Defunding the arts suppresses culture, democracy, economy

Maurice Manning stood at his Springfield home in 2013. A former Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, he is a Yale Younger Poets winner and a poetry judge the National Book Award.
Maurice Manning stood at his Springfield home in 2013. A former Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, he is a Yale Younger Poets winner and a poetry judge the National Book Award. Herald-Leader file photo

The first thing Philistines do in setting up shop is to get rid of the artists and intellectuals.

The suppression of culture — and the people of that culture — is easier to carry out when those who could challenge authority with creativity and intelligence are purged.

Eliminating the artists and the educated was a priority, of course, for the Nazis. Many artists fled Europe during the Nazi era and found refuge in America, by which our nation has been enriched. An artist who fled Hitler’s Germany and arrived in Kentucky was the pioneering and visionary printer, Victor Hammer.

Hammer was invited to be artist-in-residence at Transylvania University, beginning in 1948. The arrangement was so agreeable that he made Lexington his home until his death in 1967.

In the interim, he put Lexington on the map as a worldwide center for print-making and letter-press publishing — an impact that continues today.

Not only was Hammer an artist, he was deeply religious. He believed art could be a means of spiritual inquiry and expression.

Not surprisingly, he printed works by Thomas Merton, another transplant to Kentucky, whose writing is among the most important of the 20th century, and whose reputation has benefited Kentucky in ways that cannot be measured.

Hammer’s work also brought other artists to Kentucky, a cultural influx that is now part of our heritage. One of the qualities of art is it outlasts the life of the artist, the work of creativity and vision speaks to generations to come and in vital ways makes a future possible.

The value of Hammer’s artistic contribution to Kentucky is ongoing, a half-century after his death. It’s one of the miracles of art — it stays alive and means more over time.

It’s no wonder, then, that Kentuckians acquainted with their state’s cultural and artistic history are alarmed by rumors that Gov. Matt Bevin plans to dismantle the Kentucky Arts Council by defunding it in his first budget.

If the General Assembly were to approve such a blunt-force gesture, wise Kentuckians will look back and realize the mistake.

It would be a cowardly act, bad theater. Kentucky would be the only state in the country without a state-supported arts agency.

Art is a living resource, available to all Kentuckians. Art also has the capacity to lead the way to justice. Art erases the divisions of age, class, race and gender; it brings people of all walks together.

Art teaches compassion, it expands the mind and the heart. It shines a light on the value of human life and the importance of individual expression.

Art comes from an open and democratic spirit; it also breathes new life into a democratic society. If democracy can be likened to a sturdy tree, then art is one of its fruits.

Our governor should not cut down the tree.

The metaphor connecting art to nature is apt. Art must be cultivated, and cultivation of the arts has been the mission of the Kentucky Arts Council for 50 years. The council has supported countless artists, but it also supports programs at local libraries, schools, and community groups such as The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington.

On Thursday, the Carnegie Center will induct five writers into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

The only living writer to be inducted this year is Bobbie Ann Mason.

Anyone who lived through the Vietnam era would benefit from reading her novel, In Country. It is a novel that has mended lives, and it has made Mason a national treasure.

It is also a novel, among her many other books, that has put Kentucky literature forward in the nation. In 2012, Mason received the Governor’s Award for the Arts, recognizing her as a writer whose work is important to the entire country.

Indeed, art of various kinds, is part of Kentucky’s cultural commerce. Art is also an important feature of the commonwealth’s economic well-being. When Mason’s novel was made into a movie in 1989, millions of dollars went into the economies of Mayfield and Paducah, where the movie was filmed.

I don’t know if Bevin reads novels or admires paintings or has ever heard the music of the late Jean Ritchie — who will also be inducted on Thursday — but he should want to safeguard Kentucky’s rich artistic heritage, and how the authenticity of our art is the envy of places far beyond Kentucky.

Defunding the arts would impoverish us all, it would undo a legacy of vital work, and senselessly diminish our future.

Maurice Manning of Springfield, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, is an English professor at Transylvania University.