Columnists > Voices

For politics' sake

Artists can't fathom why John Kerry lost

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

The prize for the most unintentionally humorous reason given by a liberal for why President Bush defeated John Kerry-in a contest with many entries-has to go to Alan Woods, an Ohio State drama professor quoted in the Chicago Tribune: "We are now reaping, in election results, the consequences of the colossal reductions in art education."

Mr. Woods was trying to figure out why Americans reelected the president even though the nation's artists told them not to.

Bruce Springsteen organized his fellow rock stars into the Vote for Change tour, with John Mellencamp, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M, the Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, and others staging concerts to elect Mr. Kerry. Rapper Eminem put out an anti-Bush video. P. Diddy put out "Vote or Die" T-shirts and got multitudes of rap fans to register to vote, and not for Mr. Bush.

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Hollywood did its part to instruct the masses, Fahrenheit 9/11 being only one of the anti-Bush movies. Documentaries almost never make it into mainstream movie theaters, but just before the election the local multiplex was playing fare like Bush's Brain (on the president's sinister Svengali, Karl Rove), The Hunting of the President (on the vast right-wing conspiracy that tried to overthrow Bill Clinton), Outfoxed (unveiling the shocking secret that Fox News is conservative), and Going Up River (about the thrilling exploits of John Kerry).

Theatrical releases too were designed to inform the American public about the issues. The Day After Tomorrow hyped global warming and the supposed consequence of the current administration's failure to sign the Kyoto treaty. The Manchurian Candidate remade the classic about a Communist attempt to take over the country into a conspiracy theory about big business controlling the political process so it can profit from a war in Iraq. Silver City made a parody of President Bush the villain in a murder mystery.

The more serious arts establishment also mobilized to defeat President Bush. The drama scene featured The Bushie Plays and W! as well as anti-Bush ridicule written into the Broadway hits Avenue Q and Hairspray. Museums and art exhibits also did their part. Celebrities campaigned, patrons gave money to the Democrats and their 527 funds, and many arts professionals did mundane tasks such as work on the get-out-the-vote effort for Mr. Kerry.

And all to no avail! What is wrong with this country, that it doesn't listen to its artists? Mr. Woods has concluded that America just does not understand art, and that's what we get for cutting back on art education.

To be sure, there were also conservative artists glad that President Bush was reelected, not all of whom were in the field of country music. But the question remains: Aren't the arts, for good or for bad, influential? How is it that all of these artists had so little impact on the country whose culture they supposedly embody?

First of all, an artist's opinion about politics, government, or public policy is not necessarily better than anybody else's. An artist, by virtue of his art, is no authority on topics such as nuclear physics, economics, theology, or other spheres outside his calling.

An artist's sphere of expertise is his art. That may entail the ability to pretend to be someone else, the ability to play a musical instrument, the ability to make up rhymes really fast, the ability to draw pictures, or the ability to tell a story. These may be valuable gifts that can enrich our lives and contribute to the overall culture. But they do not entitle artists to be rulers.

Mr. Woods seems to think that art education, fully funded, would teach children to do what artists tell them to do. But genuine art education would teach them about art. That would include understanding what a work of art is saying, so that the child could accept or reject its message. It would also teach discernment about artistic quality. That would go against the current assumption that art is simply whatever an artist does.

Many of today's artists have swallowed uncritically the bohemian myth, that the artist is superior to lesser mortals and the source of meaning and values. The best artists, though-Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt-had no such pretensions. They did not see themselves as creating either their art or their culture out of their own genius. Rather, they looked outside themselves to an objective realm of order and beauty created by Someone other than themselves.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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