The Deserts of Nations

In “A Mirror for Artists”—his contribution to Agrarianism’s classic manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930—Donald Davidson attacked what he called “the industrial theory of the arts.”  According to this Maecenas concept, industrialism can be counted on to create an artistic renaissance in which not the wealthy classes only but the plain people will share.  Davidson thought otherwise.  “Industrialism cannot play the role of Maecenas, because its complete ascendancy will mean that there will be no arts left to foster; or, if they flourish at all, they will flourish only in a diseased and disordered condition.”

I am reminded of Mr. Davidson’s skepticism roughly once a week, while listening to National Public Radio’s Performance Today: sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, whose slogan is “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art.”  Obvious corollaries to this axiom are that a woman of great beauty deserves great wealth to boot and that Lynne Cheney, as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, deserved a great intellect.  I doubt, however, that Donald Davidson would have agreed with these propositions, which would be ridiculed out of hand by any competent moral philosopher.  Nations, to a greater extent still than individuals, generally deserve exactly what they have,...

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