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Are the Arts of Any Use?

03/03/2013 15:03 GMT | Updated 03/05/2013 10:12 BST

Are the arts of any use? Yes, says Grey Gowrie. The ex-culture minister, former chairman of Sotheby's and head of the Arts Council of England made the case as persuasively and eloquently as I've heard in a lecture recently at the Legatum Institute. But more about Lord Gowrie's argument in a moment.

First. I've followed the arts-in-school debate with keen interest, in part because I'm a former secondary school teacher, in part because I come from a bit of an arts background myself, having studied music at university; in part because the ever controversial Michael Gove is a friend. I'll let Michael do his battles and I invite others who know far more than I to debate the ins and outs of curriculum reform plans. My principal concern is with what I perceive as a certain narrowness in the thinking of the art lobby.

Take Jude Law, who suggested before Christmas that changes to the curriculum for 11-15 year olds would blunt Britain's leading edge in the arts. Or Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, who worries that government proposals will undermine the UK's lead in music and the creative industries. Yes, that's part of it.

But I suggest we step back and consider what the arts give us as a society and civilisation. Step way back for a moment.

Liberal arts education started in classical antiquity and included those subjects and skills considered necessary for a person to participate in civic life. The aim was to produce the well rounded, knowledgeable, and virtuous citizen. Curricula began with grammar, rhetoric and logic. Arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy were soon added. By the renaissance, history, Greek, philosophy and poetry had all became part of the mix.

In Florence of the renaissance it had become obvious that sciences profited from study of the arts and vice versa. A multi-disciplinary education was considered integral to commerce and seen as a driver of innovation. Think Medici, the great banking family and political dynasty whose legacy was sponsorship of art and architecture. Lorenzo Medici was an accomplished musician and poet. He was also a patron of Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) whose creative work in painting and sculpture would not have been possible without his knowledge of anatomy, botany, mathematics and engineering.

Today we live in an era of hyper-specialisation. We all drill deeper in our silos. How else can you keep up, let alone get ahead in our frenetic, rapidly changing, competitive world? Yet we seem to get stuck, as the same ideas and arguments get recycled, only faster than ever before (thank technology, social media and the blogosphere). What gets passed off as innovative turns out often to be nothing more than minor mutations of what we've heard before, well packaged and slickly marketed, to be sure. The painfully over used expression "thinking outside the box" generally means the reworking of well-worn gimmicks and cliches.

Einstein said imagination is more important than information. We have a massive surplus of the latter, while the former runs in short supply.

Enter Lord Gowrie. His recent lecture, part of a Legatum series titled 'In Praise of Freedom', dealt with issues of liberty and prosperity, how we pursue these things, responsibly, and in the case of his remarks, how poetry can assist our mission.

Lord Gowrie, himself a poet, believes the arts actually tell us little about how to live our lives; but they can help us a great deal in our journey to understand life. "Absolutes are perilous", says Gowrie for instance, "emotionally for the person and also in the conduct of human affairs". He cites the Victorian poet George Meredith, whose sonnet Modern Love has the couplet: "ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/When hot for certainties in this our life."

Before I continue, don't mistake Lord Gowrie for an elitist or a snob. He makes the case for Beatles's lyrics. He tips his hat to Billie Holliday and Muddy Waters. He thinks hip hop and rap, while musically poorer, are verbally richer than some of what we've had in popular music before.

Gowrie is one of those rare individuals who gets the detail as well as the sweep of things. It allows him to reach broad conclusions without being banal or trite. Like his observation that "the arts celebrate uncertainty". and as a result "policy makers would do well to follow them".

I think there are other lessons we should follow.

For one thing, we need a more integrated approach to these things. Relevant to this is the latest in neuropsychological research, which reveals remarkable insight into how the right and left hemispheres of the brain work. A brilliant synthesizer of this data is psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist who writes:

"(Our) right hemisphere pays wide-open attention to the world, seeing the whole, whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on a detail. New experience, whatever its kind, is better apprehended by the right hemisphere, whereas the predictable is better dealt with by the left. ... The left hemisphere's world is sharply delineated and certain, along the lines of the general's strategy map on the command room wall, where the complexity of the world is stripped away. ... The right hemisphere's take on the world is far more complex and nuanced. Instead of distinct mechanisms, the right hemisphere sees interconnected, living, embodied entities".

There's a reason, says McGilchrist, why we have two hemispheres: we need both.

There's a reason why we need the arts just as much as we need the sciences.

I think we need a holistic strategy to develop both.

Sidney Harman was on this path. Before he died two years ago, the Canadian-born American engineer, businessman and philanthropist helped to establish at the University of South California an Academy for Polymathic Study. The Academy is trying to create a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach where business and poetry, science and the arts can learn from each other. It's a new experiment which, as history shows, is not very new at all.

Sometimes it truly is important to get back to basics.