Is Art Worth Dying For?

By Mark RodgersWhen President Bush was first elected, and I became the staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, one of my jobs was to oversee strategic planning for the Conference, including retreats and coordination with the House and White House.On a train ride to the Greenbrier with members of the House and Senate, I remember sitting with Karl Rove and telling him that a culture engagement strategy was as important as a political or policy one.  And possibly more so.   The Arts and Humanities have been dismissed by conservatives as frivolous.  Policy is meat, art is whipped cream (no allusion to Karen Finley).  Politics is hard, entertainment is soft.  Fluff.But you can’t reverse the out of wedlock births trend line through tweaks in tax policy or late night floor speeches.  It takes the soapbox.  It takes an appeal to the moral imagination.  You can’t argue for the dignity of every human being through committee hearings and Presidential panels.  It takes art.Ghent AltarpiecePostmodernity has trumped the Enlightenment, and (so we think) we no longer can be certain of what we once knew to be true.  But Truth exists, and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it is communicated through beauty.It’s the culture, stupid.This was the point hit on the nose in The Monuments Men.  Much has been written about the question it answers: Are the cultural artifacts of a civilization worth dying for?Art reflects our deepest aspirations and hopes, our identities, in a way that no other form can.  It wasn’t lost on the audience that the two central pieces in the film reveal the religious history of Western civilization, The Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, and protecting them from the advancing atheism of Communism was synonymous with saving civilization.

12 Years A SlaveArt is an expression of the highest ideals of a civilization.  It endures.  It defines.  We can’t know who we are unless we know where we’ve come from.  This is why invading armies destroy a civilization’s artifacts, to wipe away memory and meaning.  The Babylonians carried away Israel’s artifacts for a reason, and it instructed Israel’s best and brightest in its “language and literature”  for a reason as well.Art is freedom and it empowers.  It is no surprise that one the central figures opposing Russian totalitarianism now is the band Pussy Riot.  We wonder, but should not be surprised, that art was central as a salve and a stated by the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt.  Their spirits were liberated through art even though their bodies perished.Pussy RiotArt is unique to truly understand, seek truth and develop empathy.  There is no other way for a society at large to walk in someone's shoes than through art.  Several of this year’s Oscar nominated films for best picture do just that: The Dallas Buyers Club (AIDS), 12 Years a Slave (human rights) and Nebraska (aging).In my engagement with art and entertainment, what I have found elusive in the policy and political spheres is possible … shared experience.  We can put away the hard edges, the sharp elbows, and understand together.  We may not always agree, but shared experience creates understanding.packard-campus-library-of-cConservatives are known for critiquing and cutting art, not creating it.   I wish more members on the Republican side of the aisle would have championed the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus to preserve America’s greatest film, television, video and musical art.  We need to preserve our artist legacy, not let it burn with time.My message to conservatives: you reap what you sow.  And there will be nothing to reap when there is nothing you’ve sown.