Thoughts on the War on Art

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. As some of you know, I’m a fan, as well as a dabbler. I recently joined the board of a local arts organization and am super proud of the work it’s doing. My brother, Jeff, is an accomplished writer and creative writing instructor. Art is important to me, my family, and many people I know. For some, it is their livelihood.

And the arts are under attack. Again. This time by a Republican president and Congress who are proposing the elimination of the national endowments of both the arts and humanities, as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Which begs the obvious question — why? Why would those in power, in one of their first political acts, immediately target the arts and humanities, which represent such a tiny sliver of our nation’s budget? It can’t be viewed credibly as an attempt to reign in spending — not when the same budget proposal would increase our already massive military budget by a whopping $54 billion annually and actually increase our national debt and deficit. So, what then? Why the arts? Why — always — the arts?

Sure, the arts are easy pickings. Billionaires don’t profit from the NEA, as they do from, say, the military-industrial complex, or massive oil, gas, and coal subsidies. Arts organizations sometimes have lobbyists, but they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the lobbying efforts of the big industry groups that Washington is beholden to. Even in good political times, the best they can hope for are essentially table scraps.

Still, the real reason is something more than that, I think. Something that has little to do with fiscal policy and everything to do with ideology; in particular, that certain brand of authoritarian political dogmatism that has risen in recent decades, and is now firmly in power in our nation’s capital. It’s a form of political fundamentalism, really — not necessarily in the religious sense (although that is a component), but in a more overarching sense — i.e., a strict adherence to a certain proscribed political dogma, or ideology, with little respect or tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Wiki’s definition of fundamentalism, which I think is a good one, goes beyond religion, describing it as “an unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs,” “strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific . . . ideologies,” and a “strong sense of the importance of maintaining in-group and out-group distinctions.” It is a mindset that thinks it knows all that it needs to know, and has little room or appreciation for art, literature, or any form whatsoever of “liberal thought.”

And it’s nothing new under the sun. Nations that are led by such thinking have long gone after the arts and artists. Hitler attempted to “purify” the arts, celebrating only what the Nazis considered “great German art” and suppressing and labeling everything else as “degenerate art.” In North Korea, art is government-run, existing primarily to extol the virtues of the state’s leaders and military. Vladimir Putin simply locks artists up if he doesn’t like what they have to say. ISIS, whose aim is a theocracy, has been destroying ancient art in Iraq and Syria for some time. Constantine did the same 1,700 years ago — it’s an age-old story, really.

But what is it about art that presents such a threat to this mindset? Here are a few thoughts for consideration:

  • Art is about free expression; whereas fundamentalist ideology is about strict conformance.
  • Art is often about dissent; fundamentalist ideology is about obedience.
  • Art critiques; fundamentalist ideology views itself as unassailable, irreducible, and complete; authoritarianism does not tolerate criticism.
  • Art challenges assumptions; political fundamentalism does not tolerate or respect challenges to its perceived correctness or presumed authority.
  • Art often focuses on the overlooked, the oppressed, the forgotten and neglected; fundamentalist ideology will not consider or accept that it contributes to injustice; blames others for all societal ills.
  • Art seeks change; fundamentalist thinking is static and abhors change.
  • Art suggests possible shifts in perspective, alternative vantages, a broadening of one’s world view; political fundamentalism is fixed, assumes there is but one valid viewpoint.
  • Art challenges moral certitude; moral certitude is the very essence of fundamentalist ideology.
  • Art dares us to think, feel, and question; fundamentalist thinking demands that we don’t think, question, or feel for those in the “out-group.”

The war on art seems to me an extension of the modern GOP’s war on all thought, facts, viewpoints, and information that contradicts its fixed set of politically-fundamentalist beliefs: the war on science, on academia, on the mainstream media. It is a reflection of the mindset of a well-financed contingent that has wrested power from more reasonable minds, whose “rightness” is derived not from facts or science or the approval of artists and thinkers, but from absolute faith in a particular set of tenets, and their own moral certitude. Art and artists have no place in that system, and are often viewed as “the opposition.”

Perhaps I like art for these very reasons — because I believe the world needs to evolve; that we need to continue to grow, develop, and expand in our thinking,  understanding, and awareness — socially, politically, scientifically, and spiritually. Because, as I see it, there may be no greater hubris in this world than in the mindset that we have all the answers we need.

I’ll end with this quote attributed to John F. Kennedy, which I stole from my brother’s Facebook feed. It speaks of poetry, but is applicable to the arts, generally:

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state…

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.

—35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy

As always, thanks for reading, and my best to all. And please, consider donating to an arts organization if you are so inclined. It may be more important now than ever, and they certainly need our help!

Photo: Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” 1565, once criticized as unholy and immoral by members of the Catholic Church.


8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the War on Art”

  1. I was the Director of Development for a contemporary art museum in the mid-80s when Ronald Reagan first began his attack on the arts and the NEA in particular. And, I’ve wondered since why. Whatever did he have to gain by limiting their reach. There is so much to chew on in this blog, Tim, and I thank you very much. I particularly appreciate your very cogent thoughts on fundamentalism. That black-and-white — absolutist — thinking is one I’ve been been warring against for a few decades now. Thank you for a great contribution to an important discussion. I am thrilled to share.

    1. Thanks so much, Janet. It’s often occurred to me, without proof, that the single biggest predictor of political affiliation in this country could well be one’s individual tolerance level for divergent viewpoints and one’s accompanying respect, or lack thereof, for a “marketplace of ideas.” Art, naturally, isn’t always critical or political or left-leaning, but as a whole, it represents such a marketplace — a free and wide range of expression and belief — and many in today’s political climate seem to have no need for this. Of course, there are many conservatives who DO value things like art and literature, and I’m hoping at some point they will stand up and let their voices be heard on this issue. But I’m no longer optimistic about this ever happening.

      On another note — I may need to pick your brain about development sometime, as I’ve somehow landed on a development committee, despite my complete lack of experience in such things. I have much respect for anyone who can do it well in the NP world! Best, T

    1. Thank you, Laurie – I appreciate it! And congrats again for your recent book and all the positive reviews it’s gotten. It’s in my “need to read” queue! Sometime, we should consider grabbing a cup of joe and having a chat, seeing as we’re practically neighbors! (We live in Foothills East, just up the hill a bit from the Warm Springs neighborhood) 🙂

        1. Thanks, Laurie. That’s some fascinating history about the Russell Mansion, which I never knew, despite having driven by it a thousand times. Yes – let’s keep coffee in mind. Enjoy Whidbey Island! Rumor has it they’ve even seen a little sun over there this week 🙂

  2. I’m so glad to see you blogging again, Tim. The air needs more voices of dissent and a reminder of what’s dear.

    1. Thanks, Laura. I always enjoy when you drop in. I’m happy to note, too, a new post by Laura M Gibson, which is atop my reading list 🙂

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