Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: Art and Literature Offer Election Season Therapy

With its depiction of civilized politics, George Caleb Bingham’s Canvassing for a Vote (1852) offers balm in this fractious election season.
(Image courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

So who’s up for a little more election analysis? Just kidding! Since this column is written two months in advance of publication, I feel safe in saying that, as you read it, we’ll have endured the most distasteful, degrading and vacuous campaign season most of us, having not been around for Jefferson vs. Adams in 1800, can recall.

We feel entitled to this period every few years to declare ourselves above the nonsense — deserving of better choices, awfully glad it’s over. Some believe they can best express their disgust by not going to the polls, which is utter nonsense. Democracy may be ugly, but it’s still better than every alternative, and we are morally bound as citizens to participate. There are worthy candidates on the ballot who deserve our attention. Period.

We can all agree that political campaigns have devolved in approximate proportion to our culture, leaving in their wake unprecedented feckless governance. However, the beauty and the conundrum of the system is that ultimately voter participation is the only thing that can right the ship. So we need to get over it and move on. A dose of art and literature always helps.

Before we were all reduced to cells in enormous campaign databases, before exaggeration, ignorance and mistruth became “messaging” and before reality television dominated our culture and politics, George Caleb Bingham captured a Missouri political campaign in his Canvassing for a Vote (1852), on view in the American galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

I’m always drawn to this lovely work and its depiction of how democracy should work. As the candidate earnestly lays forth his stands, presumably with his satchel full of documentation, reasonable men seem to reason. On their faces we see good humor, interest, skepticism, and most important, listening. Even as the white male characters serve to remind me that it would be another 20 years for men of color and 70 years for women to achieve the right to vote, I take comfort in Bingham’s depiction of civilized politics.

Somewhat less reassuring is Pericles’ Funeral Oration (1853), a frequently reproduced work of unknown whereabouts by German artist Philipp Von Foltz, which portrays a political speech delivered in 430 BC, and is often compared to The Gettysburg Address. Although 2,000 years apart, both were delivered in honor of fallen soldiers, and both justified war in defense of the democratic ideal.

Somewhat less reassuring is Pericles’ Funeral Oration (1853), by Philipp Von Foltz, depicting a political speech in defense of war.

The first Peloponnesian War had shaken the city-state of Athens and the voters needed reassurance. In this case voting was limited to wealthy landowners.

In a classic case of political persuasion, we see the power elite of Athens being assured that the war was just and noble in defense of the great city-state. Pericles had them in the palm of his hand, yet the outcome of this oratorical strategy was 20 more years of war and a weakened democracy.

Shortly thereafter Plato published his treatise The Republic, arguably the all-time most influential work on philosophy and political theory. Channeling his dialogues with Socrates, he cautioned that a society ought to focus more on providing quality of life rather than on military might. Plato made four suggestions, paraphrased here, that seem apropos to our post-election recovery:

  1. We need new heroes. He cared little for celebrity and cautioned that bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.
  2. We need “censorship.” He warned of a free-for-all of zealous preachers, confused voices and opinion-sellers hurling ideology at the masses and resulting in misguided wars. The First Amendment notwithstanding, wouldn’t it be great if campaign lies and distortions could somehow be bleeped? Absent that, it’s up to us to avoid media’s influence and weed out the ridiculous.
  3. We need better education in order to teach people how to live and die well — not just math and writing. While Plato considered art suspect for its lack of discipline, he believed in teaching learning first, through subjects like philosophy and history. So, surely current scientific evidence that art enhances all learning would appeal to him.
  4. We need to invest in our children. He believed that society had a safety-net role to play, even beyond that of parents, in the upbringing and nurturance of children. How often have we heard candidates talk about children in the election of 2016? Too seldom, I believe.

I hope the election of 2016 moves the pendulum of politics back toward a more civilized equilibrium, and that the victors find ways to compromise in order to do their jobs. For now, breathe in . . . and breathe out.

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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