A way to define, shape and refine

Must the arts build character, or is it enough to say that they simply affect how we perceive the world?


January 14, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

Several years ago, I was a passenger on a train humming through Germany -- the land of Beethoven, Bach and Goethe. The lady sitting next to me was a fellow American, and we got to talking about the superior education seemingly enjoyed by European schoolchildren, where culture is part of their daily lives and familiarity with the arts is expected.

At chamber music concerts in Munich and Frankfurt, we had eavesdropped on pony-tailed youngsters knowledgeably discussing bowing technique. We were in awe, and agreed that we'd rarely heard similar conversations among their U.S. counterparts.

But as we spoke, we realized that this same cultured land gave rise to Hitler and Goebbels. My traveling companion said in pained bewilderment, "You'd think that being surrounded by such good art would make good people." Yes, you would. I don't think she meant to cast aspersions on all Germans -- doubtless, they're as good and as flawed as the people of other nations, and we pretend otherwise at our peril. I think, instead, that my seat-mate meant to pose a question about the extent to which art shapes character.

I've puzzled about it ever since.

The assumption that the arts have an intrinsic value apart from the economic and entertainment benefits they confer permeates U.S. society. Like religion and politics, the arts are perceived as having the awesome power to improve our natures or our lives.

That's the premise underlying arts education for schoolchildren. It's the philosophy underpinning the Pew Charitable Trust's $50 million initiative to develop a national cultural policy. And it's the assumption behind federal funding for the arts.

Although its demise once was widely predicted, Congress actually approved an increase in the National Endowment for the Arts' budget for 2000-01. The $7 million addition (to $105 million) was the first time its budget had grown since it took a 40 percent cut in 1996. "The increase was a very important step," NEA chairman Bill Ivey says. "We're no longer struggling for survival. We're entering a phase where we can rebuild."

If the assumption that the arts have a deeper value isn't true, these social policies become much more difficult to defend. For example, pro wrestling is entertaining and confers an economic benefit, but few would argue that it deserves taxpayer support.

For better or worse, there's no objective measure, no test we can give to absolutely determine if the arts make us more generous or compassionate.

Hitler, for instance, was an avid patron of the arts. Some of the creators he championed were undeniably geniuses, such as composer Richard Wagner and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Was he more enamored of their politics (Wagner was a notorious antisemite; Riefenstahl had fascist sympathies) or their breathtaking talent? Does it matter?

The people who make art aren't always admirable human beings, and neither are the people who view their work. And, from a theoretical standpoint, even if it could somehow be proved that the arts improve character, no one has satisfactorily explained how such a metamorphosis might occur.

Aristotle perhaps came the closest when he suggested that the arts are cathartic, that they help us purge emotional bile from our systems. He thought that when our darkest urges are expressed on stage or canvas, feelings of "pity and horror" are awakened in the audience, and we have less need to act out our destructive impulses in real life.

Many modern educators disagree. They think that violence on television and in movies -- even in such artistically respected films as "Saving Private Ryan" -- corrupts children and immature adults who react viscerally to the images, but lack the intellectual capacity to place them in context. Still others argue the opposite, and say there's no proof that violence on TV begets a violent culture.

What is clear is that 23 centuries after Aristotle's death, there's still no consensus on the relationship between what we see and how we behave.

The problem is that if we reach the conclusion that the arts are morally neutral, with no effect on human behavior, we come dangerously close to condemning them as trivial, as a slightly more high-falutin' version of pro wrestling. And for those who love the arts, that viewpoint violates something entwined in our guts. Many of us can point to a transformative encounter with a great work that left us a bit more broad-minded or charitable than we were before.

A way to see social values

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