The Arts and American Values: Wholeness and Diversity
by Elizabeth Johns
In any one evening in the United States, a satellite hovering over the middle of the continent might record the following artistic activities: a theatre in a Texas city performing a play about the pains and joys of growing up in a small Texas town; a film festival in Chicago featuring films produced by ghetto youth; a craft fair in Vermont that features the carvings and textiles of citizens who recently emigrated from Russia and eastern Europe; a symphony orchestra in Los Angeles premiering a new composition commissioned to encourage American composers; a dedication in Portland, Oregon of a new outdoor sculpture that pays tribute to the forces of nature along the Columbia River; and a museum exhibition in New York devoted to the photographs of a group of women photographers in the 1930s. An observer would note the astonishing diversity of this activity, and the serious attention with which performers and audiences take it into their being as integral parts of their own lives.
What, then, do we make of the fact that a group of us has convened to explore just what the relationship is between artistic activity and our society's values? Such a convocation suggests one of two interpretations. We're either very sure about this relationship, but need from time to time to reaffirm our convictions -- rather like going to church, or the relationship is so uncertain that it warrants thinking through. I propose that the second alternative is the more accurate, even though Americans do not talk about it very much. People tend either to have no opinion about it -- believing the subject to be irrelevant to their own lives, or they have firm opinions about it -- believing that certain truths are self-evident and uncontestable.
Nothing about either the arts or American values is self-evident, and certainly nothing is uncontestable. I want to raise a few pertinent issues about both the arts and American values. I will look first at the arts, examining how arts function in society. Then I will consider American values, focusing on those that we have identified as definitive throughout our national history. Last, I will probe how these factors mix. Here the sparks may well fly. My hope is that you will have a lot to think about after this rich symposium.
First, let me offer an important definition that underlies all I will say. Both artistic practices and values come to be cherished in the context of specific cultures. By culture, I allude to an entire system of economic, political, and social relationships, using the term as would an anthropologist. Artistic works, such as sculpture in ancient Greece, the detective novel in 19th-century America, and "Masterpiece Theater" on contemporary television, came into being in particular systems of culture. Values, too, are rooted culturally. The work ethic, for instance, seems to have sprung from a period in which the new economic possibilities of capitalism were being developed. Sentimentality about poverty, for instance, stems from the 19th century, a period of tumultuous social change in which we began to substitute sympathetic feeling for social action. Yet, despite the origins of the arts, and of values, cultural elements may live on long after the forces that brought them into being. They become "tradition," and are honored as evidence of a past in which people were somehow greater than those in the present. The relationship that the arts and cultural values had in their original context is obscured or forgotten, and they float as imperatives, as though they represented truths that were universal and timeless. As I will develop in detail later, this conversion of arts and values into "tradition" presents difficulties for any culture that is struggling to develop arts pertinent to its own problems.The Arts
We may generally agree that art has many incarnations: drama, music, painting and sculpture, film, such literary expressions as poetry and the novel, the dance, and, in some ways, architecture. Today we see art forms entering fields that were undreamed of only a half-century ago -- video art, for example; music in which the performers rather than the composer decide what to play and when; dance in which dancers deliberately fall down; and plays without words. The primary question, "what are the arts" is best addressed if we ask about the function of art. Just what do the arts do? For whom?
Across the history of Western civilization there have been more than a few formulations of what the arts do, but I will focus on five. These are functions that have been important, both in the longer Western tradition, and in the relatively short three centuries in which our country has participated in art. Perhaps the oldest definition of the function of the arts is that they provide pleasure. They offer sheer entertainment. We like stories, as in short fiction and TV specials and popular movies. We enjoy being reminded of the familiar, as in musical patterns we have heard since childhood, and we are pleased by arrangements of color, form, sound, and process that remove us from our everyday cares.
