This morning I’m considering some important thoughts in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout, in response to Bill Gates, who “questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ [Gates] says.”
Teachout responds, in part, with: “I especially like what Somerset Maugham said in his novel ‘Cakes and Ale’: ‘Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger.’ So it is, and sooner or later most of us will long for it as we do for food. What could be more honorable than for a rich person to help satisfy that hunger in the same way that he might underwrite the operation of a food bank?”
What do you think? Is it significant/problematic that some philanthropists see this as a true dichotomy, and side with medical research every time to the exclusion of the arts? (To many of us, the answer should be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” but some people with great influence simply don’t see it that way.)
Friends in the arts (and others): Do you feel that we’re beyond having to justify why the arts deserve resources, or explaining the value of the arts in the context of human flourishing? Or are you up for the fight? If so, how? What do you say, and what resources do you use, when thinking through these questions with, for example, students who are encountering them for the first time?
I’ll offer up a few items that I teach every year that I think powerfully demonstrate the real-world value of the arts and humanities:
1) Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994), an epic masterpiece which shows, among many other things, the impact on identity when personal stories (writings, pictures, artwork) are systematically and violently erased and replaced by an institutionally sanctioned narrative (Mao’s Little Red Book, images of Mao Zedong), thereby causing us to reconsider the relationships between art and beauty and truth and their roles in our lives.
2) The 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, based on Lynn H. Nicholas’ book. The film confronts the Nazi plundering of the great art of Europe, and the extreme efforts taken to preserve and protect the artistic heritage of European nations against the backdrop of war. The film offers so many poignant moments, not the least of which are the tears of joy shed by the Florentine people when, after the Allied victory, a truck containing Florence’s stolen masterpieces returns to the city to bring home some of its art. Clearly the works meant something deeply important to the people, something inextricably related to who they were as individuals and as a community, a city, and a nation. “Art is what makes us human,” one woman says. That’s a statement that deserves a clear-eyed look from anyone, regardless of views on philanthropic giving.
3) Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which shows perhaps better than any contemporary work I can think of the real-world value of art to bring meaning to the lives of those suffering under an oppressive regime. I read it and teach it as a companion to The Thousand and One Nights, the frame story of which gives us one of the great heroes in all of art: Scheherazade, who demonstrates the power of story more completely than perhaps any character in literature.
4) This brief but wonderful Open Letter to SUNY Albany, in which a biochemist takes a university president to task for his short-sighted utilitarian view of the arts and humanities. The letter brings up many significant ideas about what it means for humans to flourish, capturing succinctly the well-known contributions of the arts and humanities to provide the best answers not just for what we are but for how we live, and why.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.