In 2015 the musical Hamilton debuted in New York and for a few years after that it seems like that was all anybody was talking about. The show received unmatched critical acclaim and countless awards, but what was amazing was the way it became a cultural phenomenon. Lin-Manuel Miranda was suddenly America’s “it-man,” and his star hasn’t faded that much since then, especially since in the last year a filmed version of the production was released on Disney +, briefly reviving the Hamilton fervor. We watched it and it was interesting because we all found something in it that struck a chord deep within us. My husband was taken with the choreography, I was floored by the acting and the music, and my ten-year-old, oddly enough, was completely enamored with the lighting. They were all separate things that went into making a singular aesthetic experience that spoke to multitudes of people. I know there are many criticisms of Hamilton, and it’s not as cool as it once was to like it – but politics aside, one can’t deny the artistry of the production.
Then the pandemic came, and we were all stuck at home. It was just us and our televisions and devices. One of the first things people turned to was video games. Video games are an interesting amalgamation of skills. The technical side of a video game has to be good. A glitchy game is basically unplayable. But modern game-players are looking for more than just something technically good. Modern game players are looking for good story-telling and amazing visuals and artistry. Then again, the video game that took the world by storm in the last year didn’t have much of a narrative and had very basic images – but it seemed like EVERYONE was playing Animal Crossing. You didn’t fight bad guys in Animal Crossing, unless you count your loan officer as a bad buy, and then Tom Nook is a real villain; you just kind of went about your business. But what was kind of amazing was that you could go about your daily business with other people. Everybody was visiting each other’s islands and swapping DIYs and admiring each other’s buildings and outfits – it was so human. One of the biggest games of 2020 wasn’t a first-person shooter that encouraged you to wipe out alien hordes, but a cozy little simulator that encouraged you to build relationships, trade turnips, and decorate your house. It was kind of wild because it wasn’t art imitating life, because none of us were living that life when we were playing, but it was art allowing us to live a calm, peaceful, happy life in a game world while the world around us seemed to be falling apart.
And we found positivity in a number of other places besides video games as well. The runaway hit of the pandemic year was the show Schitt’s Creek. It’s sixth and final season was nominated for more Emmys than any other comedy show. It was a show that managed to be about adult problems, but also at the same time so positive and uplifting that it stole hearts everywhere. Watching the Rose family grow from shallow millionaires to functioning adults was a lesson in humor and empathy for us all. It was a ray of hope and sunshine and it proved to be exactly what a lot of us needed in 2020. Because that year sucked, and those characters did not. It was a clinic in story-telling and characterization and finding the human side of crisis.
Then 2020 ended and we thought maybe things will get better. And one thing that 2021 has brought us that nobody was prepared for was Amanda Gormon. In 2017 Gormon was named the first national Youth Poet Laureate while she was a freshman at Harvard. Gormon was invited, as you probably well know, to be the poet at the Biden inauguration this year. And after her recitation of her work “The Hill We Climb” she was all anybody was talking about. There were some gatekeepers who moaned about whether it was too much of an “occasional poem” (of course it was, it was a poem for a special occasion) or too close to slam (talk about elitism), but most of America was just gobsmacked. How could this 22-year-old have such a mastery of language? How could she make things so clear and poignant? How could poetry, usually seen as the territory of stuffy English teachers or moody teenagers, be so vital? Gormon’s name was on everybody’s lips and her poem was being shared everywhere. She made such an impression on the American public that she was invited to share her work at the 2021 Super Bowl. Just think about that for a minute. There was a poetry reading at the Super Bowl. The arts have had such a profound impact on our lives this year that the biggest sporting event of the year has expanded from just having music at the halftime, to a something literary as well.
