All our understanding of what is true and right and important is in the end narrative, just a story that we tell ourselves. The narrative that is dominant in any one society at any one time is the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. The Zeitgeist shapes our lives – what we decide for ourselves, and what others decide for us. The Zeitgeist, how we look at the world, is shaped in turn by all kinds of inputs, but none is more significant than the arts.
The arts draw attention to things – they say, “Look at this!” They don’t have to be outrageous – they may serve simply to illuminate our dreams or reinforce our prejudices – but they can be as provocative as the artist chooses, or is capable of being. So the arts are the jokers in the pack, and all packs need jokers. Above all, the arts in all their forms are the story-tellers supreme. Art (not always good art!) bores deep into the psyche and stays there. So it shapes the story on which the Zeitgeist is based, and tells it in ways we can’t forget.
Indeed its influence goes even deeper. All our perceptions – what we actually see in the world around us – are largely determined by our preconceptions, what we expect to see; and that in turn depends in large part on what we know already, or think we know, and on our attitudes. Specifically, how we see the countryside, and what we feel it ought to be like, has been shaped in large part by children’s story books, and cartoons and jigsaws, with anxious cows and dopey sheep and dizzy hens, haystacks and milkmaids and jolly farm-folk; or by all those over-varnished academy pictures of hunters with pheasants around their belts, or Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, or the landscapes of Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, and the rest. The great landscapists in turn were part of the Romantic movement that included Coleridge and Wordsworth, Schubert and Chopin. Music sometimes invokes particular images of nature and sometimes affects mood more directly, which in turn affects how we see everything else. Influential writers like Walter Scott have shaped the psyche of entire nations. More specifically, John Clare, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck and many others in poetic or quasi-journalistic vein have told us what agriculture has been like in different places at different times, not with skeletal statistics but with flesh and colour.
Of course a college of food and farming must include the arts. Or as a literary farmer-friend once said to us, “We must put the culture back in agriculture.”