A few days the admirable Shaun Duke put out a call on twitter for fellow bloggers to join a kind of writing challenge. He later explained it in more detail in this post on his own blog:
“What is the Blog Challenge Project? In short, the project aims to create a community of bloggers and booktubers who will encourage one another to create content, support one another in their blogging ventures, and provide a giant list of prompts and ideas for posts that folks can complete on their own time or challenge one another to explore. The idea is to provide some positivity and community in a time of immense stress. You can click the link to read the full info page and see our current list of prompts!”https://shaunduke.net/2020/04/the-blog-challenge-project-begins/
Aside from being a great way to find other interesting posts to read, it looked to me like a good way to create inter-blog conversations. People don’t need to write about things at the same time but having common prompts will help more natural conversations and back-and-forth of ideas happen. I was very happy to join.
But where to start! Well I could just do what I normally do and wait for inspiration to hit me with its four claws, confused expression and unsatisfied hunger for kibble and then, after I’d written whatever post came out of that experience, add the topic I wrote post-hoc to the list. That didn’t feel entirely in the spirit of the thing. So I decide to cheat in the opposite way and pick the first prompt somebody else had already written on! Brilliant, I said to myself, although Timothy was disappointed that I hadn’t done a photo essay comparing shapes of commercial pet-food kibble with famous starships (another time).
Luckily, Shaun Duke had also got the ball rolling with a big picture post entitled The Arts are the Glue that Holds Civilization Together.
“And in doing all of this and seeing all of what is happening around me, I’ve started to answer a crucial question out loud to myself: why do the arts matter yesterday, today, and tomorrow? And I think I’ve got a decent answer to that. I’d argue that the arts are the glue that holds civilization together on both the personal, national, and global scale. It’s the thing that allow us to express ourselves, to find joy and relief, to be human and explore what that even means. The arts are everything.”https://shaunduke.net/2020/04/theartsaretheglue/
Now as people know, in the great sorting hat of the disciplines I was shuffled off into House STEM and I can’t say that the hat got that wrong exactly but I haven’t been particularly faithful to my appointed box either.
Shaun’s thesis that the arts form a kind of social glue strikes me as absolutely right. The dark side of that is the way those who seek to take power away from us do so via propaganda and narratives. That’s not deny that other forms of intellectual disciplines aren’t also used for evil because they are from economics to physics but that the political power, even in a tyranny revolves around persuasion and the subversion of the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes.
A lot of talk about the value of the arts points towards the virtue of creativity. That’s not wrong but it’s not the aspect I find compelling mainly because I think people miss the extent to which creativity is embedded in every discipline. The difference with the arts is that creativity is more overtly celebrated. Albert Einstein, for example, was manifestly a very creative thinker but it is the correctness of his theories that earns them their praise rather than their novel elegance.
Rather, what I value from the arts in terms of a unique contribution is their capacity to interrogate creativity creatively. The arts in general provide a way of exchanging ideas that provide the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes but the discipline of the arts gives us tools for us to examine how those ideas operate and mesh together and also how they differ from one another.
Without tools to interrogate the creative, the spiritual and the aesthetic aspects of our culture we lose sight of their power. Losing sight of that power is how we end up with things like Fox News on the one hand or L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics on the other. Conversely not understanding how disciplines that our current culture regards as somehow “non-arts” hides from us connections and delights and ways of enjoying the world around us.
I’ve discussed before Japanese Temple Geometry (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/05/24/loved-books-sacred-mathematics-japanese-temple-geometry/) a perfect instance of what we’ve stereotyped as unartistic playing that demonstrable social glue (in this case community worship) and engaging with notions of the spiritual and the aesthetic.
Our capacity to interrogate, define and converse about the arts is essential. It is essential for us as an open society in which ideas flow and people can grow.
Now excuse me, I have to draw a theorem.