Is there a case to be made for continued government support for the arts and humanities? Yes, according to noted author-scholar-critic Garry Wills. But it's not the case most supporters of government arts funding make.
Wills, the author of this year's Penn Reading Project text, "Lincoln at Gettysburg," drew on several thousand years of cultural history to expose flaws in mainstream thinking about the relation between a free society and great art. At the School of Arts and Sciences Dean's Forum March 17, he also defended public funding for the arts and humanities by invoking the utilitarian thinking of the framers of the Constitution, and heaped ridicule on those cultural conservatives who decry the "politicization" of contemporary art.
"High art was born and has lived most of its life as political, as the acolyte of power when it was not the slave of politics," Wills said. He added that the caustic satire and bawdy language of classical Greek playwrights such as Aristophanes were a requirement in religious ritual honoring the god Dionysius, one of many rituals that defined what Wills termed a "cultic state."
Similarly, playwrights, authors and dramatists in Shakespeare's England had to submit to detailed censorship and royal licensing to present plays or publish books, and the penalties for altering so much as one line of text in an approved work could be severe. And the great thinkers and artists of the Italian Renaissance were all beholden to either political patrons like the Medicis or religious ones like the Pope, who demanded that works advance their own ends in return for continued support.
And so it went throughout most of European and early American history, which, he said, "looks like a passing of the torch from one side to the other as zealous partisans incinerated each other's writings: Catholics burning Protestant work, Protestants Catholic work, Christians Jewish work -- Massachusetts authorities destroyed Quaker books when they were not destroying Quakers. It was a continual bonfire of the verities."
The Americans broke decisively with this tradition when they separated religious and secular authority in the Bill of Rights -- "one of the few truly original political acts in all of history," he said. "The lack of religious orthodoxy has set the standard for freedom of thought in other areas -- a radically new situation in the history of government."
Furthermore, he said, the authors of the Constitution intended for the national government to actively promote progress in the arts and literature, in keeping with the dominant thought of the Enlightenment that linked the aesthetic and the moral sense. "Washington, in his first message to Congress, urged the legislators to act 'for the promotion of science and literature,' and suggested that one way to do this was the formation of a national college with federal funds," he said.
Thus, the aim of government arts and humanities funding is "not to promote democracy," he said, "but to promote the arts and physical sciences. They are good in themselves. A democracy need not deprive the people of them just because we have removed the regime of state patronage of the old sort."
Originally published on April 2, 1998