The searing novel by Alice Walker that transformed your sense of the social world, the ancient flint arrowhead that transported your understanding of time, the tempestuous Hudson River School painting that showed you the divine in nature, are all extravagances unworthy of the support we call "public." Beauty - the ideas that convey it, the objects that carry it, the words that harness it - is out in the era of Donald Trump. Or at least, this is the insinuation of the President's team when they threaten to place the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts on the chopping block. In this surreal version of America-The-Great, the quest for the truth of us and for the best in us through our national letters and arts is deemed unworthy of recognition. But as the trenchant writer Audre Lorde has professed, "poetry is not a luxury." Recent psychological studies have borne this revelation out, finding that reading books (and perhaps especially novels) strengthens our most noble qualities, leading us to be kinder, smarter, and even happier.
Reflecting on the nature and valences of our existence - who and why we are - is among the essential elements that not only make us human, but also make us citizens. Poetry, history, criticism, philosophy, novels, dramas, objects thoughtfully exhibited, and edifices tenderly preserved: these are the cultural goods, the collective riches, which reflect a nation's story, make a country distinctive, and weave together a larger global society of the human. These books, these essays, these artful things are where we meet the illumination of introspection, massage the tense muscles of moral fiber, and see our separate experiences as intermeshed. These cultural goods of the highest order should be fed by the common pot if we seek to nurture a rich, diverse present and future America.
Our literary forebears recognized this fact. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, a whole generation of self-conscious young Americans fretted about the inadequacy of our nation as betrayed by the immaturity of our arts. In the hollows of New England, writers began to address the lack, hurling forth an array of stunning tomes. The Scarlett Letter, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Self-Reliance, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, were all works of the imagination that sought to simultaneously translate local, national, and transcendent meanings.
We still read those texts in the classroom as expressions of our national yearnings. To be sure, Hawthorne, Irving, Emerson, Melville, Twain and their set created classics without support from government agencies. The US was just in its infancy when these men were born. It took generations for our country to recognize the value of democratically funding cultural and intellectual production. The NEA and NEH, bold American inventions, would not emerge until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law ambitious reforms of the Great Society. Medicare and Medicaid were among these, as was civil rights legislation and funding for public broadcasting. But if public support for the arts had existed in 1800, imagine our haul of talent. We might have added such depth, such range, to our shared interpretive heritage. (Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Mary Oliver, and Joyce Carol Oates, and the list goes on, are all recipients of NEA awards.) Will we time-travel back to the days when the white, the male and the moneyed dominated the arts as practitioners and patrons? Or will we embrace the ideal of a democratic beauty that holds mirrors up to multiple worlds of inner light?
Our best moments have been marked by radical ideas, stunning feats of oratory, and great machinations of imagination. When the revolutionaries who made this country a thing of its own gathered to endorse one of the most beautiful humanities texts of an age, they charged the deeply flawed but rhetorically talented Virginia statesman, Thomas Jefferson, with crafting the treatise. But one voice was not enough. This work of art was a national project. The Declaration of Independence had to be a collective endeavor, drafted by committee, underscored by many names, co-signed in spirit by the people. My ancestors were not represented in that Continental Congress. In an irony that we know painfully well with a debt to meticulous works of history, no African American had the freedom or standing to sign that day. But riding in on the coattails of Johnson's Great Society, any of us can hold the pen that knits our country closer together, and all of us are co-signers on our fellow citizens' masterpieces.
The quest for beauty, for emotional and intellectual truth, binds us to the category "human." It chastens and arrests us. It elevates and connects us. It shapes us into a nation. When we support the common good by stirring together the cultural pot, we choose wings over walls.