Friday, April 21, 2017

The (unreasonable) vilification of art

About 16 years ago, a political commentator observed that our liberal arts curriculum impoverished rather than enriched those who opted for the Arts stream. He was entitled to that opinion of course, but that opinion as such was and is shared by a great many other people.

Briefly put it entails two points: one, the purpose of a University education, and two, its (apparently) manifest lack of congruity with Arts subjects. The first can be answered (as this commentator did) with reference to the system of education bequeathed to us by the British, largely catering to the job market as it was. The second, however, is less easy to resolve.

Let’s start with the statistics. In 2012, there were about 2.311 Science and 2.395 Commerce students for every Arts student in the Colombo district. The ratio that same year for both from the Moneragala district was 0.583. Coupled 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), you can infer a link between economic achievement and choice of subjects across the island: those parts considered as socially backward opt for soft subjects, unemployable and unmarketable.

One can lament. One can brush aside. To do either would be to plead indifference or ignorance, though. The problem, I think, is that the education system we follow has been compartmentalised so much that otherwise negligible issues tend to balloon quickly. The problem with the curriculum instituted by the British here, therefore, is that by being rooted in class stratifications, it could not be expanded (courtesy of the Kannangara Reforms) without reining in those same stratifications in more insidious forms. To a considerable extent, this has spilled over to our Universities as well.

It’s a vicious circle at one level. Districts demarcated as socially backward don’t attract the best teachers. Consequently, the students in these areas lack the necessary resources for hard subjects. They then opt for soft subjects, a trend reinforced by the fact that those from poorer backgrounds tend to prefer arts subjects for two reasons: one, their inability to pursue Science, Maths, or Commerce; and two, the lack of any serious opposition to their choice by their families. Of these the second merits closer scrutiny, because it goes back to what that political commentator observed more than a decade ago.

Here’s the issue. While 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 those who study them. These values, as Professor S. T. Hettige implied in a series of public lectures given on the topic many, many years ago, are generalised, as opposed to the 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 job-oriented courses.

The gap between Colombo and outside-Colombo can therefore be explained by the kind of vocation parents want their children to pursue. The key factor differentiating them from their counterparts elsewhere is a misunderstanding of art as a subject reserved for bums. That is why, when Gayantha Karunathilake declared that an institute dedicated to music would be built in the memory of W. D. Amaradeva, some friends of mine reacted: “There are too many artists idling around already!”

What this betrays is a largely class-bound antipathy to the arts. We enjoy a song, a film, or even a dance item, but we don’t want our children to be that singer, director, and dancer. We want them instead to land in some blue-chip company before they hit 20, because of our fear of the lack of (financial) security entailed in a career in another stream. That is why even related fields like journalism and advertising are shirked as unworthy and unmarketable. “We are still in an era where MBAs are given primacy, even as they are losing that primacy in the West,” one friend told me. Aptly put, I should think.

Now there’s nothing wrong with all this, but when taken beyond permissible limits it only ends up solidifying those class stratifications referred to earlier: when you have the urban bourgeoisie (for that is who we are) shirking the arts, and when those from outstation regions opt for them, a division based on economic background is the only outcome. Regrettable, since the arts, by inculcating those aforementioned humanist values, seek to unify, not divide or facilitate division.

Which brings me to another issue. A perusal of our education system confirms the argument by Nayantha Wijesundera (in his book “Whither or Whether the Executive Presidency?”) that that system progresses horizontally (quantitatively), not vertically (qualitatively): an argument echoed in the fact that government spending on the system increased by more than 280% from 2003 to 2013 with no discernible outcomes. Problems are being patched up or converted to outlay, in other words. So much so, in fact, that even after a series of Development Plans, Education Commissions, and Task Forces, we still have not been able to do away with those regional disparities alluded to earlier.

Veiled under all this is the blatant double-speak spouted by those who badmouth the arts. Going by their argument, artistes are supposed to be stuck in a social vacuum because of which they can’t find productive employment. If that were the case indeed, how is it that these same critics of the liberal arts are entranced by the works of a writer or a painter? How is it that even the typical CEO or MD turn into connoisseurs of the arts? Why does the bourgeoisie spend hours if not days perusing the work of those who frequent and practically live on the streets along Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha? Why is Kala Pola so popular among that same bourgeoisie?

Part of the reason for this mentality, I believe, is to do with how we value job security. By that I am not thinking about financial stability: I am thinking about the fact that, apart from advertising, there is no industry where the arts and commerce get together cohesively. Our society is rooted in the idea of a (predominantly male) breadwinner looking after and over several dependents. Such a society, however bound to the arts it may have been in the past, demeans any activity that does not involve an employment contract and the luxury of EPF and ETF. This is not conjecture on my part: I have witnessed firsthand the barely concealed contempt for those who prefer a career in literature, music, or drama.

Which means, rather sadly I should think, that there’s no proper solution. Not unless we revise our prejudices and look at the world we inhabit. In a later column I will try to unearth the fundamental malaise afflicting our education system (in particular, our schools), but for now suffice it to say this: we have had and have given our share of Amaradevas, Khemadasas, Clarences, and Sekaras. We enjoyed their work and continue to do so. Is it not a sign of messed up priorities on our part, then, that while we teach our children to listen and enjoy, we teach them also to not emulate them?

There’s a term for this by the way, ladies and gentlemen. Hypocrisy. With a capital H.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 21 2017