Bill Maher, civilization and the arts

Pardon the incoherence of what is to follow because I wrote this at 5 AM after a spurt of inspiration.

“I have heard you say that you think the arts are important as…”

“…highways and hospitals?”

“But they’re not really, are they? I mean highways and hospitals save people’s lives, and art is a diversion.”

* * *

The aforementioned lines constitute a segment of dialogue from the Bill Maher show. Maher takes the position that art, by which he means all arts including the liberal arts, should not be supported by public funds. Why are the arts essential if they are “going to happen anyway” muses Maher. The replier makes an argument that this is an assumption we take for granted and that the merits of the arts are in their ability to develop abstract thinking in those who study them. The replier goes on to claim that artists tend to gentrify poor, struggling communities, and thus art serves an economic stimulus. A sophist goes on to make an emotional appeal: imploring the viewer to support the arts with individual and voluntary patronage if one is compelled by the virtues of the domain. The sophist does not make note on the national impacts or viability of a public imperative, and the line of thought passes to dust.

An interesting exchange, but the reply is feeble. It is true that the arts do aid in the development of a sound mental faculty, and that artists may nourish struggling communities with their works and efforts – however, these reasons alone are not sufficient to mandate public funds to the arts. Yet do not be mislead into thinking I am of a contrary mind, instead I believe the reply does not go far enough.

First a definition of art. When I refer to art I am chiefly concerned with the liberal arts, not visual or symbolic arts. Like Maher I would contend that visual and symbolic arts, at least for private production, are a diversion. I will return to the appropriate use of visual arts in the public domain later on, but for now, I focus on the liberal arts. Namely: philosophy, literature, history and language; words which ennoble the human spirit and inspire virtue and a heroic character. The Iliad, the Aeneid, Epictetus, Beowulf, Shakespeare come to mind yet the list goes on. I do not mean for this to be an authoritative definition of the liberal arts (for that see Martianus Capella), but know this is the sort of thing I refer to. Works which once absorbed leave one in a state of awe and thrilled invigoration.

What is a society without art? Just as unhealthy as a society without hospitals, for art is the nourishment of the mind. Philosophers have been called doctors of the soul, philosophy a science of virtue and mental rigor. Without art, there is no civilization; there is no reason for the existence of hospitals and highways. What is a citizen without grammar, logic and rhetoric? A citizen unable to reason properly, to comprehend words and the world, manacled by exterior forces, and thus a citizen unable to take part in a greater community. A citizen without philosophy is a citizen without a knowledge of the good, or at the least a mastery and love of the good; a citizen without an examined life is vicious and inhumane, he does not consider the greater context of human action within a cosmopolis. What is a citizen without a world of allegory, history and literature to consider? A person who does not benefit from an exploration of the world of thought, and so defaults to popular whims and unruly impulse. To engage in Socratic dialogue is to be truly alive, and to never exit from the cave means a life filled with vicious folly and thus misery.

Understanding how to be good, to function within a civic community, to be wise, to think with a keen and skilled mind, and to ultimately become civilized is the goal of the liberal arts. To understand the world in a wise and prudent fashion is the goal of the arts. And is someone who has not dedicated the time to studying the concepts behind these arts a safe, healthy citizen? No. He is a wolf, a rabid dog, who lives a dangerous life where nothing is sacred and everything is allowed. A civilization cannot function in good health unless founded on some bastion of truth, beauty and wisdom – great works which inspire us and help mold our natural dispositions to wholesome ends.

Ultimately: what is the good of technical arts and sciences without a knowledge of how to use them wisely?

* * *

Another topic on my mind is this notion of a bloated economy in ruins, that might only be fixed by cutting teacher’s salaries, paltry aid to the poor and educational funding. Again and again this repulses me and also infuriates me. I am repulsed in that other human beings would think to cut funding to such critical human services with good knowledge of the misery that act would take, and infuriated by a lack of understanding of our economy. Referring to a previous topic, it seems that most citizens nowadays lack both a clear faculty of reason and a knowledge of the good.

Need I mention the proverbial elephant in the room? Must I say what should be extremely obvious? A state which is in a condition of constant war cannot sustain itself. The United States has developed a massive military industrial complex which behaves as if the Soviet Union is still in existence, and has not shrunk but grown since the collapse of that empire. Projecting our national power over hundreds of massive oversea bases and sustaining two colonial wars with the help of bloated mercenary contracts has worn the economy thin.

