only "useful" if it can be sold or taken. Stan Getz spoke about this conflict:

Life is too full of distractions nowadays. When I was a kid we had a little Emerson radio and that was it. We were more dedicated. We didn't have a choice and we didn't have big allowances. I got out of the Bronx by taking that saxophone in a room eight hours a day and playing it! Now there's more distractions, like movies, video, and sports. Early on we made records to document ourselves, not to sell a lot of records. I still feel that way. I put out a record because I think it's beautiful, but not necessarily commercial... Commercial can be a good word too. It means getting to a larger number of people. Records used to be documents but now record companies want "product". They want to sell a lot more records and guys want to get famous. I never thought about being famous or having a band. I just wanted to play music.

This feeling of just wanting to play music, to do the art, is a common expression among artists. But it's also used as a whipping stick by neoliberalists; if artists want to create art but do not want it to undergo commodification, then it must be a hobby and art has no value. And so, the natural reaction is to argue for the arts by framing them within and measuring them against the tenets of neoliberalism.

But perhaps we are using the wrong frame. Perhaps we need the arts to say: our value is uncountable, immeasurable. The arts develop people in different ways; but they always develop people. The arts are not "useful"; they are developmental, and essential to civilisation. Funding the arts is a way of funding civilisation, beyond drab market forces. Like Newman's "liberal" knowledge, the arts encourage "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom" whilst developing a skill within a person, beyond (not in spite of) commodity.

The spend for the arts is not really money, but people. The profit of the arts is better people: something that money alone can't achieve. If we want better people, funding the arts would be a good start.


  1. To help with discussion of this essay, here is an electronic copy of the article, courtesy of JSTOR. I think this is fair use; but if not please let me know.