The truth is, we CRAVE the arts. We LIVE for Spotify, Netflix, and our Kindles. These are our cultural touchstones. Consider Game of Thrones. It was on for eight years and for those eight years it was at the very heart of our popular culture. It was a common place for all of us. It even made it on to Sesame Street more than once. It gave us something to talk about and something to get excited for. So when it ended so disastrously, we were ANGRY. It was like it was some kind of betrayal. We had to re-set our cultural gears. Because we pay attention to the arts. Some arts are more accessible than others, to be sure. Television, movies, and some music enjoy more popularity than others. But as social media makes the world more shareable the big shows in theater are gaining some publicity, as evidenced by the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird before the theaters shut down and the announcement that Come From Away is going to get the Hamilton treatment and a film of it will be released for streaming sometime in the future. We surround ourselves with the arts constantly. We pipe music into restaurants and read on our commutes. We put sculptures in empty spaces and our TVs cycle through pictures of famous paintings as kinds of screen savers. We love art so much that when we heard a really good poem on inauguration day, we all sat up and took notice and said, “Yes. I want more of that.”
So why do the arts and humanities always seem to be in crisis?
We’ve spent years focusing on STEM education. And that’s not a bad thing. We need a vital science and technology discipline to carry us into the future. We need lots of smart people working on modern problems, like energy and food production, climate change, and medicine to keep us afloat. And in an increasingly computerized world we need people with the technological skills to keep that world running. We need coders, engineers, and electricians to help us with everything right now. STEM is wildly important.
But we don’t have to look very far, as I have already noticed, to see that STEM is not the only thing that is important. We don’t just value technology. We don’t just value science. We put an incredibly high value on the arts and humanities outside of school. We just don’t value them IN school. And that’s a good way to devalue the arts and humanities in the long run in general.
In the 1700s a rhetorician named Giambattista Vico was working out of the University of Naples. Vico wasn’t particularly well-regarded in his own time but has grown in reputation throughout the years. Vico was a critic of Descartes, as we have covered in an earlier episode, and pretty much invented the philosophy of history. Vico’s problem with Descartes was for his emphasis on math and science as the only legitimate sources of knowledge. Vico wrote robust defenses of other branches of human inquiry such as law, history, and the arts, arguing that rhetoric provided just as good, if not a superior philosophy of knowledge.
Vico’s work is broad and expansive, but what I want to focus on today are his ideas on where truth and knowledge come from. Vico recognized that science and math were valuable. But in what I see as a stunning validation of the social sciences and the humanities, Vico reminds us that knowledge and truth can come from many places.
First, Vico objected to Descartes’s lack of acknowledgement to the function of language in producing knowledge. Vico said that without language the human knower is lost. Language reveals our passions, our thought processes, our reasoning, our imagination, and without it we would not understand the social conventions and historical contexts that shape our world. And language is specific, too. The English language shapes the English differently than the French language shapes the French. So while the Cartesian method is undeniably useful, it can’t be the only method. It can’t completely overpower the sensus communis, or common sense, that the study of language teaches us. And common sense doesn’t mean understanding the practicalities of life – common sense is literally the sense we have in common. The things we understand as one, as a people. The things we share.
Vico also objected to the Cartesian model of the isolated thinker or questioner. Vico argued that thought was made potent by dialogue. The Cartesian method, Vico further argued, is used for abstract knowledge that find single causes for multiple effects, whereas a humanities bases study find many possible causes for single events. The former simplifies the world, the latter reveals the complexity of it.
Vico was also one of the first major thinkers to assert that a social institution or individual is defined by its historical circumstances. Vico’s emphasis on context, and how language and context define us was the predecessor to a number of social science and humanities disciplines.
What is surprising, then, for all of his emphasis on context, is that Vico said that the aim of all kind of intellectual pursuits is truth. This is partially why the idea of common sense is so important. What do we all know? What do we all agree on? Does that make it true or is it just a matter of agreeing on our current contexts? If you are looking for truth in your studies of the physical phenomena the answers may seem unambiguous (though I know many in the medical field right now would disagree), but if you are looking for truth about human nature it is much more difficult to determine because you are dealing with free will and conscience. He says though the search is for truth, it is impossible to assess human affairs by the inflexible standard of abstract right.