That the arts provide pleasure and escape is one formulation. Another is that they present us with insight into what is eternal and universal. Traditionally, this has been called the theory of imitation. Behind every profound work of art, this point of view proposes, is a set of principles about humanity that always prevails. A Renaissance painting of a Madonna and child, for many viewers, is somehow a revelation of transcendent spirituality; a Beethoven symphony is the last word on human endurance. Certain arrangements of color and movement satisfy us over a long period of time, like the ballet Swan Lake, for instance, or Impressionist paintings. We judge them as beautiful. Beauty, many would insist, is the very hallmark of what is truly "art."
To these may be added a third function. The arts are didactic -- they teach us. Shakespeare's Macbeth, for instance, teaches us that inordinate ambition is pernicious. Ingemar Bergman's films urge us not to miss the unspoken and the delicately nuanced. All the narrative arts, in fact, instruct us to some extent. When we watch a play that is deeply moral, we see ourselves in the characters, we recognize our own destinies in the plot, and we find the moral dilemma of the action to be representative of problems in all human relationships.
So far we have defined the arts as providing pleasure, beauty, and instruction. At the beginning of the 19th century, these functions were considered to be the primary responsibilities of art. During most of Western history before this point, the nature of art had been determined primarily by leaders of society's most powerful institutions -- the church, the government, and the aristocracy. Artists were craftsmen at the service of leaders, and much of the work that they were commissioned to create interpreted and upheld their social vision.
Beginning about 1800, these principles were radically called into question, and we continue to live in an era of challenge. As the church and government, first in one European country and then another, pulled away from commissioning art, artists became competing members of entrepreneurial societies. Artists clamored to attract the notice of potential patrons, setting themselves apart as distinctive individual creators. The pianist Franz Liszt, for instance, in the 1830s and 40s created a public personality as the great piano virtuoso of the era. Socialites who hired him to play at their salons were proud to tell friends that he played the piano with such intensity that repairmen had to be called in afterwards. This function of the arts can be denoted as "expressionism" -- the artist's use of a medium to express unique passion and insight. Poets such as Emily Dickinson and Theodore Roethke, painters such as the American sea painter Winslow Homer, the black folk artist Horace Pipkin, and musicians like blues artist Clarence Leadbelly used the arts to express their deepest private feelings and their vision of the universe. What they created were not works that expressed an official or institutional point of view. They elevated the personal to a level of all-consuming importance.
A second kind of expressionism also developed in the 19th century. This one was much more offensive. In societies undergoing tremendous change, artists began to use art to agitate for social change. The French painter Honore Daumier, for instance, in the 1830s used his brush and pencil to protest political oppression. In early 20th-century America, Theodore Dreiser used the novel to point out the devastating loss of place experienced by workers who fled the rural for the opportunities of the city. Photographer Sherry Levine has used grotesque images of women to protest the oppression of the female gender by American advertising, law, and social custom. This form of expressionism we can call cultural criticism. That is, artists take a stand against certain practices in the society that they consider to be unjust. They become a social conscience. Their viewers and readers are typically angered, and in response, artists often consider the intensity of their offensiveness a badge of honor. Their responsibility, in this view, is to shock. "The artist sees what his fellow citizens can't," the French critic Charles Baudelaire wrote in the 1840s. Some artists pay dearly for it. Henrik Ibsen was almost run out of town for a play that showed the willingness of a resort community to poison its visitors with contaminated water so long as the tourist dollars kept pouring in. Daumier was imprisoned for his caricatures of the King. In the early 20th century, Georges Braque, the French cubist painter, expressed his conviction that the most valuable art is deeply provocative. "Science reassures us," Braque wrote. "The arts disturb us."
One can well understand that these most recent functions of art -- the expression of private feelings and the criticism of society -- are seen as grave threats by citizens who want entertainment, or beauty, or peace. Yet, an ever-lengthening honor roll distinguishes works first received as unacceptable by resistant audiences. Beethoven's early listeners, accustomed to the predictable harmonies and melodic lengths of Haydn, dismissed his symphonies as literally causing their ears to hurt. The Parisian audience for Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" in 1913 rioted when the orchestra first performed it. The paintings of Thomas Eakins, now recognized as among the greatest in the American tradition, were rejected as intolerable by his sitters. Van Gogh, two of whose still life paintings have recently broken all records in selling for $50 million, sold only one of his paintings in his entire career. Thoreau's Walden was an economic failure, and Melville's Moby Dick was so poorly received that he went into seclusion for years. When the French gave the Statue of Liberty to our nation in 1886, the Augusta Chronicle -- in Georgia -- condemned it as a pagan image unsuitable to our country.
