On March 15, the White House released a budget proposal that included a shocking statute: the abolishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, a governmental patronage program providing support and funding for musicians, writers, scholars and many other proprietors of artistic expression.
When I first read this news, I thought of Plato’s “The Republic.” In particular, I thought of Book X, where Plato argues that education is acquired in two forms: through means of philosophy and through means of poetry, or what we would call today the arts and humanities. This ancient argument is further dissected into categories regarding the individual and the state. The state, Plato muses, is the foundation of everything, and education that is grounded in philosophy supports the state and the state’s interests. The poets, however, build up the individual. It is to be noted that, when looking at “The Republic” in its entirety, Plato’s philosophies espouse early totalitarian mindsets reminiscent of 20th century Nazism or, more topically, modern-day North Korea or Syria. In light of this perception, I would argue that by suppressing artistic education, Plato was encouraging the suppression of a level of solidarity in society obtained almost exclusively through saturation in the arts, in all its invariable forms.
More than 2,300 years later, the president’s new budget proposal does not seem far removed from this threat of artistic suppression.
In “Theater and the Arts: A Personal Reflection,” Joe Dowling, long-time artistic director for the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, chronicles his trip to Germany in the 1970s to visit a colleague at the Schiller Theater in West Berlin. When Dowling questioned his friend as to why the theater received such enormous subsidies from the German government, the answer was simple and shocking: “So that it will never happen again.”
Dowling writes that the “it” needed no explanation.”
A society that fears or ignores its artists lacks self-confidence and a belief in its own values,” Dowling asserts, further expounding on the implications of governmental suppression — what he refers to as political smoke screening — of the artists’ rippling explorations across the surface of a complacent society, an action foundational to the rise of Nazi oppression in the mid-20th century.
Similarly, historians note that governmental interest in the art world increased dramatically following World War II. Artist and economist Hans Abbing writes in the book “Why Are Artists Poor?” that cultural expression — particularly that expression found in the arts — became increasingly essential for societal coherence following the turmoil of the 1940s, a demand noted especially in the most highly affected territories. In Britain, an establishment of a Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was organized in 1939. Establishments of similar patronage programs were not long to follow in Canada and the U.S., in the form of the Canada Council in 1957 and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, respectively. Be these sources of governmental support overt, as noticed by Dowling in Germany, or increasingly more surreptitious in countries where power is retained via more sublimated means, these trends lie directly in opposition to Plato’s views, revealing the importance of a society that supports artistic expression.
Even art forms that champion anti-government agendas, such as political cartoons or the pre-revolution French dramas of the 18th century, have forever served as a unifying force, making intellectual debates accessible to all classes. While all art does not support the interests of the state, a fact noted by Plato in 380 B.C., artistic expression inevitably serves two functions, as we have observed: either allowing governments to show their support for the coherence the arts bring to society or creating a societal Venn diagram wherein citizens of all circles can find commonality in the midst of oppression.
Plato argued that education grounded solely in philosophy, with a specific emphasis on artistic repression, would produce the most successful and well-rounded civilization. However, to observe that ruling entities around the world became conscious, nearly contemporaneously, of the value of the arts following World War II encourages the opposite. Rather, an education rooted in artistic understanding fundamentally binds together a disjointed society.
I’m all for trimming the budget, Mr. President. But for the sake of our solidarity, do not abolish the NEA.
It is far, far more important than you realize.