In a famous letter, John Adams wrote from Paris to his beloved Abigail: 

To take a Walk in the Gardens of the Palace of the Tuilleries, and describe the Statues there, all in marble, in which the ancient Divinities and Heroes are represented with exquisite Art, would be a very pleasant Amusement, and instructive Entertainment, improving in History, Mythology, Poetry, as well as in Statuary. Another Walk in the Gardens of Versailles, would be usefull and agreable. But to observe these Objects with Taste and describe them so as to be understood, would require more time and thought than I can possibly Spare. It is not indeed the fine Arts, which our Country requires. The Usefull, the mechanic Arts, are those which We have occasion for in a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury, altho perhaps much too far for her Age and Character. 

I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies & Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. 

Only the last two sentences of the letter are typically quoted, but I think it’s useful to see the larger context, especially Adams’s regret at the matters of great interest to him that he doesn’t fully understand and simply cannot take the time to understand. He had recently been engaged in complicated and tense negotiations with the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, which around this time resulted in the Frenchman declaring that he wouldn’t deal with Adams any more but only with the less astringent Benjamin Franklin. (Perhaps Adams should have been working harder at the study of the Art of Negotiation.) 

It’s interesting to note the change of mind he undergoes between the penultimate and final sentence: in the former he thinks his sons may well study Painting and Poetry, but then he reconsiders and thinks, well, perhaps it would be better for them to pursue “Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture” and the like so that their sons can study Painting and Poetry. His was, after all, “a young Country, as yet simple and not far advanced in Luxury” — and not likely to be much further advanced in a single generation. 

Well, right now we seem to be regressing towards Adams’s state of affairs. Everyone in power, or aspiring to power, in this country seems to be studying Politics and War, though they will sometimes cover that study with a flimsy disguise.

On the so-called Left we see surveillance moralism (and often enough the sexualization of children and early teens) masquerading as science.  

On the so-called Right? It’s wrathful trolling masquerading as political philosophy. 

None of these folks, God bless their earnest if shriveled hearts, have any room inside for the arts. Everything has to serve their political purposes, and works of art are rarely sufficiently blunt instruments. Thus Michael Lind writes — in an otherwise useful essay — that the goal of the public intellectual is to “influence voters,” because what other reason could an intellectual possibly have for writing? (Michael Lind is a very intelligent and often illuminating writer, but he really does seem to think that nothing exists in the human world except electoral politics.) The one arguably-artistic preference these would-be elites of Left and Right share is a liking for Game of Thrones (and now House of the Dragon) but only because that world is a wish-fulfillment dream for aspiring tyrants. 

Well, here at the Homebound Symphony I’ll be focusing on the arts more and more, and if sometimes connecting their wisdom to the social and political concerns that trouble our minds and dreams, I’ll try never to do it in a way that blunts those sharp instruments that pierce soul and spirit. And I’ll do this in honor of John Adams, so that his sacrifice was not in vain. 

(I also think there are every good reasons for Christians to be especially attentive to the arts — even those Christians who don’t think of themselves as arty. That may be a topic for future posts, because my reasons for so thinking are not common ones.)  

But I can do all this because of others who are doing some necessary but ugly work. The internet’s own John Adamses … sort of. I’ll write a follow-up post on some of these helpful people.