The word “obscene” hurls a double whammy. It packs an ethical snarl with aesthetic disgust. It disenchants us with the fact that a good deal of our ethical polemic is actually aesthetic. The slaughter of a large animal seems more disturbing than the swatting of a fly because greater blood spill extracts a greater aesthetic and affective price. Feminist critic Julia Kristeva lauded philosopher Hannah Arendt’s ability to see the convergence of aesthetic and ethical poverty in the sensibility of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Arendt’s triumph is the demonstration that the two kinds of inadequacies — the political and the aesthetic — are in fact inseparable. It is an exhilarating moment when a nation’s ethical and aesthetic conscience are illuminated as mutually entwined. That does not always happen.
Today, the double whammy of the artist’s predicament and political intolerance is, unsurprisingly, a conjoined twin. It is perhaps not generally remembered that the word “scientist” was coined on the analogy of the word “artist”. This happened in the 1830s, when members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science felt the absence of a term to describe the practitioner of science: “Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty… savans was rather assuming… some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.”
The discontent with the word “philosopher” is illuminating. The term “natural philosophy” seems to have done fine as the precursor of the term “science”, from Aristotle to the 19th century. In creating the term “scientist”, more empirically grounded and specialised than the umbrella term of “philosopher”, science was sharpening the contours of its newly acquired independence from the broad and pervasive concept of philosophy as synonymous with the entire spectrum of knowledge production.
One misunderstood thing about the term “liberal arts” is that it embodies a similar nomenclatural anachronism. The term “arts” here simply recall a time when the sciences were arts, too. If the innocuous anachronism survives in the word “arts”, the more crucial word now is “liberal”, implying an education that is open-ended and, hopefully, liberating. But liberty is a double-edged sword. The sense in which the anachronism is not so innocuous is perhaps more economic and political than disciplinary. The idea of liberating education from the immediate need to earn a livelihood evokes, for some, the impression of an economic elitism that remains beyond the reach of many, nowhere more so than in India where the private dream of upward mobility merges with the national narrative of development in professional tracks of education such as engineering.
The political consequence of liberating the mind and opening it up to the dangerous culture of dissent is only too real. At a recent event marking the signing of an agreement between Yale and Ashoka Universities, vice chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee of Ashoka pointed to the ways in which a liberal education can mess up what Noam Chomsky called the “manufacture of consent”. In response, Yale president Peter Salovey turned to the instance of Yale-NUS College, a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore. This liberal arts college, Salovey pointed out, has been richly supported by the government of Singapore, a state not known for its celebration of its citizens’ right to dissent.
How to explain this paradox? Singapore, Salovey said, knows well that a messier kind of democracy is not too far off in what is known so far as an efficient and sanitised police state. To fling citizens into a rough-and-tumble democracy without adequate preparation would be to invite chaos. A vigorous liberal arts education, with its ingrained culture of difference, discussion and dissent, is the best preparation for this not-too-distant future.
All that while liberal arts curricula in India get cracking on the purgatorial exercise of freedom from foreigners. Because, out here, the suspicion of the liberal mind now exists in seamless continuity with the suspicion of the arts. Thus bullied, the arts stand liberated.
Majumdar, author of ‘The Firebird’, teaches world literature at Stanford University, US