Are The Humanities Dead?
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Mike took me to the symphony last weekend, in a giant, beautiful building built by the Segerstrom family, who we later learned came to Orange County in 1898, bought 40 acres of farmland, and were successful lima bean farmers. They eventually transitioned away from farming and into business, and now more or less own the city of Costa Mesa, CA. They give a lot of money away and invest heavily in the arts. The best way to have money is to come from money, and the Segerstrom family is the living, breathing, dying definition of generational wealth.
I wasn't excited about the symphony but I was curious. After first going to the wrong building entirely (where Moulin Rouge! was playing), then finding out that our tickets were for the previous night and begging a man behind a glass screen to let us in tonight, we settled in our seats in a section above the ground section but below the top section. We were right on the railing, so we had an incredible view of the tops of a lot of heads. We stood up and sat down eighty times to let people by. I sipped wine from a plastic cup and felt myself get sleepy. I checked my watch and it was only 7:47 p.m.
The crowed at the symphony skewed heavily retired. In the woman's bathroom ahead of the show, an elderly woman with a walker and a slight limp asked me if I'd like to go ahead of her in line, "I can wait," she said, smiling in the saggy sort of way that old people sometimes smile, like it took a lot of effort and like she may have a hard candy lodged behind her back molar. A bit taken aback, I told her, "Oh no, you go ahead! Thank you very much." I wondered if she was always so deferential, and if so, how she ever managed to get anywhere. I imagined her sitting in traffic, blithely letting everyone by, cruising the 405 at a top speed of 45 mph. What a pleasure, to be in no hurry to get nowhere.
The show started promptly at eight, which was sort of late for my liking. And probably, sort of late for the retirees coughing into a cloth handkerchief behind me. A guest conductor said some words before the first piece, none of which I remember. I liked watching her move her arms every which way though, and wondered if the orchestra would know what to do if she weren't there. After one song, a solo violinist entered stage left, and he turned out to be a huge crowd-pleaser. He played for a long time, and I felt myself get weepy, then meditative, then sleepy (again) before he finally finished. People stood and clapped, then clapped again. He left the stage, returned, and we clapped again, and I wondered which part of my brain wasn't lighting up.
"I feel unrefined," I said to Mike during the intermission. "I just don't get it." I also didn't get why we clapped for the violinist twice, inciting an encore, after which we clapped for him twice more. "Why?" I asked Mike, "We clapped already." I realized then that I sounded a bit like a petulant child, which is exactly the opposite of how symphony-goers are supposed to react.
We are demure and subdued. We sit with legs crossed and eyes halfway closed. We tear up at the height of the music and dab our eyes with the corner of a cloth tissue that we store somewhere in our wireless bras. The symphony reminds us of the importance of classical art. It elevates us above the animals. It inspires beauty and grace. And, it's mildly boring, especially to someone like me, who thrives on adrenaline, productivity, and coffee. The symphony is grand and unnecessary, or is it? I wondered how often art is categorized as unnecessary by people who fail to understand it, and I figured that was probably my problem. If I can't knock what I don't understand, I can at least write about it.
I have two degrees in English, and graduated in 2016. Even at the time, the relatively small English department at my university felt the need to justify itself. One professor wrote an entire book about what a student could do with an English degree. Students from other majors signed up for English classes as an easy way to earn credits, not realizing they would be required to write a chapbook of poems or decipher 1800's Irish Literature. Even then, there was a feeling that the humanities, though not dead, were not as valuable or important as other areas of study.
Bruce Abramson writes, "The humanities—along with anthropology, sociology and related fields—are supposed to convey an appreciation for culture. Language, art, sculpture, drama, literature, architecture, fashion, design and poetry provide ways to communicate with the past. They teach us about the range of human difference that coexists with basic human sameness." He laments todays youth and our inability to appreciate historic art and culture, in part because we tend to judge history with a contemporary lens, and in part because we no longer appreciate, on a cultural scale, what the humanities can teach us.
While classical music might not light up my brain in the same way that say, riding a motorcycle can, I can appreciate the musicians for their fierce dedication to their craft. I can appreciate the notion that we ought to keep old music alive. I can appreciate the Segerstrom's, for building, preserving, and protecting space for the arts in Orange County. And I can imagine a time when I might be wrinkled or retired (or both), when the symphony becomes my way to escape into art for a while.
After intermission, the orchestra played The Planets by Gustav Holst, set to a video montage of each planet that didn't match the grandeur of the music itself. I squeezed Mike's hand and closed my eyes, wondering how any of the music was related to the endless universe that we share with infinite planets. Art, I decided, is an imperfect medium through which small, stupid, self-obsessed humans try to look outside themselves. Art is what keeps culture alive and humming and happy. Without music and movies and books and paintings and sculpture and poems our world would be empty, silent and gray. As Mike and I slipped out of the symphony early, "to get a jump on traffic," I decided that the humanities aren't quite dead, yet.