The corollary to the function of the arts is the inquiry, who consumes the arts? In the earliest years of the American Colonies, most artistic practice was applied to the making of architectural ornament, of pewter and silver vessels for home use -- elements we would consider "craft" that were part of the everyday lives of many of the colonists. Paintings, drama, and imaginative literature were rarely part of everyday life, even of occasional life -- even for the educated and well-to-do. This was because the vast systems of assistance -- of what Howard Becker calls "art worlds" -- were not yet in place. To produce plays, a director needs actors, costumes, a place to produce them, and an audience -- all of which come into being through the slow building up of expectations that plays are important enough to support with money and time. No less is this true of the creation of large paintings, or publishing novels. These are very practical reasons, and in early New England at least, there were factors of ideology as well. The Puritans, and those they influenced, were suspicious of complex artistic productions. They were persuaded that such art distracted attention from religious contemplation and work.
However small the early audience for art was in the Colonies, it was to expand by leaps and bounds in the 19th century United States. By the time of the Revolution, American political leaders and thinkers had been acutely aware of the ambitiousness of our government ideals and insisted that we must distinguish ourselves from European nations. As they observed the role of the most complex of the arts in European societies -- none of which were democracies -- they saw that arts were enjoyed only by the privileged. They had in mind lavish gardens of sculptured mythological figures, rooms of huge paintings depicting mythological fantasies, and expensive stage productions in which the aristocracy actually took part. In those contexts, the arts were expensive, and what was even more worrisome, they were patently not devoted to instruction or spiritual uplift.
Some Americans argued that complex forms of art did not have to assume the forms they had taken in Europe. They felt that after Americans had developed their economy, their intellectual life, and the social glue of their communities, the arts would find a natural place in national life. John Adams, for instance, wrote his wife Abigail at the time of the Revolution:
"I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
By the 1830s, this vision began to come true in the United States. It took place first in the realm of print, with the importation of journals, novels, poetry, and philosophy. European musicians came to this country to teach and tour. People in urban centers, like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Charleston, Saint Louis, and New Orleans, began to take national pride in works that were about American places and experiences. Washington Irving wrote light satirical sketches about old Dutch characters and timorous New Englanders, delighting his New York readers. Dramatists and actors began to develop plays and character sketches about such original American characters as the Yankee and the frontiersman. Landscape painters began to interest buyers in pictures of American scenery. By about 1840, it was not unusual to argue that all of this activity meant that the nation was intellectually and morally healthy. In addition, many argued that this activity was necessary in order for the community of citizens to live the fullest possible lives. Amidst the great concern that Americans were entirely too concerned with making money, many expressed the conviction that pictures would turn their thoughts to beauty, music would calm their ambition, and the best literature would send them into the contemplation of matters other than dollars. Through the expansion of networks of publishing, of art academies, traveling dramatic troupe, and small orchestras, towns and cities across the growing nation became part of the democratization of the arts. After the Civil War, many citizens amassed gigantic fortunes and became major collectors, and in the 1870s some of these very citizens began to establish public museums so that their less affluent fellow citizens could enjoy paintings and other beautiful objects as part of their everyday lives.
If we look briefly at recent times, we find an even greater enlargement of audiences for the arts throughout the nation. The mass media have become part of that spread. Television has made it possible to explore the work of artists with a close-up focus that is impossible in museum visits. Television has made it possible to see in the performance of music -- the very bowing technique of violinists and the embouchere of flutists -- and to sit with Bill Moyers in the study of noted philosophers and sociologists of our time to hear them discuss their ideas. In communities large and small, in chain bookstores, as well as in the few specialty stores left, and on television, plays, ballet, paintings, sculptures, novels, and films in a wide range of intensity have been presented to mass -- as well as select -- audiences. Yet even as the employment of television in artistic production spread, many onlookers were persuaded that all was not well. Much of the mass audience seemed to wish merely to be pleased. What was being produced for the audiences who wished to be instructed, or to come face to face with the personal expression, or to be challenged, provoked, and even angered?
