Art as a Public Responsibility

Discussion of government arts funding is a complicated business. It implicates our ideas about what it means to be human, to foster neighbourliness, to practice art, and to promote a good society.

September 12th, 2011

Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture by Lambert Zuidervaart. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 352pp.



"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."
—John F. Kennedy, "Remarks at Amherst College upon Receiving an Honorary Degree, October 26, 1963"

"I say . . . he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people, just as others are . . . And I resent it."
—Senator Jesse Helms, speaking about contemporary visual artist Andres Serrano and his work, "Piss Christ"

Is government funding beneficial to artists and their publics, or would it be better for artists to compete in the economic marketplace without government support? Should government funding come "with no strings attached" or should it uphold standards of decency and social order? Are contemporary artists progressive agents of social change or are they a decadent menace to society? These are the questions that motivate the argument of Zuidervaart's latest contribution to philosophy, Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture.

In it he tells the tale of two groups who find themselves frequently at odds with each other. On the one side stand the "prophetic and transgressive artists," defenders of "freedom of expression." On the other side stand "ordinary people" and "decent citizens," vigorously seeking to preserve "traditional values." It is the tale of Andres Serrano against Jesse Helms, of the NEA against the AFA. It is the tale of those who support government funding of the arts and those who oppose it. According to Zuidervaart, both groups get it badly wrong; specifically, both fail to perceive the faulty assumptions that support their respective convictions. Those assumptions are:

  • That government funding will prime the pump for an art world dominated by corporate business interests.

  • That the artist and the audience's experience of artwork should be viewed on individualist terms.

  • That art's role in society is to press the vanguard forward.

Against these three assumptions, Zuidervaart offers three counter proposals. First, we need to recover the idea of a Civil Society as a distinct macrostructure that stands in dialectical, as well as fruitful, relationship to the State and the Market. Second, we need to allow for a dynamic tension between artistic authenticity and social responsibility—for without social responsibility, artistic authenticity devolves to aesthetic solipsism, and without artistic authenticity, social responsibility is reduced to uncritical collectivism. Third, instead of viewing art as something isolated at the margins of society and good for only a few, he suggests that art provides a common good, or three to be precise: the occasion for imaginative disclosure, for cultural orientation, and for critical and creative dialogue. As he observes:

The arts have the task of proffering and provoking exploration, presentation, and creative interpretation of what matters in people's lives . . . Participation in the arts can open [both personal and social worlds] to what lies beyond them. It can also help orient or reorient participants within the worlds they inhabit.

To the extent that the arts are a public matter, implicating the political and economic, the communal and psychological shape of our lives, they are, as Zuidervaart repeatedly reminds us, a governmental matter too.

By "public art," Zuidervaart has something very specific in mind. Encompassing everything from legislation to regulation to subsidies, public art includes directly sponsored projects like the Vietnam Memorial as well as artworks that occur in the public media, such as Car Talk (NPR) or Definitely Not the Opera (CBC Radio One). Zuidervaart explains:

I use "art in public" to refer to any art whose production or use presupposes government support of some sort and whose meaning is available to a broader public—broader than the original audience for which it is intended or to which it speaks.

When this kind of support is given, Zuidervaart believes the arts are thereby released to play an important role in fostering a more fully democratic culture.

To be sure, this is a demanding book. As Zuidervaart acknowledges at the outset, its purpose is primary theoretical, not empirical. Little room is given to illustration, because the book's chief aim is not to advance pragmatic measures but to explain a new sociocultural theory. To this end, Zuidervaart marshals an impressive range of conversation partners, drawn largely from the German philosophical tradition—Habermas and Adorno, Heidegger and Arendt—while including generous contributions from Charles Taylor and Dutch Reformed thinkers. As such, this is a book that will be more useful to fellow philosophers than to lay readers.

As Zuidervaart continually points out, a discussion of government arts funding is a complicated business. It implicates our ideas about what it means to be human, to foster neighbourliness, to practice art, and to promote a good society. While inevitably philosophical, it is also deeply practical. To put it sharply, it is a contest—for example—between the gay community and its artistic and therefore also political vision of the good life, and the fundamentalist Christian community and its own vision of these things. It is a contest between what people want and what people need—and how we theologically conceive of both. These are not easy matters, and thankfully Zuidervaart offers himself as a clear-headed guide (though some kind of theological reflection along the way would surely have strengthened his project).

One disappointment with the book is that it offers so few examples of "art in public." It is difficult to imagine, let alone to become inspired, about a dynamic role for art in public without anything concretely to see. The absence of examples, in fact, leads the reader to wonder whether the kinds of art that generate the imaginative disclosure that Zuidervaart hopes for is more of the "high" than of the "popular" or "practical" kind (which of course might reflect the NEA's or CCA's own biases). And it would seem that Zuidervaart's theoretical proposals succeed precisely in their capacity to describe cogently how art empirically works or does not work.

This concern aside, Zuidervaart offers an important challenge to both "transgressivists" and "traditionalists." Transgressive art for the sake of transgression, devoid of charity, eventually leads to chaos, while the christening of the artistic status quo, devoid also of charity, makes it almost impossible to detect the sinful tendencies to which the majority in society has become accustomed. Likewise, an individualist view of art, devoid of a communal sense of co-responsibility for the shape of society, results not in a vigorous place for art in public. It results in a loss of vigour.

Christians must remember that the kingdom of God is not an abstract thing, nor purely inward, nor private. The kingdom takes form in physical, spatial, and symbolical ways, no less than relational and political ways. Our participation as agents of God's kingdom is therefore a public matter. To the extent that the government plays a role in the arts by what it permits or prohibits, by what it makes difficult or easy to occur, Christians have a responsibility to think clearly about these matters. They also have a responsibility to do something about them. Zuidervaart reminds us that Christians get to play an important role in the public arts, whether it is through our patronage dollars or through our votes.

Was JFK right that "poetry cleanses"? Was Jesse Helms justified in his estimation of Andres Serrano's artwork? These are debatable matters. But one thing that shouldn't be a matter of debate for Christians is this: that we get involved.

 

Born and raised in Guatemala City, David earned his doctorate at Duke Divinity School in theology and now serves as Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary as well as the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative in worship, theology and the arts. For nine years he served as a pastor in Austin, Texas, and is now ordained to the transitional diaconate in the Anglican Communion of North America. He edited the book For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books), and has written in such publications as Books & Culture, CIVA Seen, Christianity Today, Comment magazine, The Living Church, The Christian Scholars Review and Calvin Theological Journal. His artistic interests include playwriting, modern dance, and visual art, and in recent years, science fiction literature. His wife Phaedra is a gardener, cook and visual artist.

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