Monday, April 9, 2012

Fund the Arts?

His cats, however, look amiable.

Privileged this morning to enjoy a day of leisure, that is, rest and study, upon waking I picked up my iPad to read a bit. I set upon Bach's cello sonatas to highlight the insights that awaited me. Zipping through my Twitter feed I brought my vigorous fingering of the screen to a hasty halt: Lo! Alex Ross has tweeted. I tapped through and began to read the article he had posted. As I read a cloud formed in my mind. A haze fogged my vision. My synapses writhed and my neurotransmitters gushed in an attempt to explain what I read. It wasn't just me, either. I'm certain Casals split a string as I spoke the crazed falderal in the vain hope that my ears could translate what had befuddled my eyes. Alas and Alack! They could not.

You see there is a particularly gross caricature of conservatives that irks me. In this fantasy Dick Cheney is Medusa, who plans to replace all of the world's museums with oozing oil rigs. He rides a chariot cast from melted Greek bronzes and pulled by a Brobdinagian Hydra of Conservative High Philistines. You cut of the Goldwater head and Reagan pops up. Cut off the Burkean head and Scruton rears his ugly one. One neck supplies an endless supply of Bushes. Before the beast marches the Grand Army of Conservative Neanderthals, their dragging knuckles raising such dust that their approach blots out the sun.

That a quiet, soft-tempered conservative man sits at his desk reading Latin and listening to Bach does not enter into this chimerical relief. That peace, quiet, and privacy are his preferred environment does not gel with his reputation for bloodletting. His childlike love of family belies the news stories that he lets children die in the streets and his hobbit-like love of the earth and all things growing nips at the fib that he cares not for the environment.

I would be an unserious or dishonest man not to admit the above descriptions are themselves caricatures. Neither image, of the conservative as saint or scion of darkness, is likely to be found with great ease or in great numbers. What to make of this article by a Mr. Will Robin from his blog Seated Ovation I'm not sure. What to make of Ross' Tweet of it, which can only be seen as a semi-tacit public endorsement, I know a bit. It's like finding Jersey Shore sandwiched between Ikiru and Wild Strawberries on his DVD shelf, or I suppose Lady Gaga between Bach and Mozart. It's embarrassing. Yes, we all come to moments of exasperation with our political opposites, moments in which we heedlessly lap up material which is more polemical swiping than scholarship. Yet these moments are brief and regretted as indulgences to baser impulses. To grace such fetid fair with display, let alone the slightest approbation, is to tread without wisdom.

Yes, I really am blathering on about this reflexive Tweet of a thoughtless essay but I think the occasion is quite revealing. You see I do think people change over time, but slowly and almost imperceptibly until they suddenly seem a caricature of their former selves. This is so because we to become more like our surroundings. Being surrounded by people who are crass and rude rubs off on you. One cuss becomes two becomes three until those all-too-versatile four-letter words have replaced a good deal of your vocabulary. Theodore Dalrymple has a recent and customarily noteworthy take on the phenomenon, but the ability of habits to form and change your character is as old as Aristotle. For my part I've recently been enjoying the series Edward the King in which, somewhere late in the series, someone shouts ass! It comes as quite a shock given the genteel world we've grown accustomed to in the program.

Indeed TV is a particularly powerful method of habit-forming since it's influence is over long periods of time. Because of that length of time, as I have articulated before, at some level we perceive television as real. I can't imagine what watching one of the many graphic criminal shows week after week will do to you, to say nothing of reality TV. Considering politics again, take Comedy Central's lucrative tag-team of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Funny they may be and often, but their shows consist of nothing more than relentlessly excoriating "the right" and without any formal standards of logic or argumentation or broad consideration of facts. Any honest man would call it, at best, infotainment. With scant exception, I say those I know who are fond of these shows are cynical, they think they are highly intelligent, and they are not nearly as informed as they think they are. Over time their image of their opposition has veered toward the cataclysmic scene I sketched before. Their change wasn't deliberate but it was unchecked. They think the Democratic Party is at worst incompetent but best left in charge because the Republican Party is manic. Add Stewart's plangent appeals to reason, the fact that his only real criticism is that people are stupid, and Colbert's shtick of mocking the reason (i.e. alleged lack of reason) of the right, and you have a feedback loop frightful to look upon. . . from the outside.

We can see then that pandering is not such a mild vice. We need little encouragement, already seeking out as we do, people, places, facts, and so forth, that allow us to perpetuate what comforts us.

Robin's Argument is of course no such thing. It is simply a series of assertions about government funding of the arts and cheap shots at conservatives. Though this rattle-banging falderal cannot be taken seriously I will endeavor to respond. I will spare any further mention of the embarrassing flaccidity of the argument as well as the extent to which using that clip from the television drama West Wing falls squarely within the behavior we looked at before. That said, I will address the points as they should have been made and as they would have to be made to respond.

The first issue is obviously the legal one, that is, the constitutional one. Our government is not set up as a pure democracy but a democratic-republic which requires deference to written law and also a declaration which acknowledges an overriding and inviolate natural law. I hope that sounds as serious as it is. If that doesn't sound reasonable to you then you're not a democrat since "Democracy" implies both the rule of the many and individual sovereignty, but simply a majoritarian. So if you want to spend on anything not spelled out in the constitution, prepare an amendment. That's the process. If people don't think it's appropriate for the government to do at all, whether or not it produces good, then that's the end of it.

