"Behind every great fortune there is a crime," observed Balzac. I would add, Behind every petty corruption there is an ideology.
A seemingly subdued, somewhat lesser sort of Trump- and GOP-bashing op-ed appears in the Times this morning, penned by one Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What Mr. Campbell observes, however, is immensely powerful and anything but subdued. It exposes the seedy, rancid and culturally corrupt ideology of contemporary conservatism: its philistinism, materialism and anti-intellectualism — all features of shallow, hollow, one-dimensional men.
The National Endowment for the Arts "is, once again, under threat of being abolished, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities," writes Campbell. "The purported reason is cost savings…. [I]t is a false saving. The N.E.A.’s budget is comparatively minuscule — $148 million last year, or 0.004 percent of annual federal discretionary expenditures." In other words, fiscal peanuts — financial morsels that wouldn't keep the Pentagon in toilet lids for 12 months.
"Claiming that N.E.A. cuts are purely for cost savings conceals a deeper, more partisan agenda," continues Campbell. That agenda is, by now, an old and familiar one. "The last time the N.E.A. was this under fire was during the 1990s, when funding was challenged for artists and institutions that refused to conform to a narrow definition of propriety." Such is Campbell's "fear," although his fear — often an emotion in confrontation with the unknown — is more of an acknowledgement of guileless reality. "Eliminating the N.E.A.," adds Campbell in frank yet nonpolemical language, "would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens."
And there you have it: the ideological essence of contemporary conservatism, the 21st-century outpost of antebellum Southernism; a moribund structure of cultural closure, self-celebration, xenophobia, willed ignorance and cognitive intransigence — all of which are threatened by curiosity and intelligence.
For America's movement conservatism to thrive, it must be dead. Enlightenment, wandering consciousness, intellectual exploration, however one wishes to frame it, imperils that which must never change: "conform[ity] to a narrow definition of propriety."
Akin to this modern ideological petrification was of course 20th-century European fascism, in which a singular partisanship identified cultural "degeneracy," right down to jazz music or the transcendent artistry of a Pablo Picasso. "Great" art exhibitions were staged for the public's consumption, just as "Degenerate Art" (chiefly, works of the Bauhaus School) was put on display for mass ridicule. Fascism's "aesthetic" yet higher political objective was, it scarcely needs noting, to impose official "propriety" on an otherwise potentially "curious," intellectually searching population. Therein lay danger to regimental groupthink.
I am borderline tempted to give Nazism some credit here. Through 1933's Enabling Act provisions, government funds were freed to support right-thinking art. Contemporary Republicanism's answer, on the other hand, is a more scattergun approach: Just shut it down, shut it all down, simply suffocate all funding for the arts — the humanities as well.
As a one-time semi-professional artist myself, perhaps I'm too sensitive to what I (and Mr. Campbell et al) see as the GOP's ideological brutality toward the arts. The party's counterargument is that art should be self-sustaining; if the public wants it, the public will financially support it. Government assistance is unneeded. It is that very counterargument, however, that reveals the profound philistinism — as related to the arts — of movement conservatism. If the public also wants (as the GOP says it does) a Great Southern Wall to protect us from the ravages of swarthy rapists and drug hustlers, why should the public not voluntarily fund that? Why allocate government monies for a wall?
In sum, why pick on the arts? Why the assault on a mere pittance of $148 million while lavishing billions on a climbable wall? The answer is self-evident. Modern conservatism is hypocritical brutality itself — its "essence" being one of imposed philistinism, a narrow propriety, a dreadful fear of the enlightenment that artistic innovation promises. Art cannot change society, but it can portend unforeseen nudgings.
Throughout modern history, every generation's artistic creations have, to some appreciable extent, introduced what has come to be known as expanded consciousness. And that, gentle reader, is what contemporary conservatism fears most. Hence, shut it down — in every way possible.