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Can the arts and humanities be the professions of the future?

In the last week of Tech for Good, Jeffrey Sachs looks forward to a future in which humans’ mastery of the humanities gives them value that machines can never match, more or less by definition. I’m sure I’ve heard similar suggestions elsewhere though I forget the details. I can easily imagine devotees of the arts and humanities finding this a very attractive future, but I can equally imagine those who currently tell artists and humanists to “get a real job” to continue scoffing at the idea that careers in the arts and humanities will be any more lucrative or respectable than they are now.

Sachs doesn’t go into the details of how he expects this to come about. It’s certainly not obvious to me how it might happen following business-as-usual. For one, is the demand for art and the humanities likely to increase much beyond what it is now (I can only listen to so much music, read so many books, and so on)? Or if it does, will it just continue to be soaked up by a small number of superstars? For another, there are those that believe machines can eventually produce art, even if present technology for writing music or conducting conversations, say, is fairly primitive. For me, however, the question might be: how can we construct a world in which we all get to express and indulge our human desires without getting bogged down in tedious necessities?

Working part-time has certainly enabled me to spend more time working on my own art and humanities projects. Whether and how I’ll make a significant amount of money out of this remains to be seen but that’s not a pressing issue for me since I can make enough money to support myself out of business-as-usual work. I hear that even writers and artists more serious than I get by in this way, by holding down jobs in restaurants and advertising and the like while working on their real passion after hours. Perhaps nothing more than working less is necessary to get more art and humanities out of individuals inclined to produce them.

Some arts and humanities work does require more extensive resources. Some types of humanities research require significant amounts of travel and/or equipment, for example; erecting arts venues requires substantial funding; and feature films can cost tens of millions of dollars to make. The first two are typically funded by the public or by philanthropy, while films (of a certain sort, anyway) are popular enough to support themselves from sales. Such funding will presumably continue into the future, and might even increase as society becomes wealthier or re-directs resources from other sectors of the economy that automation has made more efficient. Yet there’s no certainty that such things will create enough work to make art and humanities the in-demand professions of the future any more than they are now.

For the moment, I’ll settle for working less. I did begin to spend a little more time around arts events while I was living in Singapore as a kind of replacement for the time I spent with the Society for Anachronism in Australia, and maybe I’ll spend a little more on art now that I’m back as well. Perhaps we’ll eventually find a way to value art and the humanities without having to resort to plain economic value, but I suspect that scoffers will be saying “get a real job” for a long time yet.

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