If you think that the present government's ambitions to change education in the U.K. stops at rising tuition fees, then think again. I’ve been hearing about their plans to hi-jack the Haldane Principle- essentially a rule that academics decide the direction of research, not politicians. The implications of this are very grave and far reaching because it would mean that intellectual production would be strictly controlled by the spreadsheet, not academic ambition. More seriously, it might mean that decisions about humanities research might rest on their relevance to enterprise culture and the so-called “Big Society.”
The art historian Iain Pears writes about how this ideological measure is manifesting itself in the government’s attempt to “direct” Funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) into intellectual areas, some of which have no relation to the humanities at all.
“The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, has been instructed to direct a ‘significant’ part of its funding into six strategic research areas which have been defined for it. Some of these areas have little to do with either the arts or the humanities – ‘civic values and active citizenship’, for example. Other proposals have a political slant: of particular concern is the unelaborated instruction, in a document issued by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that ‘AHRC will systematically address issues relating to … cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’”
Pears goes on to comment on something I’d never heard of, although given the present state of things in the U.K., not entirely surprised to learn about. How about a “Humanities for Business Programme” consisting of modules like “Machiavelli and entrepreneurial success”, “Rousseau and Marketing”, and Shakespeare has to be in it of course. What about a module on “Henry V and Inspirational Leadership.” These were proposed in a British Academy pamphlet last year. I glanced at this but the enterprise culture section of it must have escaped my attention. But why stop there? Why not a course on Raphael and advertising in the renaissance, or Giotto and banking, Titian and shopping in Venice anybody? Don’t laugh; there have been books on renaissance shopping published.
There have been some excellent studies of art and the market. The economist John Michael Montias created an important survey of the 17th century art market in the Netherlands, and others have been inspired by him. It’s important to point out though that Montias, and others working in that vein, were not in thrall to the rhetoric of marketing and were certainly not thinking of economic life in the same way the Coalition are- every aspect of social existence controlled by the balance sheet.
I myself have dipped a foot in early modern art and the subject of economics, in articles on Rembrandt and Poussin; but always with some ambivalence, especially in the present ideological climate. I think the study of economics and painting is a very worthwhile subject to pursue, but I interpret economics in a much broader sense: painting, psychology, and the reception of the artwork. I’m not interested in turning the early modern or renaissance into some model of consumer society, or projecting our own neoliberal marketised nightmare onto earlier periods because of some prevailing ideological fad. I’m not interested in projects that are nothing more than itemizations of the financial value of furniture, fittings and props in renaissance paintings either. I recall a conversation in front of Holbein’s Ambassadors in which my interlocutor proceeded to tell me how much the carpet and other items in the picture cost. I stood there speechless as I’d never heard anybody turn a renaissance painting into a commodity in such blatant terms. I much prefer books like Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy where he introduced the concept of the “period eye”, an idea that literally took account of how merchants and businessmen in renaissance Florence viewed the works they commissioned. This was a different kind of calculation and depended on knowledge of the artist’s skill in determining value in the painting, not simply the price of the objects in the picture. Baxandall has always been required reading on my renaissance courses, but in the last decade there’s been a drift away from him towards what is called the material renaissance. I can’t help thinking that the material renaissance approach unwittingly plays into the hands of the architects of Thatcherism and its inheritors? I increasingly wonder if such books and research projects monetize the field, and that academics are not taking this into account or choosing to ignore it. Is writing about the economic side of painting turning research into a kind of commodity?
There may be more opportunity to ponder that question in the future. Judging by the way things are going with funding bodies who may not control the Haldane Principle anymore, more marketing and money projects are going to appear in humanities research, but determined by the “impact” they have on society, or should we say the “Big Society” to use that ridiculous moniker; not generated because the subject of economics and the arts is academically stimulating and can throw light on how artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer painted and interacted with their society, which is what Montias’s work achieved.
Subjecting research generation to an “enterprise culture” model can’t bode well for the humanities, especially art history, if that becomes the main criterion by which research projects are judged.