The art thing in the brain

Sometimes I’ll be writing a poem or a scene in screenplay or novel, and I know I hit it just right. I can feel it grow heavy with symbolic meaning that will transmit and stick. Why? Because the “symbolic meaning” behind the configuration at hand is easy to name and identify? No, quite the contrary.  It’s because I’ve set it up just right to hit the symbolic generator in the reader’s brain. We all have one. Part and parcel of our evolution is an instinct to search for the meaning behind events, behind all the visual and auditory signs that make up our daily life. All animals with optic powers might take note that the raven is black, but homo sapiens by nature drives toward a second plane of knowledge, a symbolic plane that stands at a distance from the visual percept but gives it the weight of meaning. What does it mean “when a raven flies to the right or a crow to the left,” as Cicero ponders it. The quest for the meaning behind things separates us from other animals, with whom we share the raw perception. This is what I call “the art thing in the brain” – the thing that makes us want to see a depth of meaning in an otherwise simple percept, the thing that makes us want to override the pleas of poet William Carlos Williams and read his “Red Wheelbarrow” as something rich in symbolic meaning.  And when you hit it right, you get the reader’s symbolic generator pumping, giving them a scenario pregnant with meaning but without fixing meanings and pre-empting the reader’s own process of symbolic generation.

The art thing in the brain goes to the heart of one of higher education’s dilemmas today. STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) do not have to explain their value to the parents of prospective college students. (See fellow blogger, Oxford Dphile.) Nor do the subject disciplines in the College of Business. But the Humanities are on the defensive. Parents frequently seem to have both monetary and philosophical concerns about their children majoring in the Humanities. Will he or she be on a line cook’s salary in ten years? And isn’t it frivolous, anyway, for a young man or woman to choose Art History or English Literature as a lifelong vocation?

To the first and monetary question, I’d say that if you think making money is the highest form of human achievement, don’t major in the Humanities. But consider that once minimal needs are met, a deeper understanding of the riches of cultural history and of the human imagination and of human subjectivity and connection is probably more fulfilling than generating profits and buying more and more stuff.

To the second and philosophical issue, I’d say that whether a lifelong vocation in the Humanities is frivolous depends on your frame of reference. Since roughly the time of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), homo sapiens has become increasingly defined as homo economicus. If you buy into that frame of reference, which views the human individual as essentially an economic unit, then you may conclude that such a choice is frivolous. But I’d argue that the representation of our species as homo economicus is an invention of capitalism, a modern-day mirage that serves the interest of a market economy but is itself frivolous in that it ignores the rest of our evolutionary history. In particular, it ignores the art thing in the brain. But pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. People will still crave to find deeper symbolic meaning behind the things they see and live through. Their symbolic generators will always be at work.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the disciplines of other university colleges. We need scientists who study the first plane of information, the plane of material observation that is prerequisite to any symbolic plane of meaning. We need engineers who can put their brains and hands together and make things work.  We need people with business skills to manage the enterprises of the other groups. But we also need theater and literature and art and most of all a body of intellectuals who understand inside and out how those symbolic generators work and have worked throughout human history. You can try to dismiss the value of that enterprise, but you will only be degrading the value of the human spirit. Be careful what you wish for, because without the Humanities we might truly become homo economicus, nothing more than units in a vast economic machine, without imagination or spirit or symbolic sensibility.