The National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities were chartered to meet some of these concerns. As the result of a substantial groundswell, in the early 1960s, of the conviction that the arts were crucial to the preservation of a lively, thoughtful society, Congress chartered the National Endowments in 1965. The NEA was given the responsibility to make possible individual artist's creativity as well as exhibitions that would bring art to large numbers of viewers across the country. The NEH was given the responsibility to encourage the interpretation of the arts, and more broadly, of the humanities. Scholars were to carry out this interpretation in formats accessible to large numbers of American readers, viewers, and museum-goers.
At the heart of the work of the Endowments was the conviction that the market forces in our society would not by themselves sustain a challenging artistic culture. In the 15-year period previous to the foundation of the Endowments, for instance, the art market had begun the climb to the precipitous heights at which it prevails today. Prices for old master and 19th-century paintings tripled, while artists still alive were struggling to make a living. The establishment of the Endowments attempted to guarantee American audiences that viewing or consuming would not be controlled by the marketplace. The Endowments were created to offer the creators, exhibitors, and viewers of art the same kind of encouragement and sanctuary that our constitution offers the pursuit of ideas in language.American Values
I turn now to the second major thread that I wish to trace. Many of us profess to be novices in the arts, but virtually all of us are experts in American values. That is, some of us consider the arts to be one of those special inquiries that we have not yet had time to develop, but we think of American values as part and parcel of our everyday life. When we read the newspaper, we evaluate the latest news with an automatic reference to American values -- often it is to say that America is going downhill. We evaluate films as promoting particular values, we drill candidates for public office on their stands on certain values, and we engage in gossip about the behavior of people we know from the point of view of the values, or lack them, that they exemplified in the latest scandal. Surely "values" are a simple enough matter to discuss.
Let me turn this confidence on its head, however, by proposing that "values" are never detached from cultural circumstances. The very term "values" alludes to beliefs or ideas that we hold because we consider them to be consistent with either our own experience, or a heritage from our past, or both. That is, we accept values passed down to us, or we devise new ones, and we champion them out of a consideration of our own interests.
Perhaps the most distinctive American value, as identified historically, is American individualism. It is my sense, from years of teaching, that Americans tend to think of individualism as unmitigatedly positive. They see it as a compliment to our hardiness from the earliest days of our settling the wilderness. I would certainly agree that to be "individual" seems almost to be a moral imperative in our society. Let me suggest, however, that individualism is an extremely complicated concept -- a trait that in practice is anything but completely flattering.
It is a concept that came into usage only in the 19th century. From its root, one might infer that the concept is healthy enough, that it implies a respect for individual human beings in all their uniqueness. However, the implications of the "ism " in the term are revealing. In our usage today, we associate an "ism " with any ideology that is held nonreflexively -- that is, any opinion that is raised to unassailable status. Thus to label a belief or practice an "ism," such as "racism," or "sexism," is to criticize the tenacity with which its advocates hold the idea or carry out the practice. This is precisely the assessment that the French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, made in 1835 when he accused Americans of exalting their personal ego at the expense of social responsibility, of putting the self above a commitment to community. "Individualism," as Tocqueville used it and as we would do well to consider it today, is an extreme assertion of the autonomy of the self.
The demands and opportunities of settlement across a vast land meant that many Americans worked alone, helped by and helping others nearby only on occasion. This aloneness was heightened by the two circumstances that made American society unique -- economic democracy, which meant economic opportunity for most people, and the abandonment of the most obvious elements of class divisions that marked European society. On American soil, each person, theoretically, was a social equal. We realize, quite clearly today, that this equality did not apply to blacks, women, or native Americans, and that it was, therefore, deeply tainted. Until recently those who had equality claimed that everyone did, or that if they didn't, they didn't really want it.
