The case for the arts
By Alex Kruse
The other day I was asked about my future plans, something I am sure many of you have been asked about too. This sort of question creates a weird social bond between students across the world, a sort of global solidarity. The question usually follows an inquiry into what you are studying, and so, as dictated by that inquiry, I responded that I study English literature and philosophy. I often follow my response up by saying what I am actually studying is poverty, as if literature and philosophy have no sort of social utility. But alas, I refrained from digressing into a long-winded description of why I think there is a social utility and function to studying literature and philosophy, namely, that they have one. I simply waited for the next, more dreadful question that inevitably follows my response, “Well, what do you want to do with that?”
Oftentimes I consider not even answering the first question, as I know that the second question is what it must lead to. The second question is the knife behind the handkerchief, the sword behind the matador’s cape. It seems when this question is asked I must create a defense; however, I don’t. I answer that I wish to continue my schooling. Whenever I give this message there are two sorts of reactions. The first is to end the conversation and go on to talking about other sorts of topics: magic, bullfighting, and the like. This reaction is usually my favorite, simply because it reveals the little amount of interest the individual has in learning about your future plans. It’s a beautiful response really. The inquiry stops, and we can go about our days. But the second, more horrific reaction, is to persistently press the inquiry (an act that reflects my studies) with asking the question, “Well, what about when you’re all finished with school?” I never know if the individual is just calling my bluff or if they actually have an interest in my plans. My answer to their question leaves them unsatisfied. I answer that I have none.
Some might reply that they think it’s great that I’m studying what I enjoy. To them, I must refrain myself from clarifying my position that I actually hate both things, literature and philosophy. I think they are quite evil. I cannot imagine something I despise more if I am to be brutally honest. I don’t find some existential meaning in what I do, I just do (expecting not to have some sort of transcendental experience with what I do). No, I don’t enjoy what I do. I’m kept up late every night critiquing every aspect of existence with no satisfaction. Karl Marx should’ve kept his original title to his book, “Holy Family,” which was “Critique of the Critical Critique,” because the original title is too true. I refrain from telling them that I rarely have confidence in formulating a sentence because I need to make sure that my sentence conveys precisely what I wish it to convey.
I often want to push back to their questions with questions of my own; do they think that what someone does for a living defines their character, do they believe that life must be road-mapped? But it hits me, I shouldn’t have to justify what I do to them or to society. The only reason I can find to convey that I enjoy what I do is it allows me to not be a bootlicker (something I’ve never been fond of doing). Finding a defense for the arts is reducing the arts to social utility or function. I imagine whatever I end up doing, whether it be teaching or working in a trade, I will continue my critique, I will continue persistently asking questions of my own. Again, I don’t study what I do because I enjoy it (if I do it’s a very bittersweet relationship), I study what I do simply because I need to know. Know what, is another question. All I will say is I won’t commit simony by reducing what I study to a social utility. With all that said, next time you’re in Christ the King, look at where poetry is placed among other disciplines on the beautiful stained glass.