The inevitable mocking faced by arts students from their science counterparts (usually along the lines of “what, you sit around drinking herbal tea and reading plays all day?” and “what use is the ability to decipher rhyme and rhythm when we can blow things up?”) may occasionally hit a bit close to home. The financial reality of the graduate prospects of those studying humanities subjects might be sufficient to push most of us towards more fiscally stable areas of study – mathematicians facing £41,000pa a few months after strolling out of the Sheldonian, I’m looking at you.
It’s perfectly understandable to want to earn money in these times, but some of us (you can spot us in the TSK, chatting about Foucault over a chai latte) believe in the transforming power of art. We believe that writing a poem or painting a thought-provoking piece can engender real-life change in the world around us, even if it doesn’t save a life or turn a wheel. We’re aiming for the metaphorical level of lifesaving, the kind where one feels inspired to make the most of every day because of a work of art, whether it comes from reading Herrick’s immortal line of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” or stumbling across the ubiquitous graffiti of ‘#YOLO’ in the EFL toilets.
It’s not just us optimistic, ideologically naïve students who believe that art has the ability to make a difference. From Mary ‘Slasher’ Richardson taking an axe to the canvas of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus to Pyotr Pavlensky nailing his own scrotum to the cobbles of Moscow’s Red Square, the political weight of art has been recognised. Why did these events attract so much attention for the fights for suffrage and against a police state? Some might say it’s because they’re odd, and I cannot help but wince at the Russian’s actions, but the impact of these works cannot be denied.
A performance by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company caught my eye recently. While they may share the same acronym as the RSC, their performances of canonical plays are less in thrall to the desires of the establishment. Last week, their ‘actor-vists’ filled the Tate’s BP Walk Through British Art. Their decision to not meekly accept this appropriation of art by an oil giant appeared popular. Fellow gallery-goers enthusiastically joined in the performance and the event has reignited the debate surrounding BP’s controversial sponsorship of the gallery. The timeless work of the Bard reasserted itself once more through the persuasive medium of Shakespeare puns. “BP or not BP? That is the question” and “Is this a logo I see before me?” humorously exploited the artistic potential of the literature in a bid to save art.
My proposition is that art and real life need not be separate; we need to stop seeing art as something irrelevant to our daily lives and belonging only to the upper echelons of society. If the National Gallery’s recent Grand Tour project can teach us only one thing, it’s that an image of a work by Caravaggio or a Van Gogh should feel as at home on the Tube or the side of a bus as it does behind a velvet rope. Art might not give us an evening meal or allergy medicine, but it is powerful. Give a bit more respect to your fellow humanities students- we might never hit the million-pound salary mark, but we can make you think.