The next issue would be when such a hypothetical amendment were being debated. Remember a government acts for all people, so any law should be supported by as high a majority of people as possible. By definition the fewer people that support it the less democratic it is. So to fund the arts, art itself would have to be defined. If that enterprise doesn't cause you some concern then you've put the cart ahead of the horse. Must it have a specific purpose, or should it not have specific purposes? Must it consist of specific parts? May it be abstract? Must it be intellectual? What about expressive content?

Then, whether you settle on funding art by a particular definition or anything calling itself art, you have more questions about the content. Should art be funded independent of content? What about art advocating breaking the law, or treason? What about religious art? These seemingly detailed questions beg another, which is of course why fund art? It's not as if art has some special edifying power apart from its process and the idea it expresses. Any old self-expression isn't necessarily of value and in a free society not everyone shares the same values.  Cato taught his son fighting, riding, and boxing in addition to reading whereas Aemilius Paulus gave his son a Greek education. (See Plutarch on these men for the details.) Take a guess whether or not Cato or Paulus would have tolerated meddling in their sons' educations?

Apart from processes, though, there still remains to discuss the ideas and as ideas are unavoidable in expression there is no such thing as funding " just the arts" because you're in effect funding specific art and specific ideas. So you end up with a council or individual enforcing standards. Now if everyone agrees, fine (maybe). None other than Destutt de Tracy, an Enlightenment thinker most influential on Jefferson, didn't see a problem with the government promoting republican values. (Why would a republican government not want to promote republican values?) Still: in that situation would it or would it not be propaganda? Bear in mind, this is a problem stemming from propagating ideas on which people already agree:  republican government. Imagine the storm around ideas on which people disagree.

Besides those points, who appoints the members of this committee? Do they run for the office? Is this an "office?"  For how long do they stay in office? Or is this committee just another government bureaucratic entity no one understands or oversees except those with enough pull to tug the ears of its members? Are they appointed in the way the "Secretary" or "Czar" is? Is that very democratic? To whom are they responsible? How? Robin speaks of "the symbolism of the position." Shouldn't in a liberal society, the symbolism of any office of authority make one a tad, oh, nervous? This issue is no less than the problem of government itself and that this serious matter is glossed over by Mr. Robin as wanton conservative mongering is nothing short of outrageous (and illiberal.) Robin continues with this wistful thought about a best-case scenario for what we'll benignly call the "post" in dispute:
Maybe we would end up with someone with a lot of political clout. . .
You see in the Res Gestae of Augustus the emperor states that during his reign he had no more potestas than any of his political colleagues but rather only more auctoritas. That is to say, technically he had no special power buy he wielded such enormous influence that he was the one in charge anyway. This might be laudable if there were no government at all, maybe, but to praise political muscle instead of the authority conferred by the office is once more, illiberal, undemocratic, and un-republican.

Even more illiberal is the following proposition:
Any attempt to create a position at the level of Secretary of Arts/Culture would be a political debacle. Let’s say we somehow actually get the position approved (can you imagine the nightmare of congressional hearings?). . . 
Whence this contempt for the political process? Aren't the problems of electing officials worth having in a free society? Aren't they more then "debacles" and "nightmares?" Shouldn't liberals consider undemocratic processes "nightmares?" Good grief!

So instead of treading this authoritarian path consider how you yourself, directly, might spread the arts without the use of force and perhaps even for free:

  1. Make instructional videos, podcasts, or materials.
  2. Write a book.
  3. Make a website.
  4. Subscribe to a scholarly publication.
  5. Donate everywhere you can as much as you can.
  6. Buy things from institutions whose causes you support.
  7. Perform wherever and whenever possible.
  8. Tutor people.
  9. Raise money for a local school's scholarship or competition.
  10. Pay for someone's education. 
Lastly, to promote the arts is to change men's hearts. Never underestimate this task and how little grand designs will succeed at it. No society has or will embrace "art for art's sake." Nor should one. They need ideas to want to express. I'll leave it to Nietzsche to explain the greatest folly of "funding the arts."
If forced to speak, philosophy might say: Wretched people! Is it my fault if I am roaming the country among you like a cheap fortune-teller? If I must hide and disguise myself as though I were a fallen woman and you my judges? Just look at my sister, Art! Like me, she is in exile among barbarians. We no longer know what to do to save ourselves. True, here among you we have lost our rights, but the judges who shall restore them to us shall judge you too. And to you they shall say: Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do. [Emphasis mine.]
Culture, although Robin so casually adds it to the title of his newly minted post, "Secretary of Arts/Culture," is by no means easy to define. It is certainly not something that can be planned, bureaucratized, produced, or administrated. It is not the same as "education." For a fuller discussion of this  topic I direct you to T. S. Eliot's Notes Toward the Definition of Culture and some of our other essays below.

If you enjoyed (or hated) this essay you may enjoy (or hate) the following: 

No comments:

Post a Comment