The Arts Will Save Us–If We Let Them
Those of you in academic and artistic circles have no doubt heard by this point that Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year involves the closure of both the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, along with several other cultural institutions. There are lots of reasons why this is a Bad Thing, not least of which is the fact that I am currently employed on a NEH grant project, and the agency’s closure will almost certainly materially affect not only my livelihood, but that of many, many other researchers and graduate students across a number of fields.
But I want to focus today on another angle of this issue that has not (to my knowledge) been a significant part of the conversation on funding for the arts and humanities. Bear with me, because it might at first seem like a bit of a leap. Ready? OK.
The robots are coming for our jobs. Perhaps you remember seeing this video by CGP Grey when it came out a couple of years ago:
The big question Grey raises toward the end of the video is: what are we humans to do when (and it is a matter of when) the automation of many kinds of jobs leads to mass unemployment in both the skilled and unskilled parts of the labour force. Sure, there will always be room for at least some humans to find gainful employment in a primarily automated economy, but it seems clear that there probably won’t be room for everyone to have a day job that pays the bills.
Widespread unemployment of this kind is both an economic and a social problem. Perhaps the most straightforward solution to the economic end of the problem is the institution of a Universal Basic Income for all those who have been more or less unwillingly ejected from the labour force, and the Province of Ontario is already experimenting with this very solution. But prolonged unemployment has all sorts of negative effects on health and wellbeing even when people’s basic material needs are being met.
This is why we need the arts.
While Grey is right that we can’t base an actual economy on poems and paintings, the fact remains that participating in arts and culture does give people something to do with all of that time they no longer spend working.
At its edges, Star Trek provides an excellent example of what a society with a near-fully automated economy might look like. With basic material needs taken care of, most average citizens of the Federation choose to pursue their interests and passions rather than labour or employment in the traditional sense. While there are still “professional” artists in the sense that a gifted few achieve widespread notoriety through their unusual talent, amateur artistic and cultural production is everywhere, and ranges from Capt. Picard’s noodling on his flute to more ambitious performances of Shakespeare plays on the Holodeck.
During my own extended period of un(der)employment following my PhD, I have been involved in quite a lot of amateur artistic endeavours. I sing in a choir. I perform stand-up comedy. I write. I occasionally tinker with the couple of video games I’m trying to develop.
All of these things could easily expand to fill 100% of my free time, and they probably would if I didn’t also have to keep working on my research in the hope of landing gainful academic employment somewhere. And to be honest, I would probably continue doing research even in a society freed from the economic necessity of labour, because I enjoy doing it. But it would be nice to have the choice, and it would probably be to everyone’s benefit if scholarship were no longer driven by the publish-or-perish model that arises out of the material necessity of employment and career advancement.
A time in which most people are freed from the necessity of labour could easily become a time of unprecedented amateur participation in arts and culture, but only if we as a society choose to support arts and culture. These things are valuable, and may become even more so quite a lot sooner than we think.