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Valuing The Arts

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

Have a look at this excerpt from a speech last month by Rt Hon James Purnell MP, the new UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport. Given that it’s coming from a government minister, you may need to read it twice.

“There is something else that should be taken for granted: that the arts matter in themselves. Of course, the arts, like sport, are some of the most effective ways of reaching disaffected teenagers, of helping people to think about mental health, of regenerating inner cities or coastal towns.

“But the arts would still matter – and I believe this passionately – even if they did none of those things. They are intrinsically valuable before they are instrumentally so. The arts hold the ring for our national conversation. They are where we find our meanings, individually and collectively.

“As Peter Sellars said recently, the arts have ‘the capacity to reach beyond the public self, deep into the private self, and, if we are lucky, to re-energise the public self.’ ”

Why our reluctance to ascribe a similar set of values to the natural world – as something that has the ‘capacity to reach beyond the public self, deep into the private self, and, if we are lucky, to re-energise the public self’?

Tom CromptonValuing The Arts
  • Alastair McIntosh

    If you ask me the “why” is a question of scale. We can individually choose to engage or not engage with the private self. But the environment requires a leap of trust that others will also act if any difference is to be made. It requires a communal effort, such as militates against modern individualism. Also, that communal effort to be effective would need to cut across many aspects of our way of life. It is not unidimensional, like individual endeavour can sometimes be. All that is what makes the environment a much bigger thing. Look at the difficulty that many people have in caring for their bodies. Environment is the greater context of our collective bodies. The scale of what is required is collossal. That is why, personally, I do not see “a solution” other than in spiritually informed consciousness change … but any such change will realistically be for a remnant rather than for the rump of present humankind. And there’s nothing new about that. For the book I am presently writing on climate change I’ve just been working on Book 2 of Plato’s Republic. Here is a dialogue from it:

    The background is that Socrates and his pals agree to set about their enquiry into areté by analogy. They will examine, first, wherein it lies on the macro scale of the state, or republic. The principles so discerned will then be applied to the micro scale of individuals. Socrates therefore ventures forth and portrays a rustic idyll. Men and women would spend their time in honest pastoral and craft work, living simply, caring for their children, guarding against poverty and war, eating a humble vegetarian diet, drinking in moderation and singing hymns to the gods. He warns that ‘ambition and love of money are … something to be ashamed of,’ and the test of right livelihood is that people ‘leave their children to live as they have done.’ In this way the highest potential of what it means to be a human being – the greatest areté – can be realised and in a manner, we might observe, that benefits all members of society.

    But the young men are aghast. They want meat on the table, homes packed with fine art, gold, ivory, and adornments for their womenfolk. One of them, Glaucon, responds sniffily: ‘If you had been founding a city of pigs, Socrates, this is just how you would have fattened them.’ He tells Socrates that he wants the ‘ordinary dishes and desert of modern life.’ And so the master replies:

    Very well … I understand. We are considering, apparently, the making not of a city merely, but of a luxurious city. And perhaps there is no harm in doing so. From that kind, too, we shall soon learn, if we examine it, how justice [areté] and injustice arise in cities. I, for my part, think that the city I have described is the true one, what we may call the city of health. But if you wish, let us also inspect a city which is suffering from inflammation….

    Plato then applies his famous question and answer method to tease out the implications of Glaucon’s attempt at utopia. Socrates continues:

    ‘Then I dare say even the land which was sufficient to support the first population will be now insufficient and too small?’

    ‘Yes,’ he said.

    ‘Then if we are to have enough for pasture and plough-land, we must take a slice from our neighbours’ territory. And they will want to do the same to ours, if they also overpass the bounds of necessity and plunge into reckless pursuit of wealth?’

    ‘Yes, that must happen, Socrates,’ he said.

    ‘Then shall we go to war at that point, Glaucon, or what will happen?’

    ‘We shall go to war,’ he said.

    ‘And we need not say at present whether the effects of war are good or bad. Let us only notice that we have found the origin of war in those passions which are most responsible for all the evils that come upon cities and the men that dwell in them.’

    ‘Certainly.’

    ‘Then, my friend, our city will need to be still greater, and by no small amount either, but by a whole army. It will defend all the substance and wealth we have described, and will march out and fight the invaders.’

    … ‘Yes’ …

    ‘Then, Glaucon … with such natures as these, how are they to be prevented from behaving savagely towards one another and the other citizens?’

    ‘By Zeus,’ he said, ‘that will not be easy.’