The arts and humanities have long been scapegoats of conservative ire. The tired myths of artistic excess and absence of “real world” applicability are easy to trot out and just as easy to dismiss: the liberal professor, distanced from reality and pouring over Edith Wharton in her ivory tower; the dreamy artist casually spending government grant money on a project so abstract “my kid could have painted it;” the poet feverishly scribbling in a cabin by the sea only to discard her notes into the waves, unread.
It’s no surprise, then, to see the very heart of our culture—its creative production, its rational discourse—attacked by an administration set on dismantling the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The fiscal legitimacy of this move is questionable in the least: as far as government spending goes, these agencies are a drop in the bucket. But specious symbols of intellectual frivolity and liberal elitism can still be effective ones.
On a much smaller scale, this is a battle I fight every semester with a small-but-vocal minority of students, as I justify the teaching of Plato and Dante, Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. Will reading and discussing Sappho or Lao Tzu or James Baldwin make you a better accountant or engineer? Maybe. Maybe not. Will it make you better able to assess and evaluate divergent ideas for yourself, better able to persuasively argue based on actual evidence—a better person, a better thinker? Undoubtedly.
Without the arts and humanities, we wouldn’t have social movements: no feminism, no civil rights, no queer activism. Artists and critical thinkers of all stripes challenge the status quo; they constantly work to improve the world for themselves and others, to make things more beautiful and more free.
Only time will tell whether the new administration will succeed in its many plots to undermine the liberal and fine arts, but there’s no question that if you want an obedient populace, it’s a good place to start. Recent attacks on faculty tenure in Missouri and Iowa seem like thinly-veiled attempts to hobble academic freedom. And the recently attempted revisions (quashed for now) to Arizona’s HB 2120, which currently bans ethnic studies course at the primary and secondary level, openly proposed threatening colleges and universities with funding cuts if classes or events promote social justice based on gender, ethnicity, race, religion, or social class. If you don’t learn about oppression, how can you fight back?
The past two summers I’ve been fortunate enough to teach abroad in France and Germany about art and music around the World Wars. The first thing I ask my students is why art matters? At a time of global political upheaval, virulent social conflict, the looming specter of an oppressive regime, why worry about art? Hitler understood why art was important, I tell them—recounting how, early on, the Nazis ridiculed, banned, and often destroyed the modern, abstract art they labeled “degenerate.”
This was not a matter of personal taste.
The arts, broadly defined, have the power to make people think, to question the world outside of their own four walls, and to appreciate the vast diversity of human thought and will. That’s why on Saturday, I will march for free thought and creative expression and all the social movements they inspire.