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Safire's Spreadsheet
March 24, 2006

A grammar maven and self-described “vituperative right-wing scandalmonger,” former New York Times opinion columnist William Safire is not your typical arts advocate. But Safire wants you to rethink not only the politics of art but art itself, according to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post write-up of the 19th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy.

Safire hinges his argument on the benefits of “the classics” and the “instrumental value” of arts education. “Instrumental value,” as opposed to “intrinsic value,” is an assessment of an artwork’s merit based on its effects. Specifically, Safire refers to the purported cognitive benefits of certain art forms—a value derived from very recent and greatly limited data. This argument is of a piece with research suggesting that listening to Mozart makes babies smarter (or more accurately, enhances their spatial reasoning skills).

It’s fuzzy science. Safire admits as much, according to Kennicott, but nevertheless casts his lot with this research. Perhaps fuzzier still is what Safire means by “the classics,” but I think it’s safe to assume that he means the canon—scant little produced in the second half of the twentieth century, and surely nothing since.

Is Safire’s prescription for a kindler, gentler take on art different from, say, previous congressional hostilities toward artists partially funded by the NEA? Outwardly, of course, there’s a world of difference. But to Safire—as to several senators in the early 1990s—art is a subject of ends, not means.

In Safire’s accounting, potential neurological gains stand shoulder to shoulder with the moral fiber that the classics promise. He makes no effort to reconcile what seem like incompatible worldviews: on one hand, a dispassionate, nearly pharmacological theory for the worth of art, and on the other, Renaissance humanism. Safire is saying that Shakespeare is not only good for your mind, he’s good for your brain.

But there are more things in heaven in earth than are dreamt of in Safire’s philosophy. It’s silly to assess art for its usefulness in enhancing standardized test performance. But I don’t think that’s what Safire’s really advocating. That arts education at an early age might allegedly lead to slightly improved algebra scores down the road is not the reason to boost arts education. Funding early algebra education does that job without all the runaround. Sohcahtoa, not chiaroscuro.

No, it’s something else: Safire’s utilitarian view of art implicitly advocates certain kinds of art—to the exclusion of others. Not only is it unclear how, say, the performance art of Marina Abramović could bolster your child’s trigonometry scores, but it’s altogether inconceivable that such measurements could ever be taken. A rubric of arts education functioning as math homework conveniently shortcuts a great many modern and contemporary modes of art altogether.

There are elements of the human condition that math can’t elucidate. That’s the reason a society values arts literacy, and Safire wouldn’t seriously debate this point. But “which elements?” and “whose art?” are never ending sources of controversy.

Ultimately, Safire’s dressing up an age-old defense of the canon with a patina of empiricism. When teachers recommend substituting Zora Neale Hurston for Ernest Hemingway, the canon’s guard raises the alarm that students will suffer for not knowing the classics. Maybe Safire has accounted for that shortcoming somewhere on his spreadsheet, but that’s hardly a satisfying way to decide between the two.

Posted by Kriston on March 24, 2006 in American Art Everywhere, Lectures on American Art


Nicely written; saved.

This line of argument (his, and yours in response) reminds me of the "Mozart Effect". The effect is bogus, of course, but I was surprised to find, on becoming a father, that baby books promulgate it in an especially feeble form. None that I've seen was willing to claim that it's specifically Mozart, or even classical music, that makes you smarter. Several say any "complex" music will do (of course they don't define the term).

These books, and probably Safire, are just going through the motions of an instrumental argument for the value of art -- no very strong arguments are called for when telling people what they like to hear.

And Michael Bérubé is right on point as well.

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