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Axing Art$ And Humanitie$

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"My most heartfelt wish is to be allowed to read Nordic studies at the university, because it is my unwavering belief that doing so will cultivate my soul and I will become a more competent fighter in the battle for my existence. And since life here is an eternal struggle..."

"My whole body was overwhelmed with persistent fatigue and decrepitude. My ability to study was clouded. My memory deteriorated. My interest faded. I probably was consumptive. And it was cold in the world, and I was cold and tired, and I was the most miserable man in all of Iceland."

The young man who in 1913 wrote these words was Þórbergur Þórðarson, who for decades suffered near starvation in abject poverty before his fellow countrymen gave him his due as one of Iceland's greatest writers. Þórbergur was nearly fifty years of age when his first real work of fiction, the epic Icelandic Aristocracy, was published.

During a recent radio interview, Independent Party MP Ásbjörn Óttarsson complained about the public funding "of the arts in Iceland. At a time when cutbacks are being made at all levels of government, he wondered, why is the government paying artists? "Why can't they get regular jobs, like the rest of us?" Although he was forced to recant his words, I have no doubt that his unedited comment reflects the beliefs of many.

In America, universities are axing humanities degree programs, because of budget cuts and fewer interested students. China and Singapore, however, which used to ignore humanities, are now promoting them; they have realized that study of literature, philosophy and other arts is vital to innovation and creativity - in technology and business. And teaching philosophy's argumentation and critical thinking skills (sorely lacking in the last decade) is essential to ensuring healthy skepticism and debate in a corruptible business world.

This devaluation of the value of the arts and humanities is understandable only in a short-sighted economic worldview. If our society's only goal is for each individual to attain as much wealth as possible before dying, then poetry, sculpture, music, and literature have little meaning. If the meaning of life lies in the small rectangular pieces of paper we carry in our wallets (or in the electrons in our bank computers), it is the acme of foolishness to attempt to transcend our mortal condition. If unquestioned subservience to the beliefs and tastes of our peers is a prerequisite for contentment, only a sociopath would seek beauty.

I believe, however, that our society will be remembered a thousand years from now by its artists. We have no idea who the most successful businessman or the richest man* of ancient Greece was, but we know the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the plays of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. I'm reasonably sure that Shakespeare was not the wealthiest or most powerful man of his time, but his contemporaries all pale today in comparison to his brilliance.

Until the recent financial crisis, Iceland was known abroad primarily for its artists. Snorri Sturluson was the greatest secular author of the Middle Ages. Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his realistic portrayals of peasant life in Iceland. Björk's eclectic musical style and Sigur Rós's progressive rock have entranced millions of fans around the planet. Reykjavík's art scene is as lively as any in the world.

At some point in the past few years, however, our art became seen by many as a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, rather than a reflection of our national character. Men with no imagination weighed art's value with the only scale they were capable of understanding, and found it wanting. "If some artists can make millions," they asked, "why should we support the others who can't make it on their own? Why should we provide assistance to individuals whose work we can't stand and who are against everything we stand for?"

If there is one lesson we should have learned over the past couple of years, it is that unquestioned deference to authority is a grave danger to any society. The herd mentality of the boom years led to excesses that nearly destroyed our nation. The intolerance for contrary views among Iceland's elite masked the incompetence and criminal behavior that characterized this period, and kept our democracy from functioning as it should. That small-mindedness is not a new phenomenon, however, as writer Pétur Gunnarsson reminds us in his book about Þórðarson, In The Land Of Poverty: "Þórbergur experiences his poverty as a consequence of the tightly knit click of moneyed interests, of bureaucrats, oligarchs, and the clergy, who fiercely guard the meat kettles and make sure that access is limited to them and those they deem worthy."

While there may be a place for big-ticket items--such as Iceland's new opera house, Harpa, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2011--it is equally important to fund the dozens of promising artists who have not yet established themselves in order to give them the freedom to explore their media without worrying about where their next meal will come from. It is impossible to know in advance which one will make a breakthrough that will dazzle our senses, redefine our perception of the world, and give us a glimpse of our possibilities.

*One of ancient Rome's richest men, I discovered googling, was "Marcus Linius Crassus, who achieved his wealth through 'fire and rapine.' One of his most lucrative schemes took advantage of the fact that Rome had no fire department. Crassus filled this void by creating his own brigade--500 men strong--which rushed to burning buildings at the first cry of alarm. Upon arriving at the scene, however, the fire fighters did nothing while their employer bargained over the price of their services with the distressed property owner. If Crassus could not negotiate a satisfactory price, his men simply let the structure burn to the ground. Another of his profitable ventures was a school for slaves; Crassus purchased unskilled bondsmen, had them trained, and then sold them for handsome profits."