Notes On The Arts & The Academy


At an academic conference on political theatre in Thessaloniki, Greece, that I recently attended, one of the plenary speakers apologised to the audience before making some improvised comments on the current political situation in Greece. He said he normally wouldn’t make comments like these at an academic conference but because the conference had the word politics in the title he hoped it would be acceptable to refer to the real world in this direct way. He then went onto to make some sympathetic but moderate and largely uncontroversial comments on the economic situation in Greece that it would be difficult to argue with.

I was amazed! Here was an academic apologising for saying what he actually thought about the real world in an accessible and direct way – rather than theorising obtusely about an abstract version of the real world that only exists in academic writing.

This was a real light bulb moment for me. I realised that an academic conference is even worse than a middle class dinner party where taking about politics and religion is banned, because at an academic conference it’s not done to even mention the real world!

Yet surely theory is only of value to the extent it aids real people in the real world to ‘act’, to ‘do’. But for professional arts academics the audience for their abstract theorising is not practitioners in the real world but other academics also engaged in abstract theorising. The academy in the arts has become almost entirely insular and self-justifying. Thus we can have whole areas of academic study such as cultural, film and media studies that, especially since the postmodern turn, have come to exist in a parallel universe to the practice they claim to study and theorise. In 30 years in the UK theatre, film & TV industry I never heard any professional practitioner ever refer to research in film or media studies, ever. And I mean never, ever.

Academic Film and Media studies are entirely irrelevant to what happens in the real world film and media industries, and yet hundreds and thousands of academics all over the world dedicate their lives to these areas of study and millions of pounds of public money is spent supporting them to do so. One has to ask……. why?

The study of theatre, film and TV is perfectly legitimate but surely at some point the study has to inform the practice? Otherwise what is the study for? For it’s own sake? In a world of limited resources is that not simply an indulgence?

Popular culture is both more important and less important than academic study suggests.

Less important because the finical, abstract theorising about popular culture simply imposes finically, abstract theoretical interpretations that arises not from the properties of the cultural object but from the finical, abstract and theoretical values of the academy itself.

More important because the hegemonic force of culture is central to the maintenance of all power structures and while this was acknowledged in academic study in the past, post-modernism has led to the extreme privileging of the theoretical over the pragmatic, indeed, in Cultural Studies we now have ‘Theory’ itself as a proper noun.

Academics in cultural, film and media studies often appear profoundly ignorant about the means and conditions of production. They seem to watch media as spectators and then make pronouncements that profoundly misunderstand what is going on. It is as if they watch a magic act not realising it is a magic act and then try to interpret the magic as if the magic was real.

The truth is that the means of production largely determine what is seen and the means of production are economically and politically determined. Cultural producers are not ‘autonomous artists’ they are constantly negotiating with the structures of power and finance in order to make a living.

Perhaps the structures of the ‘professional academy’ and the ‘career academic’ have corrupted universities in the same way that professional career politicians have corrupted representative democracy.

Scholarship and intellectual inquiry surely have value to individuals and society but we need to distinguish between the private benefits and the collective benefits. Just because someone is interested in studying a subject is no reason to use public money to fund that study.

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I also noticed that in a lot of presentations there was a bourgeois self-satisfied, sneering, self-aggrandising going on in relation to people in the real world that was not very pleasant. “We don’t do anything in the real world but we are superior to those who do”, seems to be the idea, an idea that many of us who actually do things in the real world will find rather extraordinary. I once sardonically asked a colleague who was banging on about academic research in film and media studies if he thought Stephen Spielberg was eagerly waiting for these academic insights so that he could improve his film making. The joke went entirely over his head.

And yet despite the overwhelming bourgeois nature of the academy in which politeness and moderation are the rules of face-to-face interaction, in written dialogues, especially book reviews and peer review of the work of colleagues, aggression, disrespect and intolerance are de rigour. It’s as if academics actual emotions have been removed to the abstract theoretical sphere. So face o face it’s all smiles and hugs in a ‘community of scholars’ but in the abstract theoretical world on paper, it’s all dog eat dog and “fuck you, you arsehole, what do you know about it!?”

Indeed, much academic discourse is not characterised by an open-minded, independent quest for knowledge; on the contrary, just like everywhere else, academic discourse is about the assertion of orthodoxies, it is about the assertion and open display of status and power.

Why should this be surprising? Well, of course it isn’t, except that academics themselves claim that what they do as academics is different and superior to what other people do.  They claim to have a unique and privileged understanding of the world based on reason and research. Thus they claim they are not subject to the same emotional and contingent fallacies as mere mortals. Indeed, is this not the foundation upon which the edifice of academic arrogance rests? Is this not ironically the source of their disrespect and aggression?

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Another observation that occurred to me at this conference is that academic writing has a set of rules based on the detailed, abstract and theoretical values of the academy. I would go so far as to say that academic writing is in fact a ‘genre’. And shares characteristics with the literary novel and art film, namely lack of narrative coherence, unnecessary complexity, obtuse vocabulary and so on.

In academic writing there is often obsession with form over content,  – correctly referencing is more important than content and engaging with the literature is more important than thinking. Using the correct jargon and vocabulary is more important than clarity.

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 It also occurred to me that academic conferences where people simply read papers out loud are based on a previous pre-internet technological age. Just as lectures in the middle ages whereby academics read from books was a model based on the technology of a pre-print age.

50 years ago to mail a paper to several hundred academics in dozens of countries would probably be more expensive than flying the academic to a conference where they can read their paper out to their colleagues. Academic papers are now easily disseminated via the net and the logic of the previous model of academic conferences no longer holds.

This is not to say that conferences themselves are moribund, just that this current model of reading papers out loud is. There are benefits from attending conferences it’s just that the resources required to get the benefits are disproportionate.

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2 responses to “Notes On The Arts & The Academy

  1. What you said brought to mind the academic situation here in the US. It is generally understood that the university-level academics are predominantly politically liberal in outlook and attitude. To be “liberal” is the bourgeois, socially-acceptable behavior expected within the “academic” community here in the US. For any academician to be otherwise would result in retribution administered by his/her peers. Such a situation results in a close-minded “scholarly” environment that should be opened to all viewpoints and opinions in search of the truth. Instead the political climate of the academic community has coerced academics to conform to liberal dogma or be banished to the “real world” to seek alternate employment. Thus you find that politically liberal ideology is imposed upon members of the university communities, and other viewpoints are prohibited. Anyway, that’s how I see it.
    What they should do at conferences like the one you attended is hire some stand-up comedians to perform during intermissions to help break the tension and boredom.

  2. Ladies and gentlemen while I have your attention I would like to say a word about Operation Aardvark which by now you may have surmised is my private endeavor to inaugurate a new entertainment production. It was my intention to have “the Show” up and running by now but I have been delayed by the necessity to devote additional time to the review of auditions and the selection of performers. As IANAN can surely attest, entertainers can be demanding people who expect exceptional treatment and special attention. They all act like they want egg in their beer.

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