William Safire And Art That's Good for You

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It used to be fairly easy to draw the political battle lines over art in America.

On one side, let's call it the left, was a view of human creativity that emphasized confrontation and paradigm busting, that reveled in political provocation and performance art, experimental theater and German opera directors, and could be found, reliably every two years, in the Whitney Biennial. On the other, let's call it the right, was a view of art as affirmative and pretty, that favored arts that were popular enough to be commercial, and most of the traditional performing arts, and could be found on a nightly basis at places like the Kennedy Center. This basic cultural fissure was only deepened by the right-wing assault on the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s and the failed left-wing efforts to push back with yet more provocation and confrontation.

If this is an accurate picture of art in America, then conservative pundit William Safire's delivery on Monday of the 19th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy is something of an anomaly. The Hanks lecture is sponsored by Americans for the Arts, which, though officially nonpartisan, works to keep dollars flowing to the arts. Safire was aware of the potentially awkward situation of his appearance (and joked about it several times).

"I'm a right-wing pundit and have been for many years," he said near the top. And later, he asked, "What's a longtime vituperative right-wing scandalmonger doing, talking to this audience about the value of education in the arts and the need for a new relevance in the presentation of the classics?"

But in fact there was no awkwardness. And not just because Safire is a genial and self-deprecating curmudgeon who has won admirers all across the political spectrum with his Sunday column on language in the New York Times Magazine. Safire, who came to discuss work he has sponsored through the Dana Foundation, espoused a view of art's role in society that is essentially mainstream.

"One challenge to the arts in America is the need to make the arts, especially the classic masterpieces, accessible and relevant to today's audience," he said.

The surprise here is not that Safire, the self-proclaimed right-winger, has a mainstream view; rather it's that large policy organizations, like Americans for the Arts, have gravitated so far away from the "left" position.

Safire's speech was ostensibly to share results of what his Dana Foundation research can tell us about the effects of arts education on cognitive development. This line of scientific pursuit has been spurred by two things. First, there is the lingering hoopla sparked by the so-called "Mozart Effect" announced in 1993 (the essential idea is that complex music is good for the brain). The other, as Safire put it, is the excitement over "the latest imaging techniques that enable us to see functional activity inside our brains."

Unfortunately, the Dana research, as Safire acknowledged, isn't very far along. All the scientific news in his speech was coached in qualifiers ("preliminary results that are not conclusive but show the possibility . . ."). And in his one detailed description of an experiment, there was no mention of the new "functional imaging" technology -- in which kids are stuffed brain-first into devices that let scientists peer into their heads. The research described by Safire yields more nuts-and-bolts behavioral data that correlates arts education with tests that determine language, math and spatial reasoning skills.

But no matter. The research is promising and perhaps it will yield results. More important for the arts advocates assembled in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater was Safire's vigorous plumping for what is known in the trade as an "instrumental" view of art. "Instrumental" as opposed to "intrinsic," a philosophical distinction between art as useful for something, versus art as intrinsically pleasurable, valuable or enlightening.

Although he acknowledged, for himself, the intrinsic value of art, and used words such as "enrich" and "treasure" and "timeless" (buzzwords all for the intrinsic position), the thrust of Safire's talk was about the arts' instrumental value. And that now seems to be the mainstream view, that art is instrumental in a pragmatic way that it is good for making children better at other more useful things, like math and reading (which everyone values).

There is also a view of art as instrumentally radical, meaning it helps people question assumptions and challenge authority, but that view is now quietly encased in the past, in movies like "Dead Poets Society." Among those listening to Safire were, no doubt, some instrumental liberals, but in hopes of reviving art in the public sphere, many of them seem to have thrown in their lot with the instrumental conservatives.

The problem? An instrumental view of art places art on the same plane, say, as video games. If art is good for cognition, and video games are good for cognition (there's research looking into that, too), then why steer little Jimmy away from Doom and toward Beethoven? Unless you believe in intrinsic values for art, or in instrumental values that are higher than simply building cognitive ability, then video games and art are essentially the same.

Safire's speech was evidence of how thoroughly the instrumental viewpoint, and the conservative one, now dominate in public discussions of art. In a speech that pointed prominently to Richard Nixon's early support for the NEA, Safire all but said that the best hope for arts advocates is to line up behind the conservative consensus. If you want arts traction in Republican Washington, it makes sense to stick to Shakespeare and education initiatives (a path the NEA has taken, productively, and is now being followed all too predictably by the Kennedy Center, which has announced the last thing we really need: a six-month Shakespeare "festival").

Safire used the word "classic" repeatedly. He spoke of the hope that "cognitive science today can help illuminate classic art." He even referred to the creation of "new classics," an odd locution for an expert on speech.

Arts advocates are no doubt very happy to have allies such as Safire and may not notice the subtle shift in vocabulary toward the dominance of words like "classic" -- which suggests art that is widely admired, consensus-building and essentially noncontroversial. And Safire's devotion to the arts is certainly genuine. But walk outside, onto the terrace above the Potomac, and read what's written on the walls of the Kennedy Center. The president for which it is named once said, "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty."

That kind of thinking has been fundamental to the thought of arts advocates for generations now. They defined the challenge facing them as a public that fears art, or is simply ignorant of art, or can't get access to art. If only arts lovers had the right arguments in their quiver (art can improve cognition, for example), then the arts might take on a central place in American life.

But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? What if the real problem is that some significant portion of the U.S. population simply hates art? Not fear. Not ignorance. Not even indifference. But loathing.

What would that look like? If you don't like to listen, or observe, if you don't like ambiguity or complexity, if you prefer to shout your opinion (even if you openly acknowledge you know nothing about what you're saying), you are, perhaps, someone inclined to hate art. It's possible that for years now, arts advocates have been wasting their breath, arguing into a black hole, with opponents who will never happily yield an inch to art.

If that's true, then perhaps arts advocates don't need the tools of persuasion that Safire is offering them. Perhaps they simply need a little more fight in them, a willingness to confront openly what H.L. Mencken called "the booboisie" rather than persuade soccer moms and uber-parents that art will help Junior ace his SATs.

American art used to confront and shame the art haters, exposing their provincial ignorance and bald hypocrisy, their cant and dogma and lies. Art used to be about more than convincing people that piano lessons will help your darling get into MIT. But no more. By limiting the debate to the idea that art is useful for developing practical skills, the arts world disengages from a more epic battle with forces in our society that prefer a world closed to questioning, impatient with the new or threatening, and comfortable only with certainties passed down from authority figures. Perhaps that's why these forces have recently taken on such prominence in our cultural discourse.

The new consensus -- which mixes a quiescent view of art and the classics with arguments about cognitive improvement -- won't, in the short term, be bad for "the classics." But what about everything else?

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