Arts, humanities justify themselves, Fish argues


Stanley Fish

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

Stanley Fish likely will stand out from this week’s other speakers with his unconventional “case for the arts” at his lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

Fish said his appreciation for the humanities is the antithesis of the traditional “justification” for the arts.

“I’m going to say that if you ask for justification about the arts and humanities in terms of the study of the arts and humanities, you’re not going to end up finding it,” Fish said.

As a columnist for The New York Times and a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, Fish frequently writes about university politics and policies. This morning’s lecture, he said, will focus on the arts and humanities in higher education.

Fish wrote most extensively on this topic in the wake of SUNY Albany’s elimination of its French, Italian, Russian and Classics departments. With public universities cutting their humanities departments across the board, Fish’s response is not to argue for the existence of the humanities in the terms and language of universities but rather to say there should be no argument at all.

Fish will address not just the issue of university presidents and the legislators who distribute funds, but the overall systems and structures of higher education.

Recalling an article in The New Yorker by Louis Menand in which a student questions why he needs to read or buy a specific book at all, Fish said that he will spend the most time analyzing how to answer those questions and if they need to be answered at all.

“It’s that moment of justification that interests me,” he said. “For many decades, the arts and humanities had been in a condition of being required to justify themselves. And the requirement depends on a notion of value to which the arts and humanities are not obviously connected.

“You know the value of production of more jobs, or the value of the bottom line, or the value of contributing to the nation’s defense, or any other of the values that are commonly recognized by most people. The arts and humanities, especially when they are in a university setting, and therefore using up university funds, don’t seem to connect to the usually offered justification.”

Arguments continue to circulate about the relevance of the humanities in higher education, and Fish said he plans to unpack those arguments. He said he will look at the future of higher education and the possible consequences of eliminating the study of the arts.

Fish also has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

His most recent book is How to Write a Sentence.

This is his first visit to Chautauqua.

“If Chautauquans themselves are concerned with the flourishing of the study of the arts and humanities — and the education of young people in poetry and painting and dance and music and film — if they’re interested in the study of all of these things and maintaining the traditional study of those things and want to be a part of the education of young adults, the message is that there is no traditional justification of any of it,” Fish said.

The Forerunners From The Temple (1633)
by George Herbert

Editor’s Note: This poem will be referenced in
Stanley Fish’s 10:45 a.m. Amphitheater lecture.

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark;
White is their colour, and behold my head.
But must they have my brain? must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
Must dulnesse turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.

Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodged there:
I passe not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God, be out of fear.
He will be pleased with that dittie;
And if I please him, I write fine and wittie.

Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? when ye before
Of stews and brothels onely knew the doores,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
Brought you to Church well drest and clad;
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.

Louely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Hony of roses, whither wilt thou flie?
Hath some fond lover tic’d thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the Church, and love a stie?
Fie, thou wilt soil thy broider’s coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.

Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
And canvas, not with arras clothe their shame:
Let follie speak in her own native tongue.
True beautie dwells on high: ours is a flame
But borrow’d thence to light us thither.
Beautie and beauteous words should go together.

Yet if you go, I passe not; take your way:
For, Thou art still my God, is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say,
Go birds of spring: let winter have his fee,
Let a bleak palenesse chalk the doore,
So all within be livelier then before.