Regarding the Utilitarian Critique of Art and Magic

This writing was originally meant as a response to the argument that we shouldn’t care about the burning of Notre-Dame in light of climate change, global hunger, and other worldwide tragic problems.  It originally appeared as a response post on Studio Arcanis, which I help moderate.

Utilitarian arguments about art are always very easy to make.  Why should we have museums when children are starving?  Museums are expensive.  We could recycle the art and make homeless shelters instead.  Why should we study art history, philosophy, literature, or esotericism?  Those fields won’t give us job skills, won’t put food on the table, don’t have an efficient, profitable, commercial-industrial application. 

This is often an argument made by North Americans, since education beyond high school and health care in the USA cannot ever be taken for granted, efforts by one political faction or another over the years notwithstanding.  So reading philosophy for a Bachelor’s degree seems like a very risky prospect when there is no obvious way to translate that into a livelihood.  And no one wants to starve, which has been referred to as “the great American fear” at least since the Great Depression: ending up helpless, homeless, and unloved because you lost your job and couldn’t provide for your family or your health.

Moreover, anyone who has studied the arts and humanities at university has heard some chortling relative say, “What are you going to do with that?  Ho, ho, ho.”  The person who says it usually does so with maximum scorn because, supposedly, anyone can see how wrong it is to spend precious time and resources on something that will not support you in the future.  It’s a bad return-on-investment.  In the perpetually commodifying business sensibilities of the materialist West, it looks like professional suicide.

It has now become the same argument that says university itself is a bad idea, given that you can apprentice yourself to a trade and avoid both student loan debt and all that “wasted time.”  For many, this is no doubt good advice.  We need our skilled plumbers, electricians, and mechanics.  Some people neither need nor want so-called “higher education” and to force them into a 4-year general degree is both short-sighted and inhumane.  They are content to live fairly well and lead their lives with the satisfaction and comforts of being vocationally skilled—a contentedness that the literature student, even the (extremely lucky) tenured professor, will never feel.

Still, people seek higher study in the arts and humanities because they feel called to do so.  This is not something that can be easily explained to the sneering uncle who installs pools for a living and thinks you’re stupid for reading Beowulf in Old English.  At the family reunion, you simply have to change the subject because he is invariably stuck in his perspective, one that seems like common sense to him. 

No doubt, standing in church with everyone else on Sunday (because that is what is expected of him), he has often heard the famous verse from Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” but has never thought to question the doors he has left unopened in his life.  And so, with a closed mind that is highly conditioned by conformist culture, he holds those who are different in contempt.  If he ever wonders about the things he does not understand, it’s only a passing discomfort.

The arts and humanities student, however, lives in constant uncertainty.  It is intrinsic to the study (and production) of creative works.  Contrary to the stereotype of the artist somehow leading a charmed existence where the creativity just flows through him onto the canvas or the page, every step—whether the person is writing essays about Shakespeare’s tragedies, painting landscapes, composing a sonata, or teaching students how to read Homer—is fraught with trouble, effort, and self-doubt.  Finance, engineering, IT, medicine, sales, the trades, and even design are all things this culture more or less accepts and understands.  But the arts, the humanities, and even more esoteric things like comparative spirituality, occultism, and parapsychology exist in the wilderness beyond the safe and the secure.  Most people fear that wilderness.

It has always been this way.  Now let’s think of what sort of contemptuous comments magical practitioners might hear (that sound suspiciously similar to what the art student hears at Christmas dinner).  I will quote from Peter Levenda’s “Prolegomena to a Study of Occultism”:

‘It isn’t real, it’s all in your mind,’ is one of the first snorts of derision that anyone involved in occultism must suffer. ‘It’s nothing but fantasy,’ they say. They know this because they have been told that it is fantasy, that it is not real. They have been told this by their teachers, by pop scientists like Sagan on television, or by their friends. They themselves have not investigated the paranormal at all. Quite often, they are not equipped for such an investigation. What they ‘know’ is what they have been told. You will find that the dullest, most functionally illiterate mental mushroom has a very definite, very ‘scientific’ view on one thing: the impossibility of any kind of psychic phenomena. ‘There ain’t no such things as ghosts,’ might typify one of these brilliant scientific assessments of centuries of human experience. And anyone who ‘believes’ in ghosts is crazy. By linking the twin concepts of belief and the paranormal we arrive at a cogent example of the use of language to alter perception, for we either ‘believe’ or don’t ‘believe’ in ghosts, magic, God, the Devil. There is simply no corresponding approach to plane geometry, the square root of minus 1, or the genetic code. One never asks if one ‘believes’ in the Pythagorean theorem or in any Euclidean theorem (or, for that matter, no one is ever asked whether or not they ‘believe’ that the circumference of a circle contains exactly 360 degrees, even though that number comes down to us from Babylonian mythology and is not the result of ‘scientific observation’).

What they “know” is what they have been told.  Isn’t this always the case on some level?  And yet although people like this remain ignorant about what they have not been told, they often seem determined to give their opinion on it. 

So what can be said in response to a person who argues that the burning of Notre-Dame is not tragic when there is plastic in the ocean and children are starving?  Because he has not felt the beauty of such a place, because his sensibilities are utilitarian and primarily conditioned by the marketplace, because he has not developed a personal aesthetic, you cannot tell him, “Wait, Notre-Dame is a work of great art and high culture.”  He has no idea what that means because he has not been told what to think by an authority he can respect. 

This person should not try to study esotericism.  He should not try to study art.  He should avoid museums and should leave Shakespeare and Milton to the professors.  Instead, he should stick to the things that “everybody knows” because in that he is an expert.

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