Why do authoritarians attack the arts?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by Landrum Kelly, Apr 6, 2017.

  1. Literature, music and drama played a key role in inspiring the Indian population to rise up against their British colonial authoritarians (no matter how civil the British were in their own country, they usually sent their worst to rule the colonies, and thats pretty much true with all colonial powers). The effect of such artistic content was deemed so dangerous, that the British termed them as 'seditious', Multiple literary works were banned and certain songs and poems with nationalistic flavor were prohibited, with harsh sentences imposed upon the violators.

    Look up, seditious art (mainly theater) in Philippines and how the American colonial rulers suppressed them.
    anton_romar and DavidTriplett like this.
  2. Norman 202

    Norman 202 i am the light

    i'm not suggesting the odd protest song doesn't help a cause but as far as i can see no one ever rebelled because of art ( which your post suggested). indians wanted independence and they would have got it with or without art.
  3. David,
    You have raised many good points in your post. One possible answer to your question at the end is perhaps tied to your previous post where you suggested, 'let the market place decide' which art to support. Knowledge and expression, I believe don't always enjoy popular support, but nevertheless are important for the intellectual pursuits of the human race. Certain art topics or genre are more popular than others, and left for the marketplace to decide, those art genres will no doubt win over the less popular ones (that doesn't make the less popular art forms insignificant). Likewise, there are many scientific projects which will be readily funded by the industry, but for others, government has to step in to ensure continuance of those lines of research. Perhaps, this is one criterion a government can use to decide which art to fund. Support those artists and arts that are threatened by extinction and are less likely to be supported by the marketplace. Of course, such decision is subjective and some art will be included and others excluded based on the opinion of the committee experts. Thats a natural effect of any human endeavor, and I would rather want some artists to be funded rather than none at all. What I don't support is the government making those funding decisions on political lines. However, we have a fairly well balance between the left and the right in US. No matter what the media portrays, right and left leaning governments are interchangeably elected every few years. So, even if the funding decisions are made on political lines, the regular shuffling of power ensures that all schools of thought get some share of government funding. Again, this is not perfect, and there is the choice between helping some vs helping none, and I would lean towards helping some.

  4. I don't agree with that, or the characterization that art is necessarily propaganda. I think that's an outside-in view of how art is working. It's how you see art as working on the other guy, not on yourself.

    To me, art as a social force, works from the inside out. It defines a society, it defines a culture. It is who we are. It's the stories we heard, the pictures we saw, the music we heard, the kind of people we were and are. What we look like, what we sound like. The myths we love to believe in.

    Governments of all kinds use the conservative instinct to their own ends.
  5. I didn't mean to say, art is the single most driving force to lead a population towards revolution, but it can be a significant influence. Thats what I wanted to mean. If my post sounded otherwise, then here's the clarification.

    If art had no influence, then why did the British go to such lengths to suppress it? Also, art doesn't have to be a protest song or a direct criticism of the government to be influential against the authoritarians. The song that the British feared the most was 'Vande Mataram', which means 'praise motherland'. It described the natural beauty of India, the same way a landscape painter would describe, nothing to do with political criticism. Such is the power of art that it resonates inside and inspires the mind. An inspired mind is always a threat to autocrats.
  6. Lannie, I appreciate your response to my statement that authoritarians are often great benefactors of the arts when it serves the state. However, keep in mind that art is in the eye of the beholder -- and the beholder may be an authoritarian and his/her supporters. Also, I think it's possible to be a true benefactor of the arts without supporting the arts in general. Some people take a very narrow view of art.

