Why We Need the Arts

Over the last 24 hours, my Facebook feed has been blowing up with various articles about recently inaugurated Donald Trump’s plans to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.1  Alexander Bolton from The Hill, broke the story in his article, “Trump team prepares dramatic cuts.”  Bolton writes that Trump’s budget cuts closely mirror those proposed last year by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.  The Heritage document, titled, “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017”, states that the NEH is “neither a necessary nor proper activity of the federal government.”  In regard to the NEA, Heritage says, “Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ atraction or merit.”  The document also notes increased private donations to both endowments as another reason why the federal government should withdraw funding from both programs.

Picture by Bill Ryder. Looking at Salvador Dali's "Christ of St. John on the Cross," heckmarq.mu.edu/psp/sa9prod/EMPLOYEE/HRMS/c/SA_LEARNING_MANAGEMENT.SS_FACULTY.
Picture by Bill Ryder. Looking at Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John on the Cross,”

Of course a lot has to happen between “Trump wants to cut funding” and these cuts actually happening.  And of course, this isn’t the first time that politicians have proposed cutting funding to various art and humanities programs.  Nonetheless, these threats cannot and should not be taken lightly.  In an increasingly scientific and technologically focused world, we need to do all we can not just to save the arts and humanities but to help them prosper.  A popular meme gets passed around every now and then that says something to the effect of, “Science can tell you tell you how to clone a Tyrranosaurs Rex.  Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”  This meme has merit, but the value of the arts is so much more.  The arts are at the core of human existence.

Here the beauty of art is important.  In his book Theolgoical Aesthetics, Richard Viladesau suggests that art can be defined not so much by what it is as by what it does.  He describes art as having the capacity to “be a ‘word’of God … apart from bearing or evoking an explicitly religious consiciousness, through the creation and representation of beauty, even when this beauty is not explicitly connected with a religious message.”2  In other words, art — even art that is not explicitly religious in content — can still act as a “word of God.”

Viladesau works out this claim in his presentation of the relationship among form, beauty, being, and God.  Form is closely tied to beauty.  Beautiful things are beautiful becuase of their specific form — unity and order.  For example, music, unlike cacophonous noise, is beautiful becuase of its form that gives it harmony.  To enjoy beauty is to enjoy form.  At the same time, form is closely tied to being.  Form is both biologically necessary in the ordering of organic life and physiologically necessary in the ordering of our minds.  Life, then, is inherently beautiful.  Finally, Viladesau speaks of God as the Infinite Beauty that grounds all of existence.  Consequently, “To experience beauty is to experience a deep-seated ‘yes’ to being … and such an affirmation is possible only if being is grounded, borne by a Reality that is absolute in value and meaning…. the experience of beauty in a spiritual being implies the unavoidable … co-affirmation of an infinite Beauty: the reality that we call God.”3

Art, crucially dependent upon form, in its beauty, offers a unique way into a relationship with the Divine, the Infinite Beauty that is God.  Like any relationship, art also calls for a response.  Art, in its ability to reveal the Divine Transcendent, challenges and leads viewers/hearers/readers/seers to move beyond themselves into an exploration of Ultimate Reality — to engae in a relationship with the Divine. As such, art can provide a medium for theolgoical discourse that moves beyond the abstract and into the realties and implications of a life lived in light of Divine Revelation.  How one lives life in light of Divine Revelation is intimately tied to questions of discipleship and prophetic critique.

Engaging in discipleship and prophetic critique is crucial no matter who is president.  In a society that is heavily focused on buying and selling, consumerism, and profit margins, discipleship and prophetic critique become even more important.  People in this type of society risk becoming nothing more than tools to be used rather than true brothers and sisters in community.  People who cannot compete in this society — the disabled, the poor — and those who are ostracized from this society for a variety of reasons — the immigrant, the refugee, people of color, the LGBTQ community to name just a few — are pushed out and forgotten, becoming dangerous memories that could upset the status quo.

Prophetic critique calls women and men of faith (and all people of good will, really) to push back against the status quo.  One way to push back is disruption through imagination and creation.  Prophets must “offer symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes the numbness and requires denial.  The prophet provides a way in which the cover-up and stonewalling can be ended.”4  What made the prophets so important — and dangerous — was their ability to offer new and creative ways of both criticizing society and imagining society anew.  Importantly, artists — like prophets — bring imagination to the forefront of their work.  As such, artists can also use their imaginative expressions to challenge the dominant society.

The act of imagining, of forming new ideas and concepts about the way society should be is extremely dangerous to status quo governments.  Imagination inhabits both the realm of unity (people across demographic, social, racial, and economic lines can all imagine) and infinite possibility (within the imagination, anything is possible).  In bringing unity and possibility together, art has the potential to transcend boundaries and to remind us that we are more than just tools to be used.  We are authentic human beings, sisters and brothers intimately tied up with one another and the Divine.  This is why need art.5

  1. “Trump reportedly wants to cut cultural programs”; “Trump Reportedly Plans To End National Arts Funding“;”Trump Reportedly Plans To Eliminate National Endowments for the Arts, Humanities“; “Tump team prepares dramatic cuts

2. Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 144.

3. Viladesau, 149.

4. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2oo1), 45.

5. Parts of this blog orignally appeared in Krista Stevens, “The Beauty of Abu Ghraib: Art Tranforming Violence,” ARTS in Religious and Theological Studies, 23:3, 2012.