[Editor’s Note: Yesterday, TAC ran a perspective critical of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Today, we offer our readers a counterpoint.]
In the mid-19th century, literary circles in Russia were embroiled in a controversy over the relative value of boots and poetry. On one side, an influential group of leftists, led by figures like the nihilist Zaytsev and the radical critic Pisarev, took to proclaiming that cultural productions were worthless in a world where material suffering was still possible. Zaytsev announced that “every tradesman has a value that much greater than any poet, just as any number, no matter how small, has a value greater than zero.” Pisarev wrote a series of articles attacking Alexander Pushkin—who was widely honored at the time as Russia’s greatest artist—for worshiping beauty and neglecting real life.
Conservative elements in the Russian intelligentsia were outraged. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was particularly disturbed by the Russian left’s attempts to make art commensurable with material goods. He offered an impassioned rebuttal of the left’s nihilist anti-aesthetics in his 1872 novel Demons, in which a middle-aged intellectual who has become disillusioned with the radical materialism of the younger generation delivers a confused but fervent defense of art and beauty to an audience of young radicals:
“Shakespeare and Raphael are higher than the liberation of the peasants, higher than nationality, higher than socialism, higher than the younger generation, higher than chemistry, higher than almost the whole of humanity. … Mankind … cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world! Science itself would not stand for a minute without beauty—it would turn into boorishness, you couldn’t invent the nail!”
Dostoyevsky’s defense of beauty as the ground of every human endeavor still resonates today when American elites make practical arguments against funding for the humanities. In 1860s Russia, it was the radical socialists who believed that culture and humanistic education were a waste of time in a world of material want; in 21st-century America, the same arguments tend to be made by conservatives. Marco Rubio tells philosophy students that the job market would be kinder to them if they were welders. Rick Scott argues that the state has no vital interest in anthropology. Like Russia’s radical materialists, our conservatives argue that people should put off the pursuit of culture until they have satisfied their material needs. They understand the arts and humanities as luxury goods—pleasures for people who have already made their mark in the world of hard facts, but certainly not directed at fundamental human needs.
It seems to be in this spirit that Donald Trump has proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—a move that the White House described as a simple cost-cutting measure. The NEA and NEH are relatively small and inexpensive programs, but they are important sources of funds for artists and researchers whose work might otherwise fall by the wayside. They are also difficult to defend in an age in which government policy is invariably justified with statistics and empirical evidence. The goods the humanities produce and secure can’t always be represented on charts and graphs. In fact, studying the humanities may worsen people’s economic prospects by inducing them to pursue virtue—which doesn’t always pay well—rather than profit.
If we believe that poetry can give us something that boots cannot, we should be suspicious of the materialist impulse to judge culture by economic standards or reduce it to a mere luxury. This suspicion is essentially conservative: while a great deal of left-liberal public policy is based on the doctrine that health, safety, and pleasure are the highest goods, conservatives would deny that the best and most beautiful aspects of human existence are secured through money or force.
Conservatism also allows us to claim that living well is an art cultivated over many generations and not something that each person figures out for herself by herself. The humanities are a living body of reasoning—some ancient and some quite recent—on how to live well. Life without culture is deeply solitary because it forces us to do this sort of reasoning without any help from outside ourselves. The sorts of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from research in the humanities to museum exhibitions to programs that bring Shakespeare plays to rural schoolchildren—give ordinary people access to the history of serious thought about the good. Funding from the two endowments ensures that the old books are still read and talked about; it also supports the production of new works that may find a place in the canon someday.
Many conservatives accept these arguments while arguing that free markets are the best means to spread artistic masterworks across the country. But although markets may be useful for producing and distributing material goods, they are not especially good at regulating cultural production. Good and ennobling art is not always lucrative, and government subsidies are precisely meant to secure goods that society is not wholly capable of securing on its own.
Conservatives are also understandably reluctant to give the state the power to determine what constitutes worthy cultural work. Their arguments are all the more forceful because they can point to numerous cases in which federal grants have supported projects in the arts and humanities that were uninteresting, obscene, or both. As a 1997 Heritage Foundation report calling for the abolition of the NEH and NEA documented in gruesome detail, some funding from these programs goes to genuinely offensive projects.
But the two endowments also support work that conservatives are more likely to consider worthwhile. The NEH funds projects on Marlowe, Machiavelli, and Boccaccio. It has supported invaluable websites like hymnary.org and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It provided a great deal of the funding for Ken Burns’s magisterial documentary series on the Civil War, and it recently helped to pay for the publication of the 13-volume journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For its part, the NEA has backed programs like Live From Lincoln Center, which broadcasts serious music across the country, and Shakespeare in American Communities, which has allowed two million American students to watch Shakespeare plays performed live. An NEA grant helped the Louisiana State University Press publish the then-unknown writer John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which has become a conservative favorite. In recent years NEA money has supported new translations of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Homer, among many others.
The range of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from revisionist and progressive work to explorations of tradition—should please conservatives who do not want the government circumscribing the human good within politically narrow definitions. By assigning grants on the basis of artistic seriousness, the NEH and NEA demonstrate their commitment to ideological pluralism.
The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEH and NEA, gave eleven reasons justifying government support for the arts and humanities. Some of these reasons were almost Dostoyevskian. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” the act declared. “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 servants” (emphasis mine).
It is the duty of conservatives to stand against thoughtless progress in every form. In 19th-century Russia, thoughtless progress was mostly driven by the socialist left. Today in the United States, both political parties seem equally eager to rush into whatever brave new world technology and market forces generate. The arts and humanities give us the resources to step back from continual progress and consider the meaning of human life. They may even be able to prevent us from destroying ourselves.
Malloy Owen is a philosophy student at the University of Chicago.