Art Requires Integrity

Kevin Drum questions my recent commentary on the NEA conference call. I wrote:

…the call wasn’t about furthering controversial elements of President Obama’s agenda, but it was about deliberately politicizing art — that is to say, encouraging artists to advance particular public policy goals rather than enabling them to spend their time and energy creating works of truth or beauty to the best of their ability….It is that effort that I find objectionable, as should anyone who values art or the autonomy or creative people.

Mr. Drum replies:

So if this conference call had been with, say, a bunch of educator types, urging them to promote public service among schoolkids, would that have been OK? Or how about law enforcement groups? Or veterans groups?

Because I don’t quite see the difference. Artists don’t exist on some kind of pristine plane of their own and they don’t do their work in a vacuum. They’re all part of the same culture as the rest of us, and they react to it and try to influence it just like everyone else.

Look. Were high school civics teachers asked by Department of Education bureaucrats to tweak their lectures and pedagogical material to make volunteering seem cool, I’d object to that too — though if a “volunteering outreach czar” independently encouraged a bunch of teachers to promote service opportunities by hanging pre-printed posters on bulletin boards within their classrooms, I’d likely count myself untroubled.

In the former example, the actual job of the teacher — educating children based on facts and sound pedagogy — is corrupted. It is made subservient to a propaganda effort. Even worse, that effort is being coordinated by administrators who ought to count educating as their sacrosanct, undiluted goal, one that is incompatible with pushing propaganda efforts on the side.

Perhaps my interlocutors can better understand my concern if I use a journalistic example. Imagine that the Queen of England and President Obama are touting a new effort to reduce the rate of smoking. Via government officials close to those leaders, the heads of the BBC and NPR are informed of the effort, and asked to coordinate a conference call to include all journalists in the news organizations. On the call, the reporters are encouraged to make smoking seem uncool in their stories. Does everyone agree that it is inappropriate for the head of a news organization to abet that type of request, and that insofar as it is honored, the journalism produced — and the core reason for the news organization’s existence — will have been corrupted?

Artists aren’t uniquely apolitical people, nor are they so fragile that they demand kid gloves, but there is a relevant quality at stake here that is common to art, education, journalism, and science — all are pursuits that require integrity if they are to maintain their worth. It is in society’s interest to preserve this worth — indeed it is so valuable that people are always trying to co-opt it for their own ends.

Just as the university operates on the proposition that it is valuable to preserve places in society where truth and knowledge are pursued for their own sake, the NEA exists in part for the sake of uncorrupted art. The university administrator would undermine his mission if he asked his leading professors, “In the course of your social science scholarship, could you play up the importance and coolness of volunteerism?” So too, the NEA administrator undermines his mission when he asks, “In the course of making your art, could you make volunteering cool?”

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One Response to “Art Requires Integrity”

  1. davidlosangeles Says:

    Conor Friedersdorf,

    The title of your posting is “Keeping propaganda out of art”, why every would anyone want to do that. Some of the greatest works of art are propaganda. Most of William Shakespeares better plays are unapologetic propaganda explaining and justifying how an obscure Welsh family (descendants of Maredudd ap Tudur) came to be the greatest (in his opinion) English dynasty ever (Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1 – 3, and Henry the VIII). Titus Andronicus and Julius Caeser are paeans to wonders of absolutism. John Steinbeck’s early works are terrific works of art and propaganda. The Greek playwrights wrote of nothing but polemics and politics. The same with Tolstoy, Zola, and any number of other artists. I could go on and on. Art can be dainty, clinical, and devoid of any meaningful connection in the world, but a lot of it is not, and generally not the better stuff.

    I do not see what is wrong with teaching students that smoking is bad (it is). I noticed that you think it is a bad idea for the government to use the arts to discourage smoking but you did not comment on whether you thought that when tobacco companies pay movie companies TV networks to make smoking look cool that that was a bad idea. Likewise I think that encouraging teachers to teach students that volunteering in the community IS a very good idea. (In the interest of full disclosure, my academic training and career has been in public health and cigarettes are the #1 threat to public health in the world. Further, my wife often includes “service learning” in the college classes that she teaches, part of the student’s grade comes from working in the community).

    So long as the NEA is not out there saying “Vote Democratic (or Republican)”, it should encourage these sorts of things.

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