14 Sep

Ken Myers on the NEA

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/14/05

A few weeks ago, I received a note from a high school student at a Christian school who had read my book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, and who was writing a senior thesis about the question of whether or not Christians should support the idea of federal funding for the arts. It's a more complicated question than is often recognized, on both sides. In the interest of stimulating further discussion, here's what I wrote to her:

As you rightly acknowledge in your note, you are raising some enormous issues. Let me try to offer some ideas that might help.

First, I should say that the question of federal funding for the arts is as much a question of what we believe about the purpose of government as it is what we believe about the purpose of art. People could agree on their understanding of what art is and what place it should have in our lives without agreeing on the question of federal support.

But let's start with the question of art. When Christians start looking at this question, there are two immediate obstacles. First, for over 100 years, the various institutions that sustain the arts have become distorted and confused. This is not to say that all modern art is bad, but that our culture's understanding of the place of art in human life is really a mess. Modern culture is by and large confused about what it means to be human, and so it is not surprising that it is confused about the place of the arts in human life.

So that's the first obstacle: our culture's understanding of what the arts are all about.

The second obstacle is that American Christians by and large are equally confused about the arts. Most Christians seem to have a low view of the arts, and I think it is because they have a low view of imagination.

Let me try to correlate these two confusions with a shockingly quick summary of what I think went wrong in the West in the past 400 years. In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis observed that in the classical and Christian view prior to the modern age, the chief task of living a good life was understood as discovering meaning and moral order in Creation, and then, through the exercise of self-control, through the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and (in the Christian view) by the experience of grace, to "conform the soul to reality." There is a pattern of reality in Creation that can be perceived through what theologians call "general revelation," and one lived a good life, one ful-filled one's humanity by fitting into that pattern. Lewis also once said that you can't go against the grain of the universe without getting splinters. What he meant was that when you ignore or violate the order that is there, you will suffer in some way (whether or not you know it).

The older view of art fit into this understanding. Art was one way of perceiving the order of things in the universe. The world was knowable through imaginative means as well as through rational analysis. I think that's why we have so much poetry and metaphor in the Bible. I think that is why wisdom literature in particular relies on imaginative forms of expression (look at all of the metaphors in the Psalms, for example).

Human imagination has the capacity to tell us something important about reality because God, the author of reality and the One in whose image we are made, has made it so. Robert Houston Smith (in a book called Patches of Godlight: the Pattern of Thought of C. S. Lewis, University of Georgia Press, 1981) once summarized Lewis's adherence to this older view of Creation and imagination this way: "Although the imagination might entertain, its noblest and most essential function was that of guiding the mind toward the higher truths that gave meaning to existence. Lewis insisted that those who suppose imagination to be only a psychological or physiological activity of the mind are wrong. When functioning as it should, in secular as well as religious contexts, imagination is the most important means by which higher truths can be communicated. . . . He was concerned to dispel the popular notion that whatever is imaginative is, by its very nature, false or nonexistent. What the ordinary person fails to conceive is that there are some aspects of reality that can be conveyed in no other way than imaginatively. Inasmuch as reality itself transcends the most abstract language, the imagination can offer, when properly focused, higher integrative levels, helping to lead the receptive mind toward a supraverbal apprehension of reality that draws upon the mind's innate capabilities of recognizing truth when presented with it. Thus by imagination Lewis meant something far more important than the aesthetic experience of the fabrication of fantasies." [p. 136]

Lewis gave "assent to the venerable, though by no means universally held assumption that poetic language 'is by no means merely an expression, nor a stimulant, of emotion, but a real medium of information,' whether (he carefully added) that information be false or true. . . . Though immensely subtler, the human imagination is, in its own distinctive way, just as absolute as are universal moral laws or syllogisms. All are part and parcel of the same underlying reality that is itself inaccessible to the mind through any direct means." [p. 136f.]

I want to emphasize two things about this older view (which I believe is the view most consistent with biblical teaching) of Creation and imagination. First, there is an order in Creation. The universe is not just a lot of meaningless raw material, but there are patterns of meaning in the structure of creation that has continuity with the pattern of meaning in our moral and spiritual lives. Second, both reason and imagination are necessary to apprehend this meaning. Even science relies a lot on imagination (Mary Midgley's book Science and Poetry makes this very clear, as does the wonderful work in philosophy of science by Michael Polanyi) in the pursuit of new discoveries. I'm convinced that Einstein's grasp of the way the universe worked was a product of his imagination, not just his ability to compute.

Some of the greatest artists in Western history were very explicit in their belief that they were discoverers of something in reality, not inventors or creators of an entirely new thing.

