Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A question of the arts

Artistes are a self-contradictory lot. They make us happy and they move us to whatever emotion their work beckons us to. They lend meaning to this world of ours and they help us retain whatever sanity that is left in us. We enjoy what they do, almost as much as they enjoy seeing us appreciate their output. Some of them are prodigious, some are not, but overall they help define this world through their eyes. And yet, despite that and despite the many other reasons that justify their work, we are (for some odd reason) warned against traversing the paths they traversed in their quest to make us happy. That is why I consider the artiste as the most self-contradictory individual in this world and in this country.

Self-contradictory, and self-effacing. The best of them are modest, particularly so because their output speaks for itself. They would loathe being described as productive, because creativity isn’t predicated on productivity, but on genius. That is why we as a country are still prejudiced against our artistes, and more specifically our arts graduates: because we are yet to come to terms with the fact that while a lot of work went into a song, book, film, or even dance, that work can’t be rationalised in terms of efficiency. This week’s column is about the crisis facing our arts graduates, and more pertinently the ideological flaws underpinning that crisis.

But first: is there a crisis? It would be foolish to contend otherwise. As I pointed out in my column on higher education about two months ago, the statistics are overwhelming: in 2012, for instance, there were about 2.311 Science and 2.395 Commerce students for every Arts student from the Colombo district, while that same year both ratios were 0.583 from the Moneragala district. Couple this with the fact that Moneragala consistently ranks low in key socioeconomic indicators (in 2013, its Gini coefficient was 0.53, the highest in the country), and you will understand the rush to study the arts in a context where less privileged areas produce students who brush off hard subjects like Science and Maths. Economic disparities can’t be explained by the subjects that University graduates opt for, yes, but those subjects can explain the unemployability of those graduates.

Such disparities are not easy to resolve. They are a consequence of mismanagement of resources, particularly when it comes to good teachers and facilities for our schools. What is needed now, therefore, is a rational, intelligent assessment of what it is that ails our arts graduates and, at the end of the day, pushes many of them to the unemployed in this country. To begin with, one must examine the basis on which the Arts operates, why it remains shunned by a good many parents here, and how the prejudices against it explain why we ignore the brightest among us.

Someone once told me that the majority of our graduates are products of a liberal arts curriculum. When the University system expanded, this person went on, so did that curriculum, to an extent whereby the gap between a subject and its employability widened considerably. “Liberal arts”, of course, is a strong and archaic term, but in a narrow sense it refers to subjects such as Literature, Buddhism, Geography, Political Science, Sociology, and History. Economics is included as well, but due to its orientation towards Commerce subjects it is often regarded as a hard subject.

While technical courses in areas such as Engineering, Computing, and Law are aimed at acquiring particularised skills that have a direct impact on employability, soft subjects are aimed at inculcating what can only be referred to “humanist values” in students. These values, as Professor S. T. Hettige implied in a series of public lectures given on the topic many, many years ago (I can’t remember the exact date), are generalised, as opposed to the specific, particularised sweep of hard subjects, which is probably why those churned out by the Arts stream either spend the rest of their lives in an ivory tower or join the pool of the unemployed until they opt for more incisive, job-oriented courses.

It is therefore futile to equate Arts graduates with technocrats, because if they could be equated to technocrats there probably would be no crisis to talk about: they’d be easily absorbed into lucrative careers, since they are at the outset endowed with the qualities needed for administrators and professionals. Which brings me to my original point: given that artistes in general are looked up to, why are we as a nation so prejudiced against them? Are we so culturally impoverished that we can’t appreciate the artistes of tomorrow anymore?

I would be inclined to say yes and no. Yes, because no one can seriously deny that these accursed realities called globalisation and commercialisation has gripped our cultural firmament. Even terminologies have changed: we don’t talk about culture anymore, only cultural INDUSTRIES. No, because I am not one to give into nostalgia about the past, in turn because the past was no different. Sure, we owe the likes of Mahagama Sekara and Pandit Amaradeva a lot (and may their tribe increase!), but let’s be honest: were they as appreciated as they are now in the prime of their youth? I personally doubt it.

As I mentioned before, artistes are a peculiar lot. We appreciate their work long after they pass on. We ignore them when they are alive. They die impoverished, they are not practical enough to make a living out of their craft, and more often than not, while their audiences would have been willing to pay and listen, watch, or experience what they did, they prefer to pander to those audiences without thinking much about profits. It is from this that we derive our notions of filmmakers, painters, musicians, and poets as a bunch of ivory towers (who drink, smoke, and waste away) with cultivated sensibilities far removed from the realities of life. This, it must be said, is a myth, but when such myths are repeated endlessly, they take on the character of truth.

Added to this is another falsity: that the liberal arts are for the elite. I am always amused by those who take potshots at Arts graduates on the basis that these graduates (allegedly) are indulging in pastimes that are cut off from the rest of their society. Going by this argument, artistes are supposed to be prone to fantasies, detached from the world around them, and stuck in a social vacuum because of which they can’t find productive employment. Indeed. If that were the case, then how is it that these same critics of the liberal arts are so profoundly entranced by the output of a writer or a painter? How is it that even the most lavish, business-minded CEO or MD turn almost overnight into connoisseurs of the arts, if they are so contemptuous of the work of artistes?

Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps today’s artistes ARE learning quite a lot of things that are antithetical to a financially stable life. Perhaps we are still continuing with the kind of “elitist” curriculum that the British introduced to our schools. And perhaps what critics of mushrooming arts graduates have to say hold water, due to their contention that if we don’t ask these graduates to at least sit for one or two “productive” courses after they leave school, they will be condemned to stay at home or go on strikes against the government.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t marginalise one key point: this world needs its share of filmmakers, composers, and writers, as much as it needs its share of engineers, doctors, and lawyers. I believe it was Leon Trotsky who once argued for a society of technocrats, and I believe it was Regi Siriwardena, that eloquent critic, who argued otherwise: a society that contained only engineers and doctors would be quite dull, with no room for those other fields of human activity that continue to lend meaning to a world still shrouded in meaninglessness. In other words, a technocratic vision would lead us nowhere, not to progress, not to efficiency, and certainly not to the resolution of all those malignant ills that beset our communities.

I think the main problem, which is more or less a product of all the other problems highlighted above, is that we take artistes for granted. We enjoy a film, song, or even painting, but that enjoyment lasts while your senses dwell on it. Professionalism, on the other hand, is not momentary like this: it is more focused on the long term, more rational and calculating.

I suppose that would explain such responses as “We enjoy a song, but that doesn’t mean we’d want our children to become songwriters.” Again, as I argued before, this essentially is the self-contradictory state our artistes have been relegated to. Faced with such a dilemma, the more enterprising among them scramble for the quickest exit: make a quick buck by contorting what would have been a wholesome, and therefore more meaningful, objet d’art.

So what’s the solution? One of the commonest reasons for graduates remaining unemployed is that they are “cut off” thanks to their less than proficient ability in English. Briefly put: English is a lingua franca. The arts have a language of their own, but their articulation and communication to the world outside requires a firm grasp of a language spoken, written, and wielded by a vast majority.

Bilingualism is an asset, but a hard won asset not many possess, which explains the nearly interminable gulf between the aesthetes of Cinnamon Gardens and the mask-makers of Ambalangoda: the former hopeless in the vernacular, the latter hopeless in English. Now’s not the time to delve into this gulf, but suffice it to say that the crisis facing our “cultural industries” has much to do with the disparities between the arty cosmopolitans of Colombo and their more rooted counterparts outside. The latter are decidedly superior in terms of cultural upbringing, but due to the naked, stark fact that they are not bilingual, they are for the most condemned to the streets of Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, where they eke out a living by selling their work.

Another as common reason is the decision of the previous regime, which could be championed or critiqued depending on how you look at it, of doing away with the requirement for Ordinary Level students (who choose the arts for their Advanced Levels) to obtain satisfactory grades at Mathematics. No less a person than Professor Carlo Fonseka, who is no stranger to those who appreciate culture in this country, argued cogently for that policy decision, which in the words of Dr Gitendra Uswatte-Aratchi would empower all the Mozarts and Beethovens in the world to stop learning Mathematics.

I am no fan of those who claim that some subjects are more practical than others (after all, what have those who've mastered Economics and Management done to this country, when they've spent the better part of their lives making profits at the cost of those already impoverished?), but I admit Dr Uswatte-Aratchi’s argument makes sense at one level: if we abandon the requirement for those who take to the performing arts to have at least a simple pass in Mathematics, we are merely giving them a license to ignore the gritty realities of a society that privileges hard subjects. To change that attitude of favouring such subjects over softer options like music, we need to go beyond administrative reform and change our perceptions of what constitutes (or rather what SHOULD constitute) employability in a degree. Until then, we must be content with what we have.

Some will suggest, at this point, that we need more institutes to confer more degrees in music, dancing, filmmaking, and what-not, to those who take after such areas. To that my response would be this: we don’t need more degrees. We don’t need more institutes. Academic qualifications are hardly enough by way of assessing the worth of artistes, or to borrow a jargon of our time, “productive” artistes.

And by the latter I don’t include those who transform their craft into profit-making enterprises: rather, I include those who take to aesthetic fields without losing touch of the world outside, and without cultivating a conception of art that subsists on itself without bringing much profit to the performer. Yes, among our youth today we are seeing a resurgence of such practical artistes, and while they are in the minority, as writers, critics, and residents of this country we have a duty to promote them for what they are worth. The media has a responsibility on this count too: instead of promoting those who sell their creativity for quick bucks, it is time it gave a spotlight to those who work from, and not without, a sense of craft.

So, to sum up: the arts are not for the elite, those who take to them come for the most from impoverished backgrounds in regions which aren't endowed with good facilities, and the subjects they take to are driven more by instinct than by reason. What we need is not a culture of deploring their choice, but of ensuring they do not remain cut off from a society that continues (in probably the most ironic way possible) to appreciate their work and condemn their lives. For better or for worse, most of these liberal arts elitists hail from families who (unlike their more privileged counterparts in the city) don’t consciously plan out their children’s education in terms of the jobs they will seek later. That is why we have a responsibility, not to vilify but to promote them.

Those who subscribe to an instrumentalist viewpoint in our education discourse, no doubt, will disagree. They will continue to judge a degree on the basis of its use, not of its wider sociological and civilisational context. They are correct, but only half and hypocritically so: while they continue to bemoan the mushrooming numbers of Arts graduates, they will also continue to aspire for a better pool of artistes here without moving an inch to help those same graduates. Point is, we need to support those who want to become vocalists and filmmakers, and no degree can or will waiver one pertinent fact: they need to be transformed into “productive” artistes.

The passing away of Amaradeva (along with other veterans, who will be sorely missed) helped open our eyes. Fact is, we are missing out on good artistes. We continue to champion the wrong performers and vilify those who attempt to hit it big. We have got our priorities wrong, and with that we have inflated an already institutionalised crisis. We therefore have two options: either we continue to weep copious tears over the impracticality of those taking to music, the cinema, and dancing, or we help them become the productive citizens they should be by moulding our tastes to suit their temperament. That, at the end of the day, has less to do with reforms at the top than with reforms aimed at ourselves.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 22 2016