By 1830 this extreme economic and social autonomy had produced two qualities in American men that worried foreign visitors and American commentators alike. One was the extreme separateness with which men acted in relationship to each other, and even with their wives. Tocqueville noted that in no European society that he knew did men and women exist in such totally different spheres and men so totally apart from other men. In addition to autonomy at the expense of community, another consequence of this radical individualism was conformity. Americans strove inordinately for economic success and social status and in so doing revealed themselves as radically alike. That is, they were all "individual" in the same way. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay, "Self-Reliance," not to celebrate that Americans were self-reliant, but to urge them to throw off their cloak of conformity and refuse to subscribe to the opinions of others. He wanted them to be truly independent. His essay was a plea, and he was increasingly alarmed that it had not done much good. Tocqueville was even more incisive. America's greatest danger, he wrote, is that the majority, so afraid of nonconformity, will exercise tyranny. There is no intellectual room in Americans' minds, he wrote, for the minority. Who will look after their interests? How will the majority grow intellectually if they are so afraid of difference?
What, we might ask, does "individualism" mean today? The sociologist Robert Bellah, in his recent Habits of the Heart, has presented a disheartening assessment. He notes the popularity of "finding oneself" as a justification for actions of all kinds. Christopher Lasch has called our society of individuals focused on their own goals a "culture of narcissism." Still others have noted that we define our own values, not as commitments and ideals, but as a "lifestyle." That is, we view life's decisions, not as traceable to certain moral and intellectual traditions, but to a particular "style" that we call our own, while in fact, we pattern obsessively after the latest styles in fashion, cars, and leisure activities. Most worrisome to many is the hatred of "others" so rampant in our culture. It suggests that many in our society don't believe in the dignity of the individual per se, but only of those individuals who are like them. Individualism, which we are so likely to cite with unthinking pride, has its dangers as well as its glories.
Another American characteristic, with which we have identified ourselves from the beginning, is practicality. We have always considered ourselves to be a practical citizenry. Benjamin Franklin, in fact, seems to have set the template for that practicality in his Autobiography. You remember that he tells the story of his life as one in which hard work, perseverance, and optimism brought him one good fortune after another. So certain was he that one could plan even moral perfection that he devised a calendar by which he would arrive at it in just one year. He decided that morality was distributed among 13 virtues, including, for example, industry and moderation. He marked his calendar so as to concentrate on each one for one week at a time, putting black marks in the boxes where he needed to work more. He planned to go through the entire course four times. He calculated that he would arrive at moral perfection in precisely one year.
Practicality, like individualism, seems a laudable trait, but on examination it proves to be deeply problematic. Certainly the early settlers had jobs to do, and wilderness to clear, that left them with little time to devote to anything that did not have very perceptible, very material results. The belief that in America one could determine one's destiny by hard work and freedom was an article of faith, but like individualism, utilitarianism has taken its toll. From the earliest days of the republic, observers and citizens themselves said that our citizenship was absolutely obsessed with money making. In the 1830s, the term "wide awake" designated the citizen who was always alert to the opportunity to make a dollar. Citizens coined the phrase "worshiping the Almighty dollar" to satirize the importance that many of their fellow Americans gave to material success.
Then, as now, the most unfortunate consequence of a devotion to the practical is anti-intellectualism. Intellectual pursuits often have no discernible practical ends, in the ordinary use of the concept, nor are they achievable in a strictly linear or cause and effect process. The life of the intellect insists on dialectical reasoning, and the consideration of alternatives, rather than pronouncements. Intellectual work takes a very long time. It calls for the exaltation of emotions and ideas, neither of which are definable in terms of dollars, or specific value as commodities. Above all, it challenges the status quo. As a consequence, intellectuals are often labeled with every quality that is anathema to utilitarians. They're called dreamers, "out of step," and "non-conformists." They are vilified as wanting to rock the boat when they ought to be grateful for their privileges. Utilitarianism, like individualism, has not been uniformly beneficial.
