Outside In JAY GRIFFITHS
The exile of The ArTs
Thirsting for metaphor in an age of literalism
PLATO DECLARED he would ban po ets from his ideal Republic. Placing a garland on their heads, he would
send them into exile. Storytellers too — with
few exceptions — would be barred from his
state, and flutes would be illegal.
What does it mean to exile the arts?
Plato knew, and so does the current Brit
ish government, ordering the most savage
cuts to arts funding in more than a genera
tion. At universities, the arts and humani
ties will bear the brunt of budget cuts.
Public libraries, a priceless commons of
knowledge and metaphor, are being closed
across the country.
With phlegmatic cynicism, Plato based
his Republic on the premise that an ideal
state will seek expansion, encroaching on
neighboring lands and resources, result
ing in permanent war. His Republic de
scribes the ideal education for the state’s
rulers and warriors to help them pursue
these aims. Hierarchical, militaristic, and
consumerist, it is a state founded on class
divisions, obsessive measurement, and
control. (Any likeness to any nation today
is, of course, purely coincidental.)
State funding for the arts is not neces
sary, claim governments on both sides of
the Atlantic. Why? Because art is superflu
ous. I couldn’t agree more: art is surplus
to base needs and bare necessities, and its
very superfluity is its significance. The
arts are not necessary: they are absolutely
essential to the human spirit which finds
transcendence through exceeding limits,
overflowing borders, and ba<ing meas
ure. The traditional art of the Shipibo peo
ple, of the Peruvian Amazon, consists of
abstract designs without borders; the pat
terns pour like liquid over the edges of
space and time into what is infinite and
eternal, measureless to man.
Art elicits sympathy, conjures empathy, and these emotions are
requisites for a kind, kinned sense of society.
calibrate the value of transformation. A
phoenix must write its own costbenefit
analysis. But while art tells multiple sto
ries, knows the plural values of beauty,
dream, and meaning, money tells a
monostory. Money should never be the
judge of art, but its servant: funding it,
supporting it, aiding it.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the hos
tility against the arts today is precisely that
they are implacable witnesses against this
terrible lie of our times: that money is the
measure of all. Art refutes this lie, disen
tangles “money” from “values,” and ar
gues with its deepest authority that there
is another sky, intimate and boundless,
open to all, where the poet can tow a star
empathy, and these emotions are requi
sites for a kind, kinned sense of society.