I said that this was the "older view" to contrast it with the modern view, and by "modern," I mean the view that begins to take shape in the 17th century, and becomes entrenched during the Enlightenment. In the modern view, as Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, the chief task is not to conform the soul to reality, but to remake reality to fit human desires. In the modern view, the universe is just matter, known by mathematics, but there is no moral order inherent in things. There is nothing there to which we should conform. There is no "higher truth" that can be perceived by reflecting on Nature (notice that the term "Nature" replaces "Creation" in this view). Human will, expressed in human reason, is the highest force in the universe, and we fulfill our humanity not by discerning the pattern of the grain of the universe and living accordingly, but by expanding the power of the human will to do whatever it wants.

On this view, imagination is not an organ of meaning that assists us in recognizing boundaries, but imagination is a way of expressing unbounded human creativity, freedom, and power. This is why art has, for many modern people, displaced religion, and why many currents of modern art are so deliberately opposed to traditional religious belief.

Now let me get to the question of support for the arts. Some people will say that since so many artistic institutions and individual artists are pursuing a distorted, even blasphemous agenda through the arts, the government should not be at all involved. But if we were consistent, we would have to recognize that many politicians and lawyers have views of law, justice, and government that are just as distorted, so we shouldn''t have government at all! Or, less radically, we could argue that many people involved in scientific research are pursuing power over what they suppose to be meaningless matter in an arrogant and ungodly way, and so government should not support scientific or technical research.

I believe that art serves a public good that is as important as that served by science or commerce or education. If it is appropriate for government to support and organize those other spheres, then there is no reason why it should not be committed to the arts. That being said, not all science, commerce, education, or art serves the public good equally, and, in a democracy, one of the tasks of political life is to promote discussion and debate about the nature of the common good. Unfortunately, the modern project of unlimited freedom has advanced so far that people think their government has no business in making any value judgments. This is a recipe for anarchy. Laws and policies are always expressions of values, and in a democratic society, those values need to be discussed and debated.

One thing that the Church should do in such a setting is promote really good art criticism, to train people to make public arguments about art that rejects the relativism and skepticism of our time. Unfortunately, like their modern neighbors, most Christians don't believe (as Lewis did) that art has anything to do with objective value. Most Christians have accepted the modern idea that art is purely subjective, just an expression of individual (and thus arbitrary) likes or dislikes. And so even while they oppose the NEA on allegedly Christian grounds, they advance a view of the arts that has more in common with their enemies than they realize.

The Endowments (arts and humanities) were set up through the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209). In Section 2 of the Act, "Declaration of Purpose," Congress declared (among other things) the following:

"(2) that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future;

"(3) that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and that it must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant; . . .

"(7) that the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit;

"(8) that Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression. . . ."

Some of the concerns expressed here no doubt came from a famous book called The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow, which looked at the relative roles of science and of the humanities in modern Western culture. His book would be good background for you (he published a revised edition of it in 1964, the year before this bill was passed, and it was very widely discussed at the time).

I think it might be helpful for you to study this legislation (if you haven't already) and ask whether its assumptions (what judicial scholars would call the original intent of the law) is widely understood and affirmed by Americans today, especially by those in the arts.

For the last two years, I have served on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, helping to decide how some of the NEA's money is allocated. I was asked to serve because I have been involved in arts journalism since I was 22 years old (that's 30 years, by the way). But there aren't many committed, theologically deliberate Christians who get involved in the arts this way, which is one of the reasons why so many arts institutions and so much thinking about the arts generally is so disordered.

We will never see ideas and practices in the arts improve in ways that fit a Christian understanding of reality unless Christians are committed to the arts.

Here are a couple of other observations.

Even though the arts serve a public good, it would not be necessary for the federal government to provide support. Regional, state, and local governments may be a more appropriate level for that support to originate. But I've never heard any Christian who wanted to dismantle the NEA argue for increase in government support at other levels.

Finally, let's do a thought experiment. Since Christians believe that God is the Creator of all things, the one who established the foundation of the earth, they should be at the forefront of honoring God in every possible way. They should be more interested in the nature of Creation than people whose belief are rooted in humanism, environmentalism, science, or art. They should be committed to encouraging rich and fitting experience of all of creation. We are saved in order to restore the fullness of our humanity in Christ. We are not saved in order to escape our humanity. Sadly, most American Christians seem to have absorbed the modern assumption that religion is about matters private and purely spiritual, when in fact, the Gospel is a message that has consequences for all of life.

But if American Christians were really committed to honoring their Creator fully, they would be the biggest supporters of the arts. Private patronage of the arts by thoughtful, artistically committed Christians could dwarf federal funding of the arts. And yet I've never seen any of the Christian opponents of arts funding suggest that we need to promote artistic literacy and patronage within the Church.

I hope that some of this is helpful. If you have any questions about these comments, please get back in touch. And if you would like further bibliographic recommendations for your thesis, please let me know.

Good luck, and God's blessings on your writing! [Posted September 2005, ALG]