A third characteristic that has been identified as an American value is the authority that Americans have always given to their feelings. Here too, I will be somewhat dour. Feelings are often unequivocally wonderful in human relations. They radiate generosity and sympathy, and they give primacy to our emotional lives. It is perhaps not surprising that an energetic, economically and socially mobile people, without much education, would reinforce their sense of personal worth by enshrining their present state of mind rather than embracing a process that moves toward the future. The opposite of feelings is the mental work toward standards of knowledge that takes time and self-discipline. Thus it is unfortunate that in recent years, as Bellah and other cultural analysts have pointed out, that the reign of "feelings" has been almost absolute. Today, Americans of all social and economic levels justify decisions about their personal destiny as "getting in touch with their feelings." They base political campaigns, not on rational discourse, but on such slogans as "In your heart you know he's right."
Just what is dangerous about this tendency? A devotion to feelings enables a people to dispense quickly with judgment. There's no waiting around to ponder pros and cons, no careful consultation of a variety of points of view, no turn to the past to consider the lessons of history. The greatest danger of a reliance on feelings as one's guide to behavior, opinion, and judgment is absolutism. "Absolutism" is the championing of a categorical judgment -- either pro or con -- to the exclusion of qualification, discussion, or process. It is to insist that only one way is "right." As you can see, Americans' typical reliance on personal standards in their individualism and on the practical in their utilitarianism, intensifies the tenacity which the absolutist is likely to stand fast in his position. Justice Oliver Windell Holmes had this to say about such certainty:
"Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about . . . and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far-reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as it appears, his grounds are just as good as ours."Art and Values
Now, the conflict that I proposed at the beginning of my talk can be seen clearly. Remember that I identified the arts as traditionally providing pleasure, insight, and instruction, and, in the last two centuries, offering personal expression and cultural criticism. Then I discussed some major values that guide Americans -- individualism, utilitarianism, and reliance on feelings. The conflict between these two dimensions of experience -- that is between the arts in their most profound capacity and American values at their most intense -- stems not so much from the confrontation of arts with the positive aspects of American traits, but with the negative consequences of these traits.
Let's take the consequences of individualism for the arts, for instance. On the surface of it, a people who value the individual above all might be expected to rush headlong to exhibitions, theatres, and concerts to see or hear the latest formulation of an independent-minded artist about contemporary cultural conflicts. In few instances does this happen. Viewers and audiences are upset by anything that is too different. Artists, on their side of the equation, work to distinguish themselves from their artistic colleagues, but not too drastically. They are, after all, working in a market economy and must please the middleman or agent, who in turn must please the consumer.
Another unhealthy aspect of individualism is active here. This is the resistance that American audiences feel to the authority assumed by playwrights, musicians, and painters in presenting their own vision. Insecure in their own social or intellectual status, such audiences have no sense of being colleagues with the playwright or composer or sculptor in a dialectical process that may lead to new understandings. Rather, they express outrage like that of some members of Congress who challenge NEA funding for certain projects by saying, "No artist is going to tell me what to feel," or "No Ph.D. is going to tell me what's art." Individualism, it would seem, stops at the first function of art -- to give pleasure. Individualists want nothing of didacticism, or personal expression, and certainly nothing of cultural criticism.
A second major conflict between American values and the arts is located in the kind of experiences that the arts offer and the American exaltation of the utilitarian. In the public schools, the arts are typically added last as "extras" rather than built into a curriculum that examines complex ideas. In budget crises, in all kinds of institutions, the arts are the first to be cut. Yet many of us would argue that there could be no more valuable effect of art than its challenge to students' and citizens' assumptions. Art promotes thoughtful citizenship, including capacities for responding to something different, the recognition of another point of view, and the acknowledgment that someone else cares deeply about something that we ourselves had not paid much attention to.