The sophists in Washington propose cutting programs which constitute a minuscule amount of the budget while the greatest expenses are completely and utterly ignored. Glance not on defense spending, the smallest reduction in which would assuage if not eliminate a collapsing social fabric, and instead hunt after what minuscule social services the state provides in remainder.  The country continues to be a land where the weak are devoured and the streets are filled with homeless children, the starving, drug addicts and the suicidal all for the exploitation of foreign lands and the prestige of empire.

And instead of reducing defense funding the sophists invoke the fallacy of Reaganomics as salve to our economic and social woes. The myth informs us that if only we cut more taxes toward the rich, they would somehow save us. This fallacy endures, despoiling our republic.

* * *

Back to the topic of public sponsoring of the arts, in particular the visual arts.  Tired, will write later.

4 replies on “Bill Maher, civilization and the arts”

It is a shame that while you begin this article with Maher speaking out against the public funding of arts, you never get to discussing that point.

For there will always be art, whether it be funded by the artist, or a patron.

What Maher objects to (and I agree with him on) is the use of tax dollars for art. The citizen as involuntary patron.

Should you care to expand on your thoughts here I’d love to read them (e-mail me when it is up). I have yet to see a supporter of state-funded arts (or amateur athletics) put forth a cogent argument on the topic of why involuntary funding of the arts is not only sensible, but necessary.

re: Paul

I don’t see your point – as you need to provide a definition of art (As I have done). If you are referring to visual arts, I don’t think gratuitous public art funding is wise, i.e. “art for art sake.” That being said, artists should be consulted in the beautification and design of a public space: an inspiring and beautiful space may ennoble the human spirit and enhances the cultural heritage of a civilization.

And there won’t “always be art,” at least not great art – most innovations and developments in art were the direct result of quasi-government patronage historically speaking. One need look no further than the Italian Renaissance or the Carolingian court to observe wealthy political families endorsing art. Also the great buildings and cities of Europe derive from deliberate government planning and funding.

The liberal arts will always exist. They are part of what makes us an intelligent creature. They existed long before the concept of “state funding” existed…in fact you could make a good argument that the liberal arts formed and defined state funding.

The argument I see made on a regular basis is that of course we must fund art. The counter-argument I make is that I support and fund art every day…but I have a say in it, with my wallet. And while I would support, say, state buildings, I would also point out that function outweighs form. It must.

Unfortunately for the armchair political thinkers here – taxes have consequences. When you have taxation levels as high as they are- no one buys art. No one buys= no one creates.
That is simple to understand, profoundly understood by both capitalist and socialist societies.
The response to this dis-incentive to create is called ‘graffitti’. Art as vandalism. Defunding the arts- after the state has de-funded the artist’s clientele, results in innovative, contestatory art. “Grafitti”.
Meat Dresses.
Tatoos of scary beasts on your banker’s left shoulder.
Splatter paintings.
Idealess art.
MORE splatter paintings
Bold flats of color with fake horizon lines
Elvis on velvet in day glo.
Even your local police force will drive around in cars with ugly stripes all over them. Your Country singers will wear billboard like shirts with primary colored squares.
You will become so dumb you will think that a tatoo is self expression.
You will think a necktie is self-expression.

States “fund” the arts to control the message. So yes- in theory state funding SHOULD exist morally- because after all- the state TOOK the art money away from the potential buyer. But having appropriated themselves of the disposal income that normally would fund or partronize the arts- the state wants maximum leverage of that media buy. Since all art is political- the state selects art that says nothing ( most american and canadian art, everything you see in an office building waiting room or board room).

Or art that says something it wants ( see Bolsheviks).

The “say nothing” art can include funding for non controversial stuff such as ballet or opera ( art that has no relevance). But never for example- a retrospective of Black Panther Graffitti.

So yes- de-fund the arts and free the expressers to do what comes naturally and compete in the free market for patronage- ‘

But FIRST- the state has to give the money back to those they appropriated it from. At the very least- lower taxation levels by at least as much as the culture spend level is at now.
So you see Maher didn’t think it through- he thinks “de-fund the arts to pay for welfare, pensions, pointless wars, or prisons” or some such- but I challenge that this idea should be freed of ALL political strings.

Let Joe/ Jane citizen decide if they’d rather pay for another futile round of chemo- or leave behind an investment quality or sentimental art piece – to their offspring. Why should the state decide? When the state decides- you get the art (tatoo) you deserve. splatter splatter.

Besides – this taxation emboldens the state to engage in non core activities by periodically de-priortizing the arts and squandering the money abroad. So starve-out the state from the arts.

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