Why Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is a great thing for humanities

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We live in a period in which humanities are increasingly seen as redundant or irrelevant, especially in comparison to STEM disciplines. At the same time we can see the tendency of dumbing down of everything in society, especially television, music and popular culture. The world of politics is not an exception to this rule, which can be seen from the rise of populism and emergence of post-truth politics. How is it possible, that in a period in which science is getting more and more important and technology is becoming ever smarter, our culture (and possibly ourselves) are becoming dumber? The scientific response would maybe include the notion of possible inverse relation between fertility and intelligence. However, apart from that I will argue that one of the culprits is our academic system, and especially the way in which humanities are being studied academically. I will also show how Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize might hopefully have a positive impact on humanities, which could in turn, again hopefully, positively influence broader society.

First let’s take a look at the current state of humanities scholarship. First of all, this assessment will be a generalization and generalizations are never perfect, so I acknowledge the possibility of exceptions to the general rules. So, the humanities generally suffer from too strong attachment to tradition, a sort of conservatism (not in political sense) and rigidity. While not denying the importance of classics, I think it’s reasonable to say that a millionth study on Shakespeare is going to have less impact and less relevance for today’s society, than a potential study on Bob Dylan. At the same time the number of Dylan studies is incomparably smaller. Humanities scholarship has generally been neglecting the elements of popular culture and new forms of expression. When it dealt with it, it would usually take a highly critical stance towards it. This is another flaw of humanities – elitism. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t argue for uncritical acceptance of anything or everything. There should be criticism and value evaluation of art, no matter the medium. However I am against automatic rejection or ignoring of many works of art by humanities scholarship simply because such works belong to the “popular”culture, instead of “high” culture. I put these terms inside quotation marks because I think such categories and divisions are artificial and harmful.

It’s harmful for two reasons: first it ignores popular culture, a huge collection of works of extremely divergent artistic merit and importance, from completely trivial, to universally acclaimed and important;  and the harm has more to do with the fact that such culture represents voice and mentality of whole generations and permeates our daily lives and experience in countless ways than it has to do with the artistic merit or lack thereof in such works. Ignoring cultural phenomenons that are integral and important parts of our society is irresponsible because it builds walls of alienation between people who are engaged with popular culture and the world of academics. In such way it fails to provide us with tools to critically asses works of popular culture, to really understand them and to make distinctions between good and bad art in domain of popular culture, and even more importantly, by ignoring it, it is also intentionally blind to all the questions and issues raised in such works, questions that define most of our cultural and social experience in contemporary world. So, it’s no wonder the most trivial and vulgar songs, are the most popular.

The second reason is that it makes humanities themselves unpopular. By alienating itself from people and making artificial value based distinctions in art it also makes classical works less popular and appealing, because people, judging the humanities and scholarship as boring and alienated, transfer such opinion to the works studied by academics, that is classics, and this negative association causes their constant drop in popularity. And I am the first to say that we should all read classics. Unfortunately, humanities scholars are giving them bad publicity through their elitist stances.

Now let’s see what Dylan’s Nobel Prize can change. It clearly sends the message: Dylan created real art. His music has the same artistic merit as poetry. His music IS a poetry that is sung. (It should be noted that it’s exactly how the poetry was born… it was first sung, much before than recited, let alone written down) There have been numerous debates about whether or not has he deserved the prize, is it acceptable to give a Nobel Prize in literature to musicians etc. I will refrain from judging if he deserved it or not, but I will say that, in my opinion it’s perfectly acceptable to give Nobel Prize in literature to musicians as long as their works contain enough literary elements of high artistic value. At least as long as they don’t invent a Nobel Prize for music, it’s acceptable. This event opens the door to academic acceptance of many other great artists, such as singers songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, Fabrizio de Andre, Bruce Springsteen and many others. It gives a positive assessment of quality popular music, maybe for the first time.

It is extremely positive event for humanities and especially literary theory, but also for music scholarship, because, hopefully it will open door for more scholarship about popular culture, music and contemporary culture in general. If academics understand and accept the message sent from the Nobel Committee, they will start paying much more attention to popular and contemporary culture, and they will judge it individually, instead of giving general negative labels. If they do, it will lessen the alienation between academics and public, and the kid who wasn’t very keen on reading but who knew all Dylan’s songs by heart, will not be an outsider anymore. What’s more, that same kid might be more inclined to start reading classics. And if humanities provide us with tools, we’ll not only be able to refine our tastes in popular (and any other) culture, but we’ll be more inclined to get involved in culture in general because it will not be alienated from us anymore. And the most important thing, we will be asking right questions, analyzing works and not just passively consuming them. Hopefully this might be the first step towards reversing the trend of dumbing down of society, even though most people would think the opposite, simply because they haven’t given it a second thought.

Photography by : Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz

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