The National Endowment for thinking for ourselves
Just after Christmas, in the aftermath of turkey and mince pies, I reacquainted myself with George Orwell’s masterly 1984. It wasn’t due to any particular desire to equip myself for our bizarre and increasingly dystopian present; rather, it had been very many years since I’d read it, and I felt it had faded sufficiently into the background of my mind that I was busily telling everyone that I preferred Huxley’s Brave New World without really remembering the Orwell properly.
Having read it again properly (I’m not sure how much attention I was really paying at sixteen), for all the astonishingly horrible things that happen within its claustrophobic, grubby universe, the most distressing – for me, anyway – was the Party’s effective destruction of history. With the newspapers rewritten on a daily basis, and the populus required to continually readjust their own ‘memories’ accordingly, the entire society is afloat on a sea of constantly changing information. History yesterday becomes never-the-case tomorrow. It is terrifying.
It also demonstrates very beautifully the necessity of shared experience – I’m talking empirical experience as well as knowledge bases – in forming a solid foundation to a society and empowering its citizens. If we cannot all agree that two World Wars took place in the first half of the twentieth century, and we cannot pin down at least some of the specifics of those wars, we cannot hope to understand why the world looked as it did in 1911, as opposed to 1947. Events such as wars, revolutions, social change, legal conflict, natural disasters, and so on, shape society and politics. They also shape and are shaped by technology, too: whether that’s the invention of the atomic bomb, the development of radar, or Colossus, and the need to keep quiet about the advantages these things bring… or the humble ballpoint pen, which could be used by RAF pilots flying in the Second World War, where fountain pens would leak.
And history, of course, is not just the simple pinning down of facts (which is a tricky and subjective business in itself) – it’s also about interpreting those facts, trying to understand causal relationships, getting to grips with all parts of a society from its artworks and advertising jingles to its education system and attitude to racial difference. Once you’ve done all of that, then you need to write that history (or speak it, present it on TV or radio, turn it into a biopic or a TED talk, whatever format suits you)… which involves yet another layer of interpretation, of argument building, and creativity in finding effective ways of getting your point across.
We have a name for such processes. These encounters with aspects of then, and our seeking to understand them now. The books we write and the paintings we create. We call them the arts and humanities. And even the most personal, intimate, expressive and abstract work of art is not afloat from human history. It tells us something about its time, its context, its creator. No man is an island? No human artefact, either.
So the announcement this week of the US government’s intention to pull all funding for an array of arts and humanities organisations in its proposed budget is not any of the following: it is not a demonstration of ‘hard power’ on behalf of the American identity. It is not a way of encouraging pretentious artists to make their work appealing to a broader audience. It is not about reducing the power of a cultural elite so that the money can be spent on everyone else. It is not about saving money otherwise wasted on research projects that none of the rest of us care about. It is not about handing control back to the general public when it comes to selecting what should be on their TVs, or taught in their schools or universities.
Instead, it is about control, and an undermining of shared experience. A really engaging TV series about the American Civil War might not climb the Netflix viewing charts, but it could inspire, engage and educate thousands of people. And the reason such shows take support and time and money is that trying to pin down not only the whys and wherefores, but also the whats of history, is difficult and time-consuming. If you want it done right, if you really want to understand, you have to work at it. And if you’re the kind of person undertaking such work, you’re probably doing it for the joy of reaching that understanding, not because you want an Academy Award.
I realise that under the current terms of the US administration, reading 1984 and trying to draw social and political conclusions from it probably counts as elitist, or naive, or similar. Also, the message it delivers and the parallels with current developments in the States are truly terrifying. So let’s put a more positive spin on it, with a blockbuster by way of example. Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? Do you remember that amazing speech that Meryl Streep gives about how the cheap sweater that Ann Hathaway is wearing was only available due to high fashion trends – Oscar de la Renta specifically? Here it is:
This stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.
Welcome to way history, arts, and the humanities affect your daily life: how you think, how you see and interpret the world, how you communicate with others. It matters that much. And if the government can neither see this or support it, it’s up to all of us to remember that at the end of the day, without these things, we have no societal gravity, and no tools for understanding the world. No man, or woman, or child is an island. Let’s make sure short-sighted policy decisions don’t lead us to forget that.