    I will go even further and say it's possible to admire a work of art even while disliking its authoritarian purpose. Perhaps the best known artwork that Hitler admired was Leni Riefenstahl's documentary film "Triumph of the Will," which glorified the Nazi Party's 1934 rally in Nuremberg. I think it's possible to admire her cinematography while despising her propaganda. In my opinion, it is certainly a work of art, albeit one that I wish had never been made. Does that contradiction mean I don't truly support the arts in general? As democrats (small "d"), we must accept objectionable art. But you are correct that authoritarians usually don't accept art that they consider objectionable and often persecute the artists who make it.
    Landrum Kelly likes this.
  7. Julie, I'm sorry if I did not adequately express my thought. I don't suggest that ALL art is propaganda. I do believe that the essential nature of art is the representation and communication of ideas. Without the application of intentional, directed thought, the Mona Lisa would be no different from random paint splatters. I also believe that most art exists somewhere on a continuum between the purity of an aesthetic ideal and the intentional propaganda of the political agent. This is not the same as all art being propaganda, just an acknowledgement that ideas and intent matter to the nature of the art. Some of my favorite art pieces are the Art Deco posters of the 1930's, (particularly those for the North Atlantic liners) whose primary purpose was commercial (propaganda), but which remain very engaging, highly aesthetic works.

    Oh, and not to demean paint splatters, or even randomness. Dale Chihuli's art glass compositions all start as works of painted art that, to some, would best be described as paint splatters, but clearly very intentional in purpose. I suspect this is what Julie is getting at, that even the act of seeking randomness can be a creative, informative act, and can provide the framework for a piece of art. Such art would appear at the opposite end of my continuum from the position of the grossly anti-Semitic propaganda posters of the Nazis.
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2017
  8. Just as with public support of religious institutions, which is (ideally) non-denominational, public support for the arts should be as free from political agendas and destributed in as even-handed a way as possible. That would require getting decisions out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of some non-partisan groups. No one should be deciding what types of artistic messages are supported just as no one decides what types of religious messages are supported. It would not be hard, if the will were there, to support art in an even-handed way. It so happens that most religious institutions in the US lean right. Them's the breaks. Even though there's inequity politically in our public support of religious institutions, we consider it a public good. If arts organizations lean more left, them's also the breaks. As David says, goose-gander. Arts deserve public support regardless of the lean of the message, just as churches do. That, David, ought to answer your question.
    Landrum Kelly likes this.
  9. Fred, thank you. That is precisely the kind of directed, meaningful response I was looking for. And I agree, there ARE arts programs that are generally non-sustainable without public (read government) support, but are demonstrably worthwhile as cultural and social institutions or programs. It is where we draw the line between these and those with less universal or historical appeal that it gets messy. While I likely disagree with you, even vehemently, about where this line should be drawn, I can appreciate that you have a sense of balance and purpose in the choices you would make.

