April 15, 2011
by Aaron Belz
The English novelist G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” I recently tweeted this quote, and a friend cheekily replied, “Or building a statue somewhere.”
It took me days to understand what my friend meant, but now I think I’ve got it. In our perennial need to define true from false, good from bad, law-abiding from criminal, we not only mark and enforce boundaries but erect monuments. Our monuments form the objects of our civic worship, gravitational centers of cultus. Consider the degree to which the Statue of Liberty defines our national identity. For Americans, she is both beautiful and true.
So the mission of art and the mission of government overlap in multiple ways. Art and government are means by which we organize and govern ourselves, give definition to our most cherished beliefs.
But what struck me when I first read Chesterton’s quote was its perhaps unintentional reference to poetry. Poetry is known for its lines even more than visual art is. In fact, for many readers and writers lines are what define the genre; i.e., that which is broken into lines is poetry.
Poetry also depends on measure, meter; our nation’s Congress is forever passing measures. This verbal equivocation lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), which features a zealous city judge named Angelo who, in the process of enforcing an anti-fornication statute, solicits sex from the defendant’s sister. He is caught by his superior, Duke Vincentio, who says (in iambic pentameter)
. . . I have seen corruption boil
Till it o'errun the stew: laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanc'd that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark.
What he’s saying is that, as a result of Angelo’s corruption, the laws of the land have become cheap as “forfeits,” small penalties for idle talk, rules posted on the walls of barber shops. But the lasting beauty of Shakespeare’s work is that it not only posits real principles of law and justice, but it expresses them in poetic measure and with lavish alliteration. The Duke’s sonorous conclusion rings down through the centuries. How often have American politicians broken laws or left them unenforced until they become "as much in mock as mark”?
It might help to know that cultus, the root word of “culture,” though it originally arises from farming, also carries the notion of cult or belief and therefore is a good way to remember that human culture is inherently value-laden. In his book Plowing in Hope, David Hegeman explains that
the Latin cultura . . . was normally used in agronomic contexts to denote the cultivation—the active care or tending—of plants and animals. . . The term could also be used in a religious context to mean worship. The idea here seems to be that in the same way the farmer actively fusses over his crops, so the worshiper gives rapt attention to the deity he serves.
The farmer ploughs the field, sows seeds in the furrows, fertilizes, waters and waits until they’re full of corn or whatever he has planted, then harvests. In this image I see the same work of a lawmaker and a poet, both “drawing a line somewhere,” planting and cultivating it until fruit is born. This is what humans are designed to do.
How close are these forms of cultivation really, though? Surely these observations are poetic or suggestive rather than practical. I wonder, too.
I’m reminded of a question posed to my 11th grade English class by its teacher, David Church: “Who are the most skilled writers in the country?” We guessed journalists, screenwriters, novelists, and other popular writing professions. His answer: “The nine Supreme Court justices, whose job it is to write much more extensively, carefully, and quickly than anyone else.”
As a young poet, I learned a valuable lesson that day.