Science, not politics, is at war with the arts

March 02, 1997|By GLENN MCNATT

TWO RELATED events last week highlighted the troubled outlook for nonprofit arts groups as the nation approaches the year 2000.

On Tuesday, a presidential commission warned that cuts in arts funding are curbing America's cultural advancement.

Then on Thursday, the Baltimore-based National Arts Stabilization project sponsored the first of several three-day seminars to be held around the country aimed at helping struggling arts groups cope in an era of diminishing resources.

It's no coincidence that as public and private arts funding is cut, arts groups find themselves scrambling just to survive. The fine arts, the performing arts and the humanities all are in serious trouble in America today. The problem, however, goes deeper than mere partisan wrangling amid economic distress.

For years the reflexive response among arts boosters has been to blame conservative troglodytes in Congress, like Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, and right-winger commentators, like Patrick Buchanan, for all that ails the arts.

Certainly Helms and Buchanan have done everything in their power to gut public arts funding and sharpen the liberal-conservative clash of values they've dubbed the "culture war."

But the arts would be in trouble even without their particular brand of incendiary demagogy.

Helms and Buchanan may shamelessly exploit the culture war for political gain, but they did not invent the war, and the clash of values it represents would exist regardless of whether they were on the scene.

Consider that our present-day dilemma was foreseen more than 40 years ago by scientist and author C. P. Snow in his prophetic little book, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" (1959).

In "The Two Cultures," Snow warned of the impending gulf between the modern outlook based on empirical science and the older perspective of art and literature, philosophy and religion that it was rapidly displacing.

In Snow's view, the two outlooks -- one rational and scientific, the other intuitive and humanistic -- had once coexisted in relative harmony.

But the modern era forced a great divide between the two, Snow believed, leaving the scientist and the humanist increasingly less able to understand or even appreciate each other's point of view.

"The Two Cultures" portrayed the scientist and the humanist as opposing social types representing sharply divergent cultural trends. Today the bifurcation of perspectives represented by these two types has pervaded virtually every aspect of American society.

With few exceptions, the artist and the scientist today have relatively little to say to each other.

A society that prizes scientific rationality, technical progress and economic productivity as its chief goals is naturally impatient with the outlook that gave rise to the discursive, humanistic tradition of arts and letters.

In the brave new world dominated by machine technology and machine production, the apparent impracticality and inefficiency of the humanist perspective seems frivolous at best, dangerous or subversive at worst.

No wonder many artists today sense in the diminishing public support for a wide range of creative endeavors what the presidential commission report called "a climate of intolerance for challenging works and ideas."

The hostility toward the humanist perspective and its pursuits may be endemic to the modern world view and the social forces it has set into motion.

The glaring deficiencies in our contemporary cultural development include fragile and threatened cultural institutions, undercompensated and underemployed artists and scholars, lack of meaningful arts education for substantial numbers of children and a general lack of appreciation for the value of culture in society.

All are symptoms of a deeper malaise that can be traced to the split of cultural perspectives into two mutually uncomprehending, antagonistic camps.

The presidential commission that reported these dismaying findings rightly points out there is no "silver bullet" that will magically solve these problems, no new source or structure that will replace the complex but crumbling system by which America traditionally has ensured its cultural development.

Likewise, the new survival strategies envisioned for the arts by -- the National Arts Stabilization program are essentially coping mechanisms that seek to salvage what remains of our tradition by applying to arts institutions the same techniques of rational financial management and organizational efficiency that characterize the modern business enterprise. Whether such an approach will truly rekindle the sources of cultural creativity in America remains to be seen.

The president's commission argues that the nation's future "will be strengthened by a renewed commitment to our cultural life." It recognizes that the country is prospering, that we are at peace and that, although not everyone is sharing in its benefits, the economy is growing.

"If as a nation we value the contributions of the arts and the humanities, we can afford to invest in them," the commission notes.

But given the widening gap between scientific and humanistic world views and the clash of cultures it has spawned, the question is not whether we can afford to invest in the arts, but rather whether we want to.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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