Grace notes, guns, and butter

To the tune of "God Bless America," Leontyne Price sang for a congressional appropriations subcommittee: "Save the performing arts,/Arts that I love." For once her gorgeous voice may have fallen on indifferent ears. But a desperate third-act aria was certainly as appropriate a response as any to the administration proposal to cut funds of the National Endowment for the Arts by 50 percent.

Art, alas, is what society takes to the pawn shop when the economy runs dry.

The administration proposes to spend $1 billion to reactivate two battleships , the Iowa and the New Jersey, that have been out of commission for almost 25 years. The figure -- a drop in the bucket as defense spending goes -- represents about 12 times the budget recommended for the National Endowment for the Arts. The tactical value of two old battleships is one of the more controversial questions among strategists of modern warfare. And yet the $1 billion will be forthcoming more surely -- more willingly -- than the one-twelfth of that amount for the arts.

As even Sen. Paul Tsongas, a liberal Democrat, concedes: one pronounces the word "survival," and "all other issues become tragically irrelevant."

In terms of survival there is a public case to be made for butter vs. guns, or at least, for butter as well as guns, and Massachusetts's other senator, Ted Kennedy, made it when he pointed a finger toward the "starving children of the world" and said: "If that's what the cost of fighting inflation is, it is unacceptable. It is unacceptable."

But the case for butter only makes the case for the arts seem more of a matter of frills. With "starving children of the world," how can anybody justify a single acre given over to roses instead of wheat?

There are no convincing arguments for the arts but the arts themselves. One can only, like Leontyne Price, hit a high C, or paint a portrait, or write a poem, and hope that the value of the act speaks for itself. Still, by comparison with the scare figures of Hunger and War, no Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse rides to symbolize the devastation that befalls a world without art.

A senior citizen, threatened simultaneously with the loss of a lunch program and the closing of a branch library, may be able to declare in all sincerity: "I can no more live without books than I can live without food." But the speaker, as well as listeners, must recognize a degree of exaggeration -- a metaphor -- and when the subject is survival, that makes all the difference.

In the face of claims for the nutritional needs of the human spirit, the advocates of the needs of guns and butter triumphantly respond that, if the body does not survive, there will be no spirit to nourish -- an argument that all too regularly goes unchallenged.

In "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoevsky pushed this false argument to its extreme: "There is no crime, there is no sin, there is only hunger."

Did Dostoevsky regard this ultimate materialism, however compassionate, as the ultimate lie? The reader suspects so.

At any given "emergency" or "crisis," no red-tag argument can be made for the arts -- for civilization itself. They are not useful, they are not essential in the same obvious way that guns and butter are. But if, at every emergency, at every crisis, the arts, with impeccable logic, are voted down, what happens then?

The latest answer comes from an unexpected quarter. The leadership of communist China is disturbed that "thoroughgoing materialism" has led to a dead end. There is talk in Peking of renewing education, literature, and the arts -- of giving priority to "spiritual civilization." Some 70,000 letters are said to have been printed in the China Youth News, exploring "the meaning of life."

"Survival" is a word to be taken on many levels. The argument for the arts -- Leontyne Price's grace note -- finally comes down to this: if all we have left is guns and butter, then human life (as distinguished from mere existence) becomes "tragically irrelev ant."

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