    As regards the "subsidization" of religion, I would like to shine an alternate light: One of the foundational concepts of our nation was keeping government out of religion. The power to tax is the power to influence and control. By keeping religious organizations tax exempt, we diminish the opportunity for government to engage in religious issues. Even so, we still struggle with how to balance religion, government, and law, so the tax boundary seems appropriate. Is there a case for government support of "religious" art equal to other art genres? Would we want there to be? Where secular humanism contains all the social attributes of a religion, is, then, art from that source of thought to be treated as religious in nature? If not, why not, and how do we tell the difference?
  10. I would make an affirmative case for public support of religious art, as long as it didn't favor a particular religion. On your statement justifying tax exempt status for religious institutions, I don't agree. I simply see it as the state supporting religion. I'm ok with it but try to be clear about what's happening. Just as public radio is state sponsored radio, the churches and synagogues are state sponsored religious institutions. Just as I don't get to tell the preachers what to preach yet am still obliged to subsidize them, a church member doesn't get to tell a public radio show host what to say and is still obliged to subsidize them. Our tax money is communal and is not simply driven by individual needs and desires. I pay for schools quite willingly even though I have no children so won't be using them. I don't begrudge my neighbors with kids whose schools I help to support. And my neighbors, in turn, get to support arts programs that benefit me even if they don't directly get the same benefit.
    Supriyo likes this.
  11. I'm one of those conservatives who prays and goes to church, but opposes organized, teacher-led prayer in public schools. The question always becomes which prayer by whose rules? The other side of that card is those who would proscribe private prayer by individual students on school grounds, or prohibit discussion of religious topics by students. I see a similar dichotomy for publicly-supported art. I don't mind my taxes supporting the local symphony, but I would revolt against tax dollars paying for an installation that overtly demeans people or the symbols that are important to them, though I would fight like hell against a policy that would outlaw such exhibitions. (My hope would be that people find such things so off-putting that there would be insufficient interest to make it a viable display. Sadly, we love the salacious and the controversial...) The trouble is finding a defining line that is acceptable and consistent. One of the beauties of our national character is the generally common desire to find a modus vivendi that allows for the greatest degree of individual freedom, while still encouraging respect and cooperation. I decry the extremists on both ends. Like so many issues, the question of public funding for art gets politicized because someone wants equality of outcome, not just equality under the law. This cuts both ways. Tyrants use the power of law, taxes, and the police state to destroy their opposition, while the "tyranny of the majority" can do the same to those who buck the politically correct trends. The current trend in academia to limit expression of unpopular ideas and ostracize those who fail to agree with the majority (or loudest plurality) is just the latest in a long history of such examples. I like Lanny's points in this regard. I want all of us to enjoy the freedom to express our thoughts and ideas in meaningful ways, but also the freedom to ignore and not be forced to support that which we find offensive, ignoble, or demeaning.
  12. David,
    Is there an example of the US government supporting an art form that demeans people? I am not very knowledgeable in this area of government funding, but I want to become aware.
  13. Supriyo, this is a complex and nuanced question, and sometimes it comes down to whether or not an individual chooses to be offended, or if one can choose not to participate. Local governments and institutions tend to make more egregious choices, particularly in the case of symbols rather than individuals. The case of the Art Institute of Chicago and "What is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?" Public monies support the Institute, and this controversial installation was seen by many veterans and others as demeaning of their service and its most recognized symbol, the US flag. The use of the flag in public speech is a well documented right, but its use in a manner perceived as disrespectful by and to a class of people in a publicly-funded place crossed the line for many. My own discomfort really is found in the fact that the only way to engage with the display and register my distaste would have been to do that which I found distasteful and demeaning. My wife is a veteran, as was my father, and so are many of the people I work with. I understand their sense of having been demeaned, even if I my own circumstances are different. There was a reproduction of this display in a public school that also raised many hackles.

    Another example speaks more to a different side of the same issue: There is now policy on the books (NCAA and others) that assumes the use of American Indian tribal references as the nicknames for university sports teams is inherently demeaning and therefore to be punished or disallowed. In Utah, the University of Utah has received substantial support and encouragement from the Ute Indian tribe for their use of the "Utah Utes" as the school's team name. While the tribe sees it as honoring the local native, persons from outside the area continue to pressure the school to change it to something less "offensive", including the threat of Federal court action, or re-evaluation of Federal funding to the school. Doing so would deny the tribe and the university the option of a mutually beneficial and agreeable situation, simply because it does not fit with an outside party's sense of what is or is not appropriate.

    There are some who would suggest that much of the art in government-supported institutions that depicts female nudes should be considered as demeaning to and objectifying of women. I don't know that I would agree universally, but I am very sensitive to the impact certain presentations can have on individual and collective expectations of my wife and daughters. I particularly question how my girls might be encouraged to see themselves in light of such works, as I am by the more endemic commercial images that encourage us to see girls and women as sexual objects instead of people.
  14. I'd prefer no dividing lines be drawn. That way artists are free to express themselves in ways they want, even when receiving money, just like churches do. If someone feels demeaned, they don't have to look. They can also use their freedom of speech to speak up. Caveat: The dividing line should be what's legal. No incitement to violence from churches, artists, or anyone else. No hate speech. To be determined as it's always been determined . . . By courts, which are necessarily imperfect but the system of justice agreed upon by our founders.
  15. I hate Nazis and yet accept their right to speak and march in public. I don't respect it or condone it and find them vile. But I accept it and they must be allowed to speak. They don't have the power to demean me unless I give it to them, which I don't. Veterans fought for freedom, not their particular view of the flag. My dad was a disabled vet of WWII and would have disagreed vociferously with you, David.

