America, Art and the Anti-intellects

Design by Gabriella Licona

American society is not too fond of artists. This may seem like a gross overgeneralization, but a quick sweep of the country’s history would prove otherwise.

Older cases can be found in events such as ‘50s McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist. Trump’s continued efforts throughout his presidential term to defund, and outright eliminate, the National Endowment for the Arts act as a current example. On a more personal level, maybe you’ve taken note of a friend’s dismissal of movie critics or your family’s disdain towards liberal arts majors.

To many, these vague aggressions against those participating in the arts just feel like part of American life. But where do they stem from, and are they part of a greater issue?

Examining Anti-Intellectualism

According to nonprofit think tank, Studio ATAO, anti-intellectualism is defined as “a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.”

The root cause of anti-intellectualism has often been oversimplified as a basic lack of formal education, but there are various other elements at play. While anti-intellectualism is a global issue, the very fabric of American culture makes the country considerably more susceptible.

Michael Brown, an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts’s history department, wrote a book on the subject of intellectuals and anti-intellectuals within American politics.

“If you think that being an intellectual is a good thing, it can become highly elitist,” he stated. “You’re making a distinction between a group of people who are intellectuals and others who are not.”

Anti-intellectuals are not always explicitly opposed to the thinking and knowledge associated with intellectuals. Instead, they see those who use such skills, especially as part of their career, as upper-class and snobbish. This mindset is often possessed by those who feel slighted by their stifled access to economic mobility in America’s current landscape. Even if the idea of a thinking class is vague and includes various completely different fields ranging from scientists to artists, it is an easier justification than a broken system or government.

America's infatuation with capitalism also plays a role. While your stereotypical 21st century American is often portrayed as ignorant and arrogant, the former isn’t really accurate. For all its flaws, the U.S. has a strong track record in fields such as business and technology. Notice though, that the types of fields we excel in require quantitative, not qualitative skills.

“We are a business civilization ... If we can’t count it, it doesn’t exist. Everything other than business is unproductive and superfluous,” Brown said.

This mindset has made it harder for American society to see the worth in intellect and intellectuals, as their cash values aren’t always readily apparent. And with the arts, money is usually irrelevant anyway.

Anti-Intellectualism and the Arts

Todd Jokl is a professor and dean of RIT's College of Art and Design.

“On a personal level, I think [the arts] provide wonderful opportunities for sheer beauty and observation, whether for the creator or the observer,” he said.

Such characteristics are often overlooked in American society. Art doesn’t always lead to financial wealth, but it does lead to more well-rounded individuals. This well-roundedness has a habit of making people more sympathetic and thoughtful. Those who hold anti-intellectual beliefs fear artists for their power to subvert, through understanding, the status quo.

“Anti-intellectualism is about protectionism. There’s an unwillingness to accept new ideas and change. Fundamentally, art is about challenging ideas and promoting potential change,” Jokl said.

“There’s an unwillingness to accept new ideas and change. Fundamentally, art is about challenging ideas and promoting potential change."

Due to America’s young age, at least in comparison to other organized governments, the country doesn’t have a well-defined history with the arts. The U.S. does not have the architecture of the Greeks and Romans or the woodblock printing of the Japanese to look back on, so a personal connection and sense of importance was never formed with artistic endeavors.

“[Artists] were actually essential to preserving the records of a civilization in the past, and therefore, they were held upon high,” Jokl said.

With all of these pieces in play, anti-intellectualism and the arts often act out a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lack of access to the arts leads to anti-intellectualism, and at the same time those who are anti-intellectual often try to limit access to the arts.

Clearly, anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in the American mindset and its perception of the arts. Can these attitudes be weeded out though, and how do possible solutions include the arts?

Democratic Simplification

Both Brown and Jokl have ideas on how to reduce anti-intellectualism. However, since it has so many distinct root causes, these solutions aren’t meant to address the whole. Rather, they offer ways to strengthen specific elements of American society.

One solution asks that America address the inequalities that arise between those who identify as intellectuals and those who do not.

“There’s such a thing as a democracy of intellect and a democracy of creativity ... which is an alternative to the idea that some people are intellectuals and others cannot be,” Brown said.

“A democracy of intellect and a democracy of creativity … an alternative to the idea that some people are intellectuals and others cannot be.”

The idea of democracy is often only tied to governing, but it also offers a basic premise about human capabilities. Everyone is equal, and everyone can contribute. By encouraging this contribution on all fronts, we can free the idea of intellectualism from the class structure to which it has been historically wedded.

Another solution involves taking elements of arts education, such as creative problem solving and critique, and applying them to how we approach society at large.

“Our systems are very complex, and I think that artists … can engage in making the complex clear, not simplifying but clarifying these ideas,” Jokl said.

Anti-intellectuals are often encouraged by confusing government and institutional systems that are purposefully complex and misleading. Artists, through training and nature, are able to spot the difference between audience perception and creator intention, giving them the right toolset for closing this gap of misunderstanding.

With many people considering the fight between intellectuals and anti-intellectuals an already-brewing culture war, let’s hope that the artist's penchant for empathy and understanding comes in handy. It seems like we’ll need it.