Art: The Rest Mere Sound and Fury

By David E. Kaun
Professor of Economics, UC Santa Cruz

“In its advanced positions, [art] is the Great Refusal—the protest
against that which is.” Herbert Marcuse (1964)

I first discovered the “solution” to the world’s problems in the summer of 1987, at the nuclearUniversity of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). There, on the San Diego campus, students, academics and policy makers met in a variety of venues seeking a way out of the Cold War. One such venue was a two-week program designed to “prep” faculty members who were considering teaching in areas related to the Cold War. I had become interested in several aspects of the weapons procurement process, and in the way the vast amount of military spending was impacting other aspects of our society. With little expertise in these issues, the IGCC summer session beckoned. As it turned out, the program served me well, both in terms of subsequent publications and some national exposure surrounding the defense scandal of 1988. But I digress.

The program involved morning and afternoon sessions. Our instructors were an elite group—internationally recognized government officials, academic researchers and advisors—all active in our nation’s defense, diplomatic and policy-making establishment. In those days one became a member of the establishment by hewing to a reasonable centrist position, and most all of our “professors” could be so characterized. Most of the students, myself included, were further left than our “professors.”

A recurring theme through many of the sessions was the success of US policy in the post WW II era. After all, we were told, “there had been no land war in Europe since the mid 1940s.” Little if any mention was made of Vietnam or Korea, where the number of casualties, deaths and injured, far exceed those of the first “Great War,” and were about 35 percent of the US casualties, killed and wounded, sustained in WW II. Numbers which themselves pale in comparison to the costs inflicted on the Koreans and Vietnamese, whose countries we were saving. Thus, for many of us, the claims of success evoked a fair degree of cynicism.

These doubts aside, we did learn a good deal from the program. For me, however, the real and lasting value came beyond the classroom. At the end of the two-week session, we were taken to the La Jolla Playhouse, where we saw a special performance of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods. The play, one of four Tony Award nominees for 1988, couldn’t have been more relevant to the issues we had just been exposed to. Robert Prosky and Sam Waterston, the former an old, cynical/realistic Soviet arms negotiator, matched wits and charm with his eager if unyieldingly formal youthful American counterpart. It was no match. Nor did the two ever reach an agreement. That’s not what their respective governments ever had in mind.

As with the play, the actual arms negotiations were themselves theater; all about pretending to do something while continuing to produce destructive weapons in numbers sufficient to destroy the planet several times over. I left the performance deeply moved, as did many of my previously skeptical peers. To the best of my recollection, I thought to myself, “if the peoples of the world are ever going to see their common humanity, it will be through the arts; through the kind of powerful theater that I have just seen.” The director, Des McAnuff, made the point more elegantly in the New York Times review:

“This play is more illumination than a docudrama could ever be…You can read any number of books on the subject but it’s a different thing entirely to feel you’ve gotten to the soul of the problem.”

It was only recently when I realized the impact Blessing’s work had had on my thinking. In the last several years my interests have turned towards the arts. The arts “industry,” and in particular the non-profit performing arts sector has been of major interest to economists for decades, most actively in Western Europe and England, where government support of the arts has been an accepted (if waning) responsibility. I teach regularly in the area. I have also, since the age of nine, been a decent clarinetist, working in local symphonies wherever I’ve lived. Most recently I’ve become an active if modest supporter of arts activities in Santa Cruz and beyond. It’s during these years when the seed planted by Lee Blessing began to germinate.

In 2005, at UCSC, I heard Rebecca Jackson perform Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. Rebecca, a brilliant young violinist and Juilliard graduate, had returned to Santa Cruz for her Master’s degree, studying with her long time mentor and well-known violinist, Roy Malan. Shortly after the concert, I asked Rebecca to speak in my Economics of the Arts class. Her visit was magical. Here was this 25 year old “kid,” talking to the class in a manner no different than had any of the other students been in her place. She was simply “one of them.” Until she picked up the violin, when mouths dropped, and the students sat in awe, as did their professor. That was the start of a cooperative relationship combining Rebecca’s talent and amazingly widespread connections with first class musicians across the country and beyond, with my supportive efforts.
One of our ventures involved Rebecca’s Vols Quartet. In the spring of ’07, they performed at the UCSC Chancellor’s home for a large group of donors. It was here where the Blessing-stimulated thoughts were first expressed. I asked our chancellor, George Blumenthal, to be brief in introducing me, as I was going to be “long.” Well, not “long” for a professor, but plenty long for an introduction to the Vols Quartet. I spent the next eleven minutes complaining, albeit in a charming manner, about the lack of support given to the arts, at the national level, and among most but not all of our nation’s institutions, and universities in particular. It was a plea for support for the one area of creative endeavor, the arts, where if the world were to become a better place…there it was, I had put the thoughts stimulated by that afternoon at the La Jolla Playhouse some twenty years earlier into reasonably coherent words. And thanks to an invitation to speak at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication more than a year later, the eleven minute “rant” evolved into a more serious and extended presentation, the basis for what follows.

