The Cult of the Fine Arts

When I first went to college my beliefs matched what I was told: “College is a place to learn facts, skills, and critical thinking.”

That seemed believable. Some subjects really matched that, description, like mathematics. My first sociology class was not like that. Sure the topics were different, but also the entire approach was different. There was no presupposition that truth is inevitable by staying rational and objectively measuring. Rather he kept putting moral and emotional intonation as he opined on justice and progress.

Philosophy class had a certain weirdness too. We’d be presented with theories from philosophers ages past (“Mr ABC first theorized a smallest indivisible unit of matter, termed the atom”, “Kant’s moral theory was…”) and most of the student’s reactions were “Why are you telling me this? Only physicists can answer about subdividing matter,” and “Kant’s moral theory leads to obvious contradictions.”

Philosophy majors and teachers really didn’t like hearing that. They never really disagreed that it was true. They more called it “hubris.” Of course as far as I know, what is hubris isn’t a concern of philosophy, only what is true. Yet clearly these people had a very emotional relationship with “their” subject.

It’d be easy to just say those were weird professors, but then again in english class, and even film class it was “It is crucial to study the great original films like Citizen Kane” and in music “Understanding classical from which all other music derives is the primary focus.”

When taken all together, it’s pretty plain to see that soft disciplines have this cult-ish tendency to put historical figures (and their works) on a pedestal. Part of that is “The canon,” this collection of books that nobody enjoys reading (or paintings that nobody enjoys looking at, or classical songs that few people listen to, or moral philosophies than nobody lives by).

I guess that’s fine and harmless. Until people start believing it. The problem with believing that Herman Melville was a “great author” is that “great” is one of those fluffy words that people say loudly and get duped into caring about. Moby Dick wasn’t widely appreciated during Melville’s lifetime, his subsequent books also were harshly criticized. And I guarantee you if that book were attempted to be published for the first time today it wouldn’t have a shot, the publishing industry is very return-on-investment focused. Writing a book “like Moby Dick” would all-around be a huge mistake.

My point is, the classics “cult” gives you this lie that if you want to be a “great writer” you need to study and emulate these past figures who have zero market potential today. This is true again of philosophy. And again of film. And sociology.

Let’s spell out the lies of “Classics”:

  • That you must study and revere those who came before you to succeed.
  • That there is this thing “greatness” that exists that only academics can declare, pay no mind to books that grip a whole generation (e.g. Harry Potter).
  • That someday there will be a “next” “great american novel” and that a student today could write it. (In my estimation people are more likely to start talking about “Great American Videogames” rather than novels, because they are the new most relatable artform).

I’m sure I’m not the only one to see this. What strikes me as most odd is the amount of people who never enjoyed a classic who seem content to defend the status quo (and send their kids to schools where they are forced to endure it).