But Other Than Being Shot to Death, Mr. Lincoln, How Did You Like the Play?


A couple of weeks back in early April, Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews to talk about the pressing need for federal funding of the arts (click above to watch). Matthews leads off by noting that a group of knuckle-dragging Republicans have been trying to put the kibosh on the $167 million or thereabouts that goes to the National Endowment for the Arts and the $450 million that goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (proud sponsors of NPR and PBS).

Matthews says:

I wish I had you as a professor […at the Kennedy Center you gave…] 40-some minutes of splendid explanation of why the arts are so important in our country, no matter what the budget problems are. I now give you the floor, sir, because I think we haven't argued this yet. Why are the Republicans trying to kill the arts?

Let's leave aside the ridiculous equation of cutting federal funding of the arts with the "killing" thereof. Does Matthews seriously belive that state-sanctioned art (or in the case of PBS and NPR, news reporting) is an unambiguous good and that the $13 billion "performing arts" industry or the $2,800 per capita Americans spend annually on entertainment would disappear or even be seriously affected by replacing public money with private philanthropy? (Go here for entertainment-expenditure data, tables 1227 and 1231.)

Here's Spacey's gist. He had spoken the night before at the Kennedy Center on the importance of the arts and he tried to tie into the anniversary of the start of the Civil War because, well, it provides such a compelling case:

I mean, you go back through the—the huge swath of extraordinary leadership we`ve had on this issue, really from Lincoln, you know. I think I mentioned last night that a lot of people, of course, know about the tragic death of President Lincoln at a theater. But we know little how much he actually attended the theater during his presidency. And the worst days of the Civil War, he attended the theater constantly because Lincoln understood that he needed the arts to replenish his soul. He craved for poetry.

It may have taken us 150 or so years, but here we are at long last: a new variation on one of the great black-humor jokes of all time. "Other than that Mr. President, how did you like the play?" Is it wrong to point out that, er, it was an actor who killed the president? And that the play he was watching, Our American Cousin, was just one more Brit product whose protagonist was an ugly American type (because it's funny…and true…and the English are so…classy)?

Spacey's confusion isn't limited to unintentional comedy. He buys into precisely the model of culture as a Cross Your Heart Bra (plenty of uplift and posture-building) that mistakes culture's primary function as didactic.

And so, I tried last night to—in the Nancy Hanks lecture, to make an argument about embracing arts and culture. It, in my opinion, is the most important export that we exchange around the world. Countries may go to war, but it's culture that unites us. It educates us. It teaches us to be better.

As I wrote back in 1996, this understanding of culture is shared by conservative and liberal critics of popular entertainment alike and explains why they're always fighting to control it and its messages. In this view, 

…culture can undermine (or, implicitly, ennoble) our character; movies can poison (or save) our souls. There is no sense that the ticket-buying public might have a say in the matter, that we might be responsible for our own damnation…. Scratch the surface and everyone from Bill Clinton to Charlton Heston, Newt Gingrich to Chevy Chase, Janet Reno to Sally Field, agrees: Movies, music, and TV should be the moral equivalent of a high colonic, Sunday school every damn day of the week.

I highly recommend Joli Jensen's 2003 book Is Art Good for Us?, which makes a powerful distinction between what she calls an "instrumental view of culture"—that good art makes us good and bad art makes us bad—and champions an "expressive view of culture"—that art is a way that people connect with and explore their place in the world. Here's a snippet from a Reason interview with her:

Q: Why do so many people hold an instrumental view of culture?

A: People like to look for simple causes and simple cures. That view is very tempting because if certain kinds of culture cause bad things in society, then you can change that culture and fix society. There's an assumption that art is an instrument like medicine or a toxin that can be injected into us and transform us. But there's very little evidence of a direct effect, and we all participate in creating the meaning of a particular piece of work. We should always be considerate about how we choose to tell stories and the stories we choose to tell. That's an ongoing cultural conversation, but I mistrust attempts to control that conversation by excluding a priori categories of stories or by assuming that the stories we are telling are harming us.

Q: If the arts aren't medicine, what are they?

A: They're expressions of creative intellectual energy. This is related to John Dewey's understanding of culture as a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world. I also question the distinction we constantly try to make between the arts and popular culture and other forms of creative expression such as architecture, park design, gardening, and the like.

More here.

I was on WNYC's On The Media show not long ago, talking about defunding NPR and the arts here.