Freedom and the Theatre of Ideas

Address to the Russian Institute of Aesthetics, January 1990

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com



I want to address a number of interrelated issues that confront the modern theatre. My main concern is to ask, why should we have a theatre of ideas? The theatre of entertainment is unproblematic: though it has an important place in cultural life, it is undemanding, having the essential purpose of amusement. The theatre of ideas, on the other hand, is a theatre that provokes us to think about morality, human relations, history, or politics. What place does a theatre of ideas have in our lives, and what is the aesthetic or philosophical attitude we should take toward it? In order to approach this issue, I want to give the briefest sketch of two lines of thought that have come down through the history of aesthetics.

The first line is most famously represented by Plato, whose respect for the power of art was so great that he thought it would have to be rigorously censored and controlled in his ideal republic. For Plato, as for the Greeks generally, art was mimesis, an imitation or representation of reality. As artists were apt to get their representations of reality wrong, art was not only in danger of spreading ignorance and misinformation, but of weakening the very fabric of society. Plato did not ban all art from the republic — painting and sculpture, if we read carefully, are not generally excluded. His main targets were the narrative arts of poetry and drama, which were to be admitted to the republic only in censored form, as “hymns to the gods and praises of noble people”(607a). He objects to a freely practiced poetic and dramatic art because the actors themselves must imitate vulgar subjects and shameful behavior, and the power of their performances may influence the audience to surrender to wayward and inferior feelings. By exciting people’s feelings, poetic and dramatic artists upset or destroy the proper balance of the individual soul, and this in turn upsets the balance required for the efficient running of the state.

With respect to this view of art and its potential place in our lives, it would be hard to think of a greater antithesis to Plato than Friedrich