Letter to the editor: Response to ‘Art is our reward for being a civilized society’

I am writing today in response to the article with the headline “Art is our reward for being a civilized society” (Sept. 20, 2016). Let me begin by saying that I very much look forward to having Mr. Peter Simpson on campus as this year’s Irving Chair in Journalism, and hope to be able to hear him speak and to exchange ideas with him. Having said that, I was struck by some of Mr. Simpson’s comments on the place of the arts in society, and felt that some counter-arguments were in order.
In the article, Mr. Simpson’s opinion is that “the arts are the culmination of all of humanity’s hard work in building society,” and he is quoted as saying: “Once we perfected agriculture, culture became possible … Art is our reward for being a civilized society.” As an anthropologist who has researched the arts my entire career, this is somewhat troubling for a number of reasons, partly because it begs the question of how we define terms like “culture” and “civilized.”
It is certainly factually untrue that something called “culture” emerged after the perfection of agriculture. I assume that Mr. Simpson uses the term “culture” to mean “the arts”, whereas for anthropologists “culture” is the entirety of a society’s values, beliefs, and practices, including subsistence practices like agriculture. But even so, creative and symbolic expression in the form of visual art, dance, oral narrative, and music are not consequent upon the attainment of certain technical and economic systems—were that the case, it would follow that the thousands of distinct societies around the world that did not and do not practice agriculture would also have no forms of artistic expression. Agriculture is simply one possible response to human adaptation to a given ecosystem in order to support a particular level of population density and allow a certain level of occupational specialization. “Agriculture” as such only emerged in the last 5,000-6,000 years, whereas of course the earliest examples of paintings are much, much older. And, in the case of the Australian Aboriginal people with whom I have worked, it has been argued that their hunting-and-gathering subsistence practices actually allowed them ample free time to pursue religion, philosophy, and the arts. Yolngu artists have been and currently are exhibited in major modern art galleries worldwide, and never had to grow any crops to get there. On the notion of art being a reward for being a “civilized society,” I hope it goes almost without saying that all societies have art, and that the idea of classifying some societies as “civilized” and others as, presumably, not, is antiquated, at least a little controversial, and based on on the values of whomever is doing the classifying.
However, I applaud Mr. Simpson’s more general arguments for the importance of the arts in our society and the place of good journalism in cultivating artistic engagement, and I look forward to the chance to chat with him about these issues in person.

Peter Toner
Department of Anthropology

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