Writer Salman Rushdie: 'Nourish the Arts, and They Will Nourish Us Right Back'

Vivienne Flesher

The author of The Golden House weighs in on how closely art is connected to liberty.

In the U.K. in the 1970s, a glassmaking company ran an advertising campaign with the slogan “Wouldn’t life be dull without glass?” The images were doctored photographs of everyday scenes from which all the glass had been removed. Windowless houses, undrivable cars, empty spectacle frames. A bleak, dysfunctional, myopic world. Maybe there should be a similar campaign about the arts. What would houses look like without the design skills of architects? What would walls look like with no pictures to hang on them? What would broadcasting be like without music? Then subtract videos to watch, dancers to entrance us, movies to move us, television to entertain us, and, of course, books to open universes before our eyes. Such a world would rapidly become intolerable to us all. Such a world would immediately teach us all that in any civilized society, the arts are not a luxury; they are a necessity.

It should not be necessary to ask why the arts are worth fighting for, nor should it be necessary to answer such a question. The answer should be self-evident, making the question redundant. It is distressing, to put it mildly, to have reached a moment in the decline of the West at which the question is being asked and needs to be answered.

The first and best answer is joy. Human beings do not have easy access to joy. Ordinary life contains moments of extreme happiness: falling in love, the birth of a child. Art can afford us exaltation too—the emotional force of great music, the profound effect of great words, the new ways of seeing we are shown by great images. It brings the extraordinary into ordinary life and nurtures and lifts up our spirits. This is important work.

The arts educate our children in the richness of human nature. They push out the boundaries of what they can imagine to be possible for themselves and for their generation and the ones to follow. It is folly to think of this as “useless.” Increasingly, a liberal arts education is being sought after by the leaders of the information revolution. The arts describe and define our times, but they are also making those times what they are and revealing what they could be.

It’s telling that authoritarians and fanatics make the arts their first targets. Dictators the world over imprison writers; the Taliban banned song, dance, and theater; terrorist bombers attack music venues. Censorship and persecution are tyrants’ way of saying they know how important the arts are, how closely connected to liberty. Those of us lucky enough to live in free societies should value and support what the enemies of freedom fear. Without adequate funding, theaters close, orchestras disband, films (those films not containing superheroes, anyway) are not made. The arts are strong and will endure, but artists need and deserve our support.

Nourish the arts, and they will nourish us right back.