Vico tells us that “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths or untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities. Accordingly, the fool, who is ignorant of both general and particular truths, constantly suffers prompt penalties for his arrogance. The astute ignoramus, who is able to grasp particular truths but incapable of conceiving a general truth find that cleverness, which is useful to him today may be harmful to him tomorrow.” In other words, there are many kinds of truth. There are the general truths that are unchanging – he refers to these as abstract truths. And science and math are good for abstract knowledge. But there are contextual truths as well. They are no less true. They are just specific truths. They are truths at that time. They are the historical or the societal truths. I think we may swear by these truths even more passionately than we do the general truths, if I am being honest, because they are the truths we are more immediately invested in.
So what does this mean for science, the arts, and the humanities? It means they all have truths to teach us.
In math and physics and chemistry and biology we learn the laws that govern the world in which we live. These are truths about our world. We can accurately assess and prove the outcomes of various inquiries because of the previous studies in these areas. The scientific method leads us to things that are true.
But what about the arts and the humanities? Do they lead us to anything less true? When we read King Lear are the ideas about family and pride, we are engaging with any less true? When we study indigenous art or stories are the human connections we make any less true? If, as Vico says, the intellectual pursuits are all about truth, then what truth are the arts and the humanities trying to teach us?
What truth was America faced with when Daveed Diggs, and African-American hip hop star, played the role of Thomas Jefferson, founder and slaver, who wrote that all men were created equal? How much truth was in his throw-away line about his slave Sally?
What were we looking for in the hopefulness and the silliness of Animal Crossing? What does that say about us? About what we want? About what we needed when the pandemic was in full swing?
Was there some element of truthfulness in David Rose’s journey from spoiled rich brat to loving husband? What were we looking for in that story? Why did we connect to it so much? Was it, as Alexis said, that I love that journey for me?
And as for Amanda Gormon – what did she tell us that was honest, or maybe challenging? What was it about that assortment of words, and they were just words, that had the whole nation’s attention? Certainly, it was esthetically pleasing. The rhyme, rhythm, and meter were spot-on. But so are limericks. What did Gormon have to say that rang to true with us? Here’s a bigger question – will any of this ring true twenty years from now? Fifty years now? Are these truths strictly a matter of their moment?
Look, there’s a reason that it makes people so upset that J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. Rowling transformed the literary world in under a generation. She was a game-changer. She made reading cool again. She wrote what many think are modern day classics. The Harry Potter series taught an entire generation to be brave, to champion the rights of others, to fight injustice, and to embrace outsiders. Those truths are at the heart of an entire generation’s cultural ethos. When the generator of those books revealed that she does not really believe in those truths it is heart-wrenching. We learned from those stories. How could the teller not believe the truths we gleaned?
I recognize that I’m using a bunch of low-brow examples, here – but in his time Shakespeare was not the literati. He was writing for the masses. But he appealed to our common sense. And the arts and humanities, whether they be La Vie Boheme or Ted Lasso appeal to what we understand as a people.
So I am BEGGING you to support the arts in your local school district. Defend the humanities whenever you can. We crave this stuff. It has been our saving grace for the last year while we have been shut up in our homes.
We learn to be good storytellers by listening to good stories. We learn to make beautiful images by looking at beautiful images. We learn to make moving music by listening to and understanding a wide variety of songs. And anybody who says the arts and humanities are not important is just willfully ignorant. We immerse ourselves in other people’s stories, images, and songs every day, constantly. We are continually seeking out and finding truth in the ideas of others. It’s how we build our worlds.
So if that school bond issue comes up and the arts are on the chopping block – speak up. Buy band candy. Read fiction to your kids. Read poetry for yourself. As soon as they are open, go back to the art museums. If you’ve ever listened to a song or an album and thought, OMG, they GET me, then consider supporting a local high school orchestra or choir. Because our future artists are THERE. There are Amanda Gormons scattered at high schools all across the nation.
A lot of people devalue the humanities and the arts because they don’t “produce” anything. I honestly don’t know what ELSE they could produce. I think some people are just afraid of the truth.