There are essentially two issues involved: the first and easiest to document is the extent to which the arts are (de)valued in our society, the second and inherently subjective in nature is the core argument that grew out of that afternoon in San Diego. That is, if the world is going to become a better, more caring and humane place, it won’t be through the sciences. Scientists provide us with both wondrous and horrific opportunities—and the net impact may well be a wash. Nor will it be through the many schools of thought found among the social sciences, a situation aptly described by J.W. Goethe many years ago:

“Every school of thought is like a man who has talked to himself for a hundred years and is delighted with his own mind, however stupid it may be.” (1817, Principles of Natural Science)

And every social science discipline contains at least three or four schools of thought (hereafter, SOT), each at odds with the others. That leaves the arts and the artists. An argument that is much more than a process of elimination. Let me turn to the simpler task first.

Based on direct government support, it is eminently clear that among the developed nations, funding for the arts in the United States is a mere afterthought. Comparative data for the mid 1990s shows the United States as the real Mr. Scrooge. The US spent $6/capita as compared with $91, $85 and $57 in Finland, Germany and both France and Sweden, respectively. And little has changed since. In 2007 total government support–local, state and national–amounted to $1.3 billion in an economy with a GDP of $13.8 trillion. The reader can do the math. And finally, at the federal level, support for the arts has literally flat lined in current dollars and declined significantly in real dollars. The NEA budget barely survived the early 1990s no-nothing effort by Jesse Helms, and has yet to reach its 1993 peak levels—in current dollars!! In early 2008, Robert L. Lynch, president and chief executive of the advocacy group, Americans for the Arts, called the Bush efforts to cut the proposed budget from $144 to $124 million “senseless.” Again, these are in current dollars: correcting for inflation since 1992 would require a federal contribution of $257 million. In other words, since the peak year, 1992, direct support for the arts had declined by over 50 percent. On the other hand, state and local funding ($1.18 billion in total) have maintained their real value, but again represent a minuscule portion of the over $2 trillion in total state and local expenditures.
US tax policies do, however, impact arts funding indirectly via deductions for private contributions. This is a non-trivial matter, though of lessening impact as the tax rates have declined significantly over the post WW II era. It is also the case that private contributions (individual, corporate and foundations) provide over 40 percent of arts funding, a sum significantly greater than exists in other western nations. The fact remains, however, that in terms of explicit public policy via government funding, the United States is fully deserving of the Mr. Scrooge epitaph. Indeed, we were conceived as a nation with his genes.

Adam Smith, godfather of the economic views that now dominate much of our national policy and many of our universities’ most prestigious economics departments, provided an early indication of how a market-oriented society might look upon the arts. In the book that started it all, The Wealth of Nations, Smith is clear in his contempt for the arts:

“There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents…but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered…as a sort of public prostitution. …the exorbitant rewards of players, opera-singers…are founded upon those two principles: the rarity and beauty of the talents and the discredit of employing them in this manner.” [from section on inequalities of wages and profit, p. 107]

In a later section on the education of youth, Smith continues:

“It seems probable that the musical education of the Greeks had no great effect in mending their morals, since, without any such education, those of the Romans were upon the whole superior.”

Smith’s contempt for the arts set the tone for others who would follow. Writing some fifty years later, Jeremy Bentham proclaimed the essence of utilitarianism in his famous ode to the common man; “…if the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than …[arts and sciences of music and poetry].” But it isn’t a matter of relative value alone. For Bentham, as with Smith, there’s something loathsome about the arts as well. He writes:

“Between poetry and truth there is a natural opposition: false morals, fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false… Truth, exactitude of every kind, is fatal to poetry.”