    Allowing freedom of speech is sometimes very difficult. Those are often the most important cases.
  16. The premise is wrong.
    Authoritarians do not attack the arts". At least not in general.

    They merely attack art that is not ideologically in tune with their particular ideology.

    This tendency, by the way, is shared by at least some would-be libertarians.
    Ray House likes this.
  17. David,
    I may add some more thoughts in response to your comments later on, but what I understand, your main argument boils down to the fact that the government should not be party to supporting art forms that may be construed as offensive to certain people. However, such art forms should be allowed and even defended if displayed publicly, but without government support.

    Here is my argument against:
    One of the fundamental principles upon which this country was founded was freedom of speech and expression, and government is at the center of those rights. Government represents everyone, the artist who creates art and the people whom that art offends. The government cannot side with one and not the other. As citizens we agree to support the government provided it upholds the constitution. Now you can say that the government should not fund any private endeavors except basic necessities. However, if we agree that the government should involve itself in our cultural life in some capacity, we cannot impose conditions behind such involvement beyond the legal line. Doing so would pose immense ideological and practical difficulties. For example, standing on the flag is offensive to you. To some people, LGBT marriage is equally offensive. Now if an artist displays art glorifying such marriage, an argument can be made that government should not support such artists because some people find that offensive. Instead, why not we appreciate what appeals to us, and ignore what doesn't.

    I don't find everything the government does as acceptable, but I pay my tax dollars to support a government that represents many kind of people, some of whom are very different than me, some of whom I may find offensive or disagreeable. As long as I support their rights to express themselves (if needed by paying money), I ensure my own rights are protected.

  18. The Chicago "What is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?" show wants the David Tripletts in its audience. It's not for a Fred or a Supriyo; it's not interested in Fred or Supriyo. It is for the David Tripletts. Lecturing David about free speech or free artistic expression is like paraphrasing a poem. The Flag show is the poem. Its reason to be is the argument. Don't get in its way by wording it out of sight.
  19. There's a type of tyranny in addition to that of the so-called politically correct: the tyranny of the religiously correct. A California majority, lead and funded by the Mormon and Catholic Churches, voted an amendment to ban gay marriages. Not until the Supreme Court overturned the will of that tyrannical majority were gay folks afforded the kind of equality enshrined in the Constitution. No gay person should ever be able to force a religious believer to marry or not marry anyone they choose. No gay person should ever be able to force a religious believer to believe gay marriage is a good thing. And no believer should ever be able to prevent gay people from getting married. Any academic who believes his rights have been thwarted by the majority should also get his or her day in court.

    I accept religion. I simply turn away from or even vocally challenge those things about it I don't like. Art can be turned away from and challenged as well. The government can support both without endorsing either and it's part of responsible citizenship to support with tax dollars even some things we strongly disagree with. I've supported with my tax dollars churches who would look down on me as a second-class citizen. I don't think it's too much to ask of people who are enraged by some expressions of art to pay their fair share. Taxes, in a society, are not just about my own needs and likes.
  20. Sorry, my intention was not to lecture David. I have immense respect for David and his well thought comments in these forums. I just thought, I will put forward my line of argument, because David wanted a debate about government support of art.

    A poem can be interpreted in many ways. Some people took the flag display as a message of free expression while others interpreted it as desecration of a national symbol. Isn't what the artist wanted, debates and discussions among people who would interpret his work according to their own beliefs and customs?

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