Arts and minds: the humanities are as vital as science

Resources are dwindling and the focus lies firmly on utility. @boetter

The Coalition’s pre-election condemnation of ARC research funding in certain areas of the arts as “ridiculous” and a waste of taxpayer dollars has left those of us working in this field feeling under pressure to justify our existence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and only fair when the resource pool is shrinking. So why are we so poor at it?

In the beginning there was narrative. There is narrative in the ochre silhouette of a human hand on the wall of a cave; it lies in the layers of earth and rock deep beneath our feet and in the wonder of the stars on a crisp, clear night.

Narrative remains fundamental to our nature. It nourishes our humanity and helps us make sense of the world and our place within it. Our lives are narrative, history is narrative, and even science is narrative. We all know the story of the accidental discovery of penicillin on a forgotten dirty plate, right?

In a perfect world we would live in a bountiful scholarly utopia where all research was valued and appreciated equally. Unfortunately, our narrative reality is a largely results and relevance-driven tertiary environment where resources are dwindling and the focus lies firmly on utility.

Science and technology (which, with engineering and mathematics, form the letters in the acronym STEM) unambiguously save lives, and innovation measurably increases our material wellbeing. Science is a solid, reliable investment.

But “the arts” is a field commonly seen as a luxury we can ill afford in tough times – irrelevant, elitist and even indulgent – possibly interesting but definitely warranting those dreaded inverted commas.

Hearts and minds

The ancient Egyptians believed the heart was the source of reason and wisdom while the brain was unceremoniously discarded during mummification. Contemporary medical science knows better, reducing the heart to the status of a mechanical pump and relocating the intellect to the brain.

We now define death as the absence of brain activity and in the event of cardiac arrest, rush to perform CPR – not to preserve the heart but to maintain the supply of oxygen to the brain. But is the story really that clear-cut?

Our hearts are apparently still intimately linked to the way we think – we seek the “heart of the matter”, embrace things “wholeheartedly” and are “heartbroken” when they don’t work out. But somehow we have come to value the quantitative over the qualitative – what we can measure over what we feel.

John Eisenschenk

We still crave narrative to help us make sense of things – the science that really captures the imagination is that with a ripping narrative, one that humanises the research, helping us to understand.

Possibly because creativity is broadly regarded as an innate part of us and therefore ostensibly “free”, there appears to be a widespread misconception that research in this area does not necessarily need nurturing or funding.

The majority of our primary teachers are arts graduates, underpinning the fundamental educational narrative of future generations. English remains the only compulsory subject in the New South Wales HSC program.

At a tertiary level, however, we seem to have little time and even less money for “the arts”. The ERA National Report 2012 reveals that projects in fields commonly associated with the arts received less than 4% of total competitively awarded funds from the ARC over the period 2008-2010 inclusive.

That’s despite arts research projects generally requiring little or no expensive specialist equipment and numerous studies showing exposure to the arts improves both educational and health outcomes. Surely this represents outstanding value for money rather than superfluous luxury or ridiculous waste.

For what it’s worth

If arts programs are relatively cheap to implement and deliver proven positive outcomes, why then are they perceived as indulgent and irrelevant?

The communication and flexible research skills people develop in the acquisition of an arts degree may be valued when it comes to educating children, but at the same time we appear to be essentially failing at communicating the broader worth of what we do at a tertiary/ research level.

We speak of capturing “hearts and minds” but what we really mean is that we need to persuade convincingly on an intellectual level – again, mind rather than heart. That these two are linked so easily in metaphor suggests we know there is more to life than the purely quantitative.

We in the arts need to be much better at telling our stories and communicating the worth of what we do – we need to get the heart back into “hearts and minds”.

We need to be collaborative rather than competitive – as with the interdisciplinary arts/health Growing Up with Cancer project recently undertaken with funding from an ARC Linkage Grant. This project uses photography to help young cancer survivors express how they feel – a narrative with which they would probably otherwise struggle.

The field of humanistic gerontology, which uses research approaches generally associated with the humanities to gain new perspectives on our rapidly ageing population, is also conducive to collaboration with easily understood benefits.

Science may be able to prolong life, and is rightly celebrated. But for many of us it’s the arts that make life worth living.

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