In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott reviews William Safire's Monday delivery of the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, and wonders where "the arts" will go now that the "instrumental" value of art (the idea that Mozart in the uterus makes kids smarter, etc.) has trumped the "intrinsic" value (ars gratia artis, as Leo the Lion would roar). Safire now heads the Dana Foundation, which is dedicated to brain science and arts education, and his speech (which you can listen to here) focused on practical reasons for arts education. The result, Kennicott points out, is a market heavy on the always good-for-you "classics," where Americans' white matter gets stimulated by stuff like "the last thing we really need: a six-month Shakespeare 'festival.'"
Safire used the word "classic" repeatedly. He spoke of the hope that "cognitive science today can help illuminate classic art." He even referred to the creation of "new classics," an odd locution for an expert on speech.
Arts advocates are no doubt very happy to have allies such as Safire and may not notice the subtle shift in vocabulary toward the dominance of words like "classic"—which suggests art that is widely admired, consensus-building and essentially noncontroversial… But walk outside, onto the terrace above the Potomac, and read what's written on the walls of the Kennedy Center. The president for which it is named once said, "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty."
That kind of thinking has been fundamental to the thought of arts advocates for generations now. They defined the challenge facing them as a public that fears art, or is simply ignorant of art, or can't get access to art. If only arts lovers had the right arguments in their quiver (art can improve cognition, for example), then the arts might take on a central place in American life.
But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? What if the real problem is that some significant portion of the U.S. population simply hates art? Not fear. Not ignorance. Not even indifference. But loathing.
What would that look like? If you don't like to listen, or observe, if you don't like ambiguity or complexity, if you prefer to shout your opinion (even if you openly acknowledge you know nothing about what you're saying), you are, perhaps, someone inclined to hate art. It's possible that for years now, arts advocates have been wasting their breath, arguing into a black hole, with opponents who will never happily yield an inch to art…
American art used to confront and shame the art haters, exposing their provincial ignorance and bald hypocrisy, their cant and dogma and lies. Art used to be about more than convincing people that piano lessons will help your darling get into MIT. But no more. By limiting the debate to the idea that art is useful for developing practical skills, the arts world disengages from a more epic battle with forces in our society that prefer a world closed to questioning, impatient with the new or threatening, and comfortable only with certainties passed down from authority figures. Perhaps that's why these forces have recently taken on such prominence in our cultural discourse.
The new consensus—which mixes a quiescent view of art and the classics with arguments about cognitive improvement—won't, in the short term, be bad for "the classics." But what about everything else?
Leave aside the argument over whether American art was ever mostly or largely about shocking the bourgeoisie or any other non-utilitarian end (a claim that the decades-ago ascendance of Middlebrow education, Classics Illustrated, and Hollywood agitprop would seem to refute). I agree that people who don't like ambiguity and complexity are dumbasses, and I won't hear any argument about that. But does that mean they should have to pay to be told they're dumbasses? Safire notes that he's not looking for any federal funding, but that's not true of his hosts at Americans for the Arts. Here's a sampling from their advocacy page:
Tell your Senators and Representative to support a funding increase for the National Endowment for the Arts to help support our nation's cultural treasures and the arts in under-served communities.
Tell Congress to support the Senate Appropriations Committee-passed funding level of $35.7 million for the Arts in Education programs within the U.S. Department of Education.
Americans for the Arts also tracks other issues of note impacting the arts community, such as funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Send a letter to President Bush urging him to provide funding for cultural institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina.
It's true, the federally funded front of the culture war is in a quieter period than it was in the period of the NEA 4, and Dana Gioia, as Jim Henley noted two years ago, has created a much less daring climate for arts funding. Partly that's because we've all got more important things to worry about, but it's also because there was some truth to the complaints of the art haters back then: If you're going to be forced to pay for somebody else's living, you can at least request that that person not come back and insult you.
I think Safire's notions of brain chemistry and the like are a bunch of baloney, and the idea that Racine For Tots is improving anybody's cognitive capacity will someday seem as silly as the idea that Doritos make you smarter. But at least the instrumental argument is an attempt to persuade people rather than mug them; in that sense (and as far as I can see, in no other) it's slightly more defensible. Kennicott doesn't want an anodyne creative climate, and I agree with him. But he might consider how treating "the arts" as a public good is the reason for that anodyne climate, not the solution to the problem.