A third area of confrontation is between the typical American's faith in the rightness of their feelings and in the affective challenge that the arts. Often a play demands that the audience ponder the implications. A painting may evoke so many contradictory responses that one is never quite sure what the artist means. Yet, many seek instant therapy from the arts. The distinguished composer, Samuel Adler, reports:
"While I was a student at Tanglewood, we had a weekly symposium of student works, with Aaron Copland as the moderator. One day a young woman rose to challenge Copland, telling him that she loved 'classical music.' She said that when she came home from work each day in New York City, she turned on the classical station and settled down to relax for a half-hour. When the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Debussy was played, she said, she had no problems 'relaxing and snoozing' for awhile. But, she charged, when Aaron Copland's music was played, she could not relax and her nerves were 'frazzled.' Copland responded, 'Madam, I did not write these pieces while relaxing and snoozing, and I do not expect you to do that while listening to them.'"Conclusions
What, then, do I recommend as the ideal relationship of the arts to our larger society? First let me state, unequivocally, that the most valuable function of the arts is to cause us to think. Art should upset us. The most powerful artistic imagery being produced today is by those who demonstrate the capability to face the pain of the past, as well as of the present.
In the United States, novels by black women recount, again and again, the double oppression that they have suffered. Subjected to increasing verbal abuse by black male writers and black male audiences -- such as that for the film, "The Color Purple," made from the novel by Alice Walker -- black women authors have insisted that the telling of these stories carries out the very function of art. Black artists, like Melvin Edwards and Robert Colescott, are using sculpture and painting to raise some of the painful past of American treatment of blacks. Both female and male photographers are insisting that we face the facts of sexual exploitation in our own culture. Artists and writers who are native Americans and Chicanos are challenging the myths with which their ethnic groups have been marginalized in American society. In West Germany, Anselm Kiefer and other painters, are using their art to demand that audiences face the guilt of Nazi tyranny and persecution. Art not only can criticize the cultural mainstream, it must, if the mainstream is ever to flow purely.
Thus, I believe that public, as well as private, sponsorship of the arts is essential. We have assigned to our government other functions that protect us from our own worst sins. We insist that government enforce the right of free speech, for instance, because we know that in our worst moments we will yield to public opinion, or our own worst impulses, and hound out of town those persons who are exercising their rights on matters that we find offensive. We do not expect government programs to meet only our own needs, but rather those of the society as a whole. Just as we do not all need certain types of public assistance, or medical coverage, or transportation, so all of us will not find meaningful the most complex and provocative of the arts. Just as our social programs vouch for our conviction that the social, practical, and moral dimensions of our citizens lives are so fundamental to our society that we cannot leave them to the private sector, so I urge that the arts represent moral, intellectual, and emotional dimensions that are so critical to our communal life that we cannot leave them, either, to the exigencies of the marketplace.
In conclusion, let me allude to a concept that underscores the implications of my observations. We are a society rich in diversity. No distinction could serve us better in assessing that diversity than that between pluralism and relativism. Pluralism celebrates diversity and recognizes the limitations of any one point of view -- it is not so arrogant as to suggest that any one identity stands in the center of society. Relativism, on the other hand, asks no growth. It simply asserts that all is relative, that there are not even common grounds that link members of society across their differences. Such an attitude confirms the relativist in an irresponsible individualism -- a pursuit of private happiness with no commitment to meeting the challenges of what is different.
The pluralist is distinct from the relativist, and also from the absolutist. The pluralist will be wary of the absolutist's "canons" -- lists of the greatest paintings, novels, plays, or music. Whether in pleas for "old-fashioned" college curricula, or the restoration of 50 Great Books to Americans' reading lists, canons present certain dangers. They exclude what is unfamiliar and they exclude what is threatening. Most typically, these are the works being created by members of the community who are on the margins of social power, or who are trying new forms of expression. These are the very contributors who are challenging ways of thinking that have come to be accepted as absolute. These are the very contributors who could most revitalize the opportunities for ongoing intellectual, moral, and social growth of the rest of us. The pluralist, I would urge, is sensitive not only to all that we agree is beautiful, and worthy, and challenging, but also to the great depths of experience that we do not share, and that we must learn from each other. The seeking out and celebration of diversity is the surest path to cultural wholeness.