The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History

February 24, 2011

Authors: Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett

Edition: Second

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Pages: 248

Price: £18.99

ISBN 97802303511

Studying within a single disciplinary field has both benefits and disadvantages. One potential drawback is that a culture can develop in which practitioners, used to talking to one another in a shared language, come to take for granted the value and point of their field. This can lead to a degree of intellectual complacency among students and teachers alike, and may eventually mean that a discipline has to start justifying itself on terms not of its own choosing, with damaging consequences: vide the ongoing attempts by successive governments to measure (and reward) the "impact" of the humanities by adapting criteria arguably better suited to other disciplines.

It is therefore a pity that the humanities did not take earlier and more confident steps to marshal the wide range of research already carried out into claims made for the social use of the arts into comprehensive surveys like the present, superlative "intellectual history" by Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett. Nevertheless, late is better than never, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council is to be applauded for having the good sense to have supported the writing of this book (although its authors are wisely keen to distance themselves from any officially sanctioned advocacy agenda).

The book's compass and ambition is nothing short of humbling, ranging as it does from Plato to postmodernism, across a range of performative, literary and fine arts, both "high" and "low", and responding to a variety of claims that have been made against, as well as for, the arts. A typology of these arguments provides the book's core: that the arts corrupt, provide catharsis, improve mental and physical health, educate, or otherwise instruct morally or politically. This is managed with an exemplary, jargon-free clarity that sacrifices nothing of the sophistication of thought and makes the book an excellent choice for students. Its deft summary of the problems of attempting to write universalising historical narrative makes the introductory chapter worth the cover price alone.

One hopes that undergraduate courses in all branches of historical cultural enquiry are able to find room to accommodate such wide-angle approaches to their subjects. Students are fascinated by thought-provoking, "big picture" questions concerning the point of their studies, and they deserve the opportunity to engage with them seriously, as this book encourages. Students are also the first line of defence for any discipline, in many ways more so than its researchers, precisely because most of them end up outside the discipline later in life; if they are not able to argue confidently for the value of their subject at the end of three years, then it's game over.

Who is it for? Anyone interested in why study of the arts might be important.

Presentation: Clear, accessible, well written.

Would you recommend it? Vital for postgraduate students on courses in arts management, curatorship and the use of arts in medicine. Highly recommended to all undergraduate students of the arts.

Highly Recommended

Medieval Literature and Postcolonial Studies

Author: Lisa Lampert-Weissig

Edition: First

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Pages: 232

Price: £65.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780748637171 and 7188

The History of Reading

Editors: Shafquat Towheed, Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey

Edition: First

Publisher: Routledge/Taylor & Francis

Pages: 480

Price: £29.99

ISBN 9780415484213

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