These views would find a special place in the land of opportunity and individual freedom that drew many Europeans to its shores. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, those pioneers brought with them not only a desire for freedom, but the cultural values of Smith and Bentham as well:

“It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own, if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire of comfort, and the constant efforts by which every one attempts to procure it, make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations…will therefore cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

Disdain for the arts continues to be reflected by the American intelligentsia today. Richard Posner, once considered as a replacement for Sandra Day O’Connor on the US Supreme Court, offered a contemporary perspective on Bentham’s celebration of push-pin. In a 1974 essay dealing with the impact of cable TV on culture and the arts, he wrote:

“Many performing groups could balance their books simply by increasing their prices or reducing the quality (and so the cost) of their output…Their “plight” then is to a considerable extent the result of deliberate choice. They do not see themselves as engaged primarily in serving a market, but in propagating a cultural tradition. It does not follow that in so defining their mission they are motivated by concerns other than self-interest. The total resources–from both customers and donors–obtained by such policy may be larger than if they pursued a narrower commercial purpose, which might dry up their sources of charitable and public support.”

And even if government support weren’t evil per se, as Nobel Economist, Milton Friedman has argued, such support “poisons the springs of private charitable activity,” and thus at best, such support would be futile. But not really; for Friedman and his sympathetic colleagues ‘the market knows best’ remains the golden rule. The ‘rule,’ of course applies to the brethren of Adam Smith, but by no means all economists. There was a fellow named Marx, and another named Keynes. Whatever the view of the former, Keynes was not only a devotee of substantial government support in the economy, but for the arts as well. But Keynes’s views have yet to dominate the American ethic, as our government’s relative if not considerable neglect of the arts attests.

Having answered the first question above regarding the priority given to the arts in our society, let me turn to the second. As indicated, the issue here—the essential value of the arts as distinct from the physical and social sciences—is inherently subjective in nature. That is, hard data are not available. Indeed, it’s not an argument that can be “made.” Rather, it’s one that must be felt and understood emotionally as much, if not more than intellectually. This can only happen with direct and broad exposure, a serious problem given the discussion above.

Let me make the negative case—against the other disciplines—briefly. In regard to the natural sciences, their “value” is perhaps best seen in the words of George Kistiakowsky, Harvard professor of chemistry, who worked on the Manhattan Project and later was a science advisor to President Eisenhower. In a 1987 TV interview with Carl Sagan, Confessions of a Weaponeer, Kistiakowsky was asked to sum up his entire career. The chemist replied: “I spent the first third of my life trying to become the best chemist I could, the next third practicing as a chemist, and the last third trying to undo all I had done in the previous third.”

No one would dispute that science provides us with the means to do the most wonderful things, at the same time providing the means to do the most horrific things as well. In essence, it is not the work of the scientist as scientist per se, but rather how that work is used. And while arguments abound regarding the ethical limits to scientific research—indeed there is a virtual industry dealing with the subject—there is scant evidence regarding the impact (if any) of such concerns. As indicated in a recent 2005 effort to confront the issue, the authors of “Forbidden Knowledge” observe that “beyond anecdotal cases, little is known about what, and in what ways, science is constrained.” In an effort to go beyond the anecdotal, Joanna Kempner and her colleagues conducted a series of in-depth interviews, yielding the following conclusions:

“Formal and informal constraints have a palpable effect on what science is studied, how studies are performed, how data are interpreted, and how results are disseminated…the informal limitations are more prevalent and pervasive than the formal constraints.”

Unfortunately, in most all respects, scientific discovery is fungible. Thus, the work of scientists working in regimes absent of some or all ethical constraints will limit, if not completely obviate, such considerations where they do exist. Absent a universal Gandhi-like ethic, the real and potential liabilities to which scientific research may be put will certainly offset to a degree, if not dominate, the beneficial effects.

Finding fundamental solutions via the social sciences is clearly a fool’s mission. One can indeed find “a solution,” one that fits his or her preordained ideology, echoing Goethe’s apt and damning characterization of “schools of thought,”(SOT) described above. One need go no further than the economics, the self-professed “queen” of the social sciences. Try to find agreement in the core ideas of Smith, Marx and Keynes, arguably the giants of the profession for each of the past three centuries. Each of the respective SOT members provides with certainty both solutions to the economic woes of the world along with equally certain condemnation of their competitors. No better example exists than the reaction among the profession to liberal economist Paul Krugman’s receiving the 2008 Nobel Prize (an honor bestowed on economists, to the exclusion of all other social scientists):

“Much of his popular work is disgraceful.”
“Paul Krugman is the only columnist in the United States who has had it right on almost every count from the beginning.”

The comments come from economists at George Mason University and MIT respectively. It shouldn’t be difficult to guess which of the two departments is considered a first cousin of the Chicago School, home of the children of Adam Smith, and the other more sympathetic to the ideas of Keynes. Robert Skidelsky, biographer of Keynes writing at the same time in response to the global melt-down, made the same point in arguing that “mainstream theory has no explanation of why things have gone so horribly wrong. To understand how markets can generate their own hurricanes we need to return to John Maynard Keynes.”

An identical cacophony representing SOT exists throughout the social sciences. I asked my colleagues in anthropology, politics, psychology and sociology to describe briefly the SOTs they considered active in their respective disciplines. Their responses, coupled with an internet search, suggest at a minimum four to eight unique SOTs within each of the fields. And my own implicit listing of the three dominant schools in economics is an underestimate. In any event, it is obvious that in looking to the social sciences, one can easily find “answers” to the pressing needs of society, answers that are as predictable as they are diverse and contradictory.

The case to be made for the arts, then, may seem to be one of a process of elimination. It’s not. However, as noted above, nor can it be made on traditional academic/intellectual grounds. Rather, human understanding in the broadest and most essential sense will come fundamentally from direct experience itself: the personal impact of what we as individuals see, hear and read. That is, via a method of personal induction rather than deduction. And the “personal” is essential in the process.
It is the inherent aesthetic quality of good art that allows human understanding and action to extend beyond the narrow, mundane and self-interested aspects of everyday life. To paraphrase Hugo Meynell (The Nature of Aesthetic Value), good art covers the gamut of human experience, including feelings and mood; it enhances our understanding of these experiences; it stimulates us to not only make judgments about these experiences, but to then act in ways that otherwise we’d never have considered.

This is not to say that one can find no aesthetic value in a scientific proof, on an economic model of the global melt down. Such beauty, however, is a by-product, not the core element of these disciplines. Not so with art. And it was the profound aesthetic nature of Lee Blessing’s play that led me to think and act in the ways I have since leaving the La Jolla Playhouse many years ago.

I didn’t know it at the time, but such thoughts put me in rather elite company, as the opening quote from Marcuse suggests. Let me conclude with the words of two individuals whose brilliant work has had an unquestionably valuable and likely enduring impact on our world.

“[unlike art] A political speech… a social program, a philosophical system can…be built smoothly and consistently on an error or a lie; and what is concealed and distorted will not be immediately clear. But then to counteract it comes a contradictory speech…or differently constructed philosophy–and again everything seems smooth and graceful, and again hangs together. That is why they inspire trust–and distrust.”

“Who will give mankind one single system for reading its instruments, both for wrongdoing and for doing good, for the intolerable and the tolerable…? Who will make clear …what is really oppressive and unbearable…and thus direct our anger against what is in fact terrible and not merely near at hand? Who is capable of extending such an understanding across the boundaries of his own personal experience? Who has the skill to make a narrow, obstinate human being aware of others’ far-off grief and joy, to make him understand dimensions and delusions he himself has never lived through? Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proofs are all powerless. But, happily, in our world there is a way. It is art, and it is literature.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Price acceptance speech, 1970)

These views differ little from those of Albert Camus, in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, not only in his perspective on the arts, but sadly, on how little we seem to have learned over the past half century:

“For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings… …Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.”

At the same time, in describing the times in which he lived Camus inadvertently proves to be as much a prophet as a brilliant writer:

“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression…”

Camus also expressed a degree of optimism, that we might “restore among nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labor and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant.” Such a restoration will come from those seeking “truth” and “liberty”–the artists and writers among us. He’s right. But such understanding will only come in a society that provides artists with the resources necessary to be heard. Sadly, Camus’ characterization of a world on the brink of madness and destruction is as apt today as in his time, a vivid measure of our failure to recognize and understand the essential and irreplaceable value of the arts.

Copyright 2014