The arts and humanities matter because…

CaseforcultureI was recently one of 100 voices in the Guardian Culture Professional Network’s ‘Case for Culture‘ (#caseforculture) on why arts and culture matter, in response to the government’s recent autumn statement.

We were invited to submit 100 words in response to the teaser arts and culture matter because… I had probably the shortest answer which for me summed it up: ‘They make life worth living’. Other answers were longer, much more impassioned and commensurately more moving.

The question took me back to spring 2011 and my 24th birthday spent listening to 13 academics explain what the arts and humanities meant to them in a crowded room in CRASSH’s old 17 Mill Lane burrow.

Stefan Collini in particular gave a wonderful riposte to why the arts and humanities matter. He said it is clear why they matter – ‘they are a series of disciplined attempts to extend and deepen understanding of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity across times and cultures’ – and turned the question on its head, as English academics tend to do. He asked: are there actually people who need to have that explained to them, and, if so, what’s wrong with them? He closed his five minutes arguing that the kinds of understanding and judgement exercised in the humanities are of a piece with the kinds of understanding and judgement involved in living a life and that that is, in the end, why they interest us.

He argued briefly here and then at more length in his magnificent book ‘What are Universities for?’ that we should neither take up a defensive posture nor try to justify the humanities in the wrong terms, which he argues is to misdescribe the simple reasons why they do matter. It’s a similar impulse that made me feel I couldn’t and perhaps shouldn’t go any further than ‘They make life worth living’, although perhaps I should have added one small word: ‘They make my life worth living’.

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