18 February 2012

Attacking the Arts

The conservative mindset assigns value in terms of economic price. In its worldview, NFL football, NASCAR, and professional wrestling are more worthy cultural institutions than art museums, symphonies, and poetry readings because the former generate more revenue. In fact, the arts are often seen as serving a sinister purpose: they promote a “left wing agenda” or “moral decay” as exemplified by the hysterical reactions to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe or works like August Seranno's “Piss Christ.” As a result, conservative forces are constantly at war with the concept that there should be public funding of the arts.

It is in this context that Governor Scott has launched the latest right wing assault on the humanities in the form of higher education reform. He has proposed that university curricula be funded on the basis of economic worth – more specifically, on the job prospects of a graduate from a given program. It is his belief that gaining employment is the only conceivable reason for a person to obtain an education and the only justification for the public to finance that education. The idea of “learning for learning's sake” is an outmoded one; a person's worth is to be determined solely by his or her ability to earn money and to be a efficient cog in the corporate machine.

This campaign of Scott's is sad, but not surprising. We have long since abandoned the concept of the classical education; the trend toward mediocrity is nothing new. The very idea that a university graduate should have a basic understanding of multiple disciplines including both the arts and the sciences is no longer current; cost-cutters seek to reduce spending for services like education (usually in order to give tax breaks to wealthy corporations) and those ways often include decreasing general education requirements. It is no wonder that even supposedly “educated” citizens often fail to grasp the cultural importance of the humanities. As a result real artists struggle to survive while marketers like Thomas Kinkade earn millions selling worthless garbage in shopping mall “galleries.” But then, hucksters like Kinkade are the perfect source of decoration for conservative America: vapid, non-threatening, and devoid of intellectual content.

Of course, it is not only the fine arts which are drawing the Governor's attention; the social sciences are being threatened as well. History, anthropology, and the rest are nothing more than a waste of taxpayer's money according to Scott and his cronies. So much for Jefferson's idea of the “enlightened populace;” in today's world, the only rule is that of the marketplace. And that marketplace is demanding a labor force which is compliant, narrowly-focused, and unfettered by unnecessary knowledge. After all – a worker who is ignorant of the history of 20th century labor movement is less likely to support an effort to unionize a company's workforce.

This notion that the primary purpose of education is to train workers is just another example of the dehumanization being advanced by the corporatist state. It is a difficult idea to resist in an economic climate such as the current one; when citizens are unable to find adequate employment and wages are shrinking, they are easily bullied. But if we are to maintain an environment in which the arts are allowed to flourish, we must find a way to counter the efforts of conservatives like Governor Scott. We must continue to fund and support efforts like the National Endowment for the Arts, and to provide educational opportunities to artists of all types. It is obscene to pour millions of dollars into postsecondary athletics while at the same time stripping fine and liberal arts departments of their ability to produce properly educated graduates.