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