Whitewashing Arts

19 August 2015

Telling people you’re doing an Arts degree is like playing bingo. The same comments come up so often that you pretty much get a set list of responses:

So what job can that get you?

Haha what’s the difference between an Arts degree and toilet paper?

What’s the point of an Arts degree?

This means most Arts students end up with a pretty well-rehearsed defence: The Arts teach us how society and culture works. History informs the way things are today, literature helps us understand life… I know because I’ve been there. When I told my mum I had decided to major in English and she replied “Who cares about Shakespeare,” I was outraged. For starters, Shakespeare is totally integral to our language! He was the first person to use ‘elbow’ as a verb for God’s sake!

The derisive comments mean we’re often pushed to an absolute stance and the Arts are passionately defended from within. But in our indignant cry that “culture is important”, we forget to consider whose culture we’re actually talking about. Predominantly it’s European and Western culture that becomes a stand-in for culture as a whole. This is partly a result of academia which often relegates the non-Western to a vague other, but this tendency for the Arts to favour the West extends further to stereotypes of the disciplines themselves. When I mention my mum’s disapproval of my degree, a frequent response is a knowing a smile and a remark about “typical Asian parents”. is drawn from the stereotype that Asian means maths and strict parents preoccupied with economic gain at the expense of passion and learning for learning’s sake. Consequently, there are harmful implications on both sides.

At its basic level, as much as people denigrate the Arts, it still carries certain prestige, being associated with sophisticated culture and historically also class. Consider why people who scoff at the humanities nevertheless gush about seeing famous paintings and visiting Versailles. In this context, the idea that the Arts aren’t Asian not only implies that to be Asian is to be uncultured, but to lack an interest in cultural betterment. It also positions the Asian outside the realm of culture, hence why going to Europe is seen as more sophisticated than hanging out in Bali.

Alternatively, being Asian and pursuing a career in medicine or commerce becomes interpreted as embodying a stereotype. I’ve encountered Asian students who claim their Commerce degree is met with dismissal as they’re told “of course you’re doing accounting, that’s what all the Asians do”, as if their ethnicity discounts the potential for a genuine interest in that field. It also dehumanises Asian kids as they become viewed as puppets of overbearing parents. An article by Anna Broinowski in The Age’s Good Weekend earlier this year quoted a woman describing Asian students as “grade chasing automatons” as a result of “tiger parenting”. While the article was in regards to secondary education, it too engaged with the supposed affinity between Asians and maths. This is harmful because the hard work and success of Asian students in this field becomes the standard and is suggested to reflect a lack of individuality.

As these stereotypes are solidified, an interest in the Arts by an Asian person becomes interpreted as a sign of European assimilation. If I’m studying English then I must not be like my mum who is a ‘typical Asian parent’. My degree is viewed as a step away from Asian-ness and a step towards Western-ness. Yet this idea that the Arts belong to a separate realm to ‘Asian’ and that there’s a barrier between them suggests that culture must be learned – that it’s a class to enrol in. Admittedly there are benefits to learning in a classroom that can’t be gained individually, but it becomes a problem when subscription to the heavily Westernised ‘Arts’ becomes the hallmark indication of culture.

In our defence of the sanctity of the Arts degree we should remember that culture isn’t just sitting in a tutorial discussing assigned reading. Culture is also what people live and embody every single day of their lives. Perhaps the fact that a great number of people can’t see the value of an Arts degree suggests a discrepancy between what is taught and people’s real life experience. I was frustrated that my mum didn’t care for Shakespeare but then again, why should she? Sure he invented a bunch of words, but in a language my mum didn’t speak until she was older than I am now. Sure he made ‘elbow’ a verb, but ‘elbow’ has a different etymology in Chinese.  And there are countless writers she read growing up which I have yet to encounter.

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