Peter Dornauf: The function of arts and morals

Self-described "song and dance'' man Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.
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Self-described "song and dance'' man Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.

OPINION: The Nobel Prize for Literature late last year went to a "song and dance man". That's how Bob Dylan cheekily described himself to an earnest interviewer some time ago. The lofty academy has recognised, for the first time, that there is a high end that exists in the lowly regions of popular culture. The man is a poet.

In his recent address to the members of the panel, Dylan pointed out how his sensibilities, together with a well-informed view of the world, was something he'd learned at grammar school studying the great works of literature – Moby Dick, Homer's Odyssey, A Tale of Two Cities, and others. They provided him with an understanding of human nature and some of the themes in the classic works found their way into his songs.

What he did not say was that such a study had improved his moral character or made him more virtuous or civilised. He didn't, because, as we all know, literature doesn't do that, despite what some theoreticians say or what some professors at Waikato University might wish for.

It's a rather old fashioned view that the humanities operates as a moral force in society, one that I myself held to back in the idealistic days of my youth, but had quickly knocked out of me while teaching in the classroom.

Therefore Alexandra Barratt, Professor Emeritus of English at Waikato University, and her claim that students are abandoning the humanities because, as she seemed to imply (Letter, June 6) they've twigged to the fact that literary study does not have the civilising influence they once thought it had, is a little off the mark. Indeed, in the hard light of day, it's somewhat naive.

The real reasons for the drop in humanities numbers at Waikato, and everywhere else, have more prosaic explanations.

The post-millennial generation, for various cultural, economic and sociological reasons has become more materialistic. Far more so than preceding generations. And the perception they have is that a humanities degree won't bring in the big moolah. That's why they all want to be lawyers or hotshot IBM consultants. The smell of money is in their nostrils, as addictive and seductive as cocaine.

The second reason they are so money orientated is that they're looking at massive student debt, up to their eyeballs in it the moment they step outside the university gates looking for a job, which may not be there. It's scary stuff. The world has changed.

What does one do as a university administrator faced with such a conundrum? The Waikato University VC's tactic is to start culling humanities courses along with their lecturers. This is the market approach, based on the capitalist model that only knows how to respond to the dictates of supply and demand.

The alternative approach is the socialist one that takes cognisance, not of the dictates of spotty 19-year-olds, but of the good of the social order. A society knee deep in lawyers is not a healthy one. If science and technology numbers were dropping, one would hope half visionary administrators would address that problem not by cutting courses but by making the options more attractive and thereby increase numbers.

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So what use are the arts? What do they actually do for us?

At their best, the visual arts, film, theatre, music and literature confront us with the human condition. They provide us with insight into what it means to be human with all its terrors, fears, joys, delights and torments.

And they can inspire. Witness a whole generation of youth responding to Dylan's Masters of War and how that phenomenon, along with a whole raft of other stuff, helped create a cultural shift in the zeitgeist.

The arts can enthral, move us, excite, surprise, disclose truths, ravish us, and satisfy deep aesthetic and emotional yearnings which in the end enrich our lives. But morally improve us? No. Hitler listened relentlessly to Wagner and murdered 6 million Jews. Literature and the arts have no more power in this department than religion.

Nevertheless, let me take you to a place where you will be enthralled both aesthetically and existentially.

Take a left out of the city and drive to Morrinsville. No, I'm not talking about visiting the bovine behemoth recently erected on the outskirts of the town, but by all means have a look. Then drive on and stop at the Wallace Art Gallery. There you will see a kind of show that is rarely exhibited these days, one that deals directly with matters that touch us at the most fundamental levels. The fact that it is called Confronting the Human Condition should be enough to alert the discerning punter.

For those more interested in pure aesthetics, take a peek in the adjacent gallery at the work of Geoff Clarke where you'll see ironic retro abstraction at work as Op Art and Minimalism meet in funky hybrid fusions. Who would have thought that a lowly pattern from a 1950s maths book would become fodder for high art configuration? The artist rummages through the past to make novel forms that resonate. The man is a savvy magician.

 - Stuff

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