Photo by Igor Miske
Artistic experience often necessitates the gathering of crowds in museums, galleries and theaters. During the coronavirus pandemic, this has obviously posed a unique challenge to artistic institutions around the globe. In the ongoing debates about the appropriate way to respond legislatively to this crisis, we must remember to protect the arts and those who have access to them—especially now.
New York representative Jerry Nadler had the right idea when he called for protective measures to support New York state’s museums so that they can weather the crisis. He asked for the coronavirus recovery package to include a minimum of $4 billion in federal assistance. Museums in New York alone employ 61,000 workers (and help generate $5.4 billion for the Empire State annually). Unfortunately, Nadler’s suggestion didn’t make it into the stimulus bill.
Nadler received significant blowback for his proposal. Many claimed that supporting museums, rather than other institutions like airlines, was inappropriate. Donald Trump Jr. mocked Nadler, proclaiming that “Republicans want to save your job, Democrats want to save the Picassos.”
But it doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Art must be protected. First, art is a counterforce against nihilism. It’s only through art that we can value something without a notion of utility. Corot’s landscapes can’t be strolled through, nor can we stand with Liberté in Delacroix’s famous scene, but we cherish these works nonetheless.
Placed in direct contact with beauty, uselessness becomes genius. In the increasingly soulless world of urban gentry and technology, the idea of genius provokes scorn. But even an atheist like myself requires spiritual sustenance. Caravaggio’s portraits and Raphael’s frescoes provide that sustenance.
It is also through art that we can realize human potential. As the late Roger Scruton eloquently explained, through art the “human need for form triumphs over the randomness of objects.” The inability to recognize this is a symptom of a larger ailment of our times: the inability to be reverent about anything.
On both sides of the cultural spectrum, populists don’t seem to care about the arts. There’s a perpetual air of snarky superiority that permeates not only the faux proletkult left-wing circles—those who are loudly supportive of working class causes but are hardly supporting the poor in any practical way beyond tweets of solidarity—but also the liberal cultural personae, who tend to suffer from the delusion that politics is a necessary element of artistic expression. Of course, this applies equally to the anti-intellectual figures of the cultural right, who often refuse to take up artistic causes at all.
The problem of access to art is not being solved by either end of the cultural pendulum.
The rich dominate the art world. Take the Museum of Modern Art—MoMa’s curator makes upward of $2.3 million a year and almost all of the museum’s fifty-one trustees work in finance, are from the corporate world or are heirs to vast inheritances that place them in the upper echelons of the tax bracket.
But, as hierarchical as this system is, if it disappeared, the benefits the public receives from it would disappear too. If we do not provide support for art, there will probably be an increase in the cost of accessing galleries, barring all those who can’t overcome yet another financial obstacle from viewing art. Only wealthy curators will be able to experience art.
Expansive access to the arts has been shown to improve outcomes among low-income communities, increase graduation rates both at the high school and higher educational levels, and provide an economic boost for areas that depend on tourism. It also prevents cultural exclusion based on class.
Political power is ephemeral—every culture that has made a lasting impact has been flush with artistic works. We would not know how Ptolemy II Philadelphus looked, nor much about the royal religious cults of ancient Alexandria and Memphis but for the busts and numismatics created by anonymous artists lost to history, nor could we picture Petrarch’s glib, portly creases in Avignon but for Simone Martini of Siena’s trained hand (nor, for that matter, would we know much about that trained hand if Simone hadn’t been mentioned in Petrarch’s sonnet).
To prevent our museums, galleries and theaters from failing is to prevent our culture from becoming displaced, our access from becoming furloughed and our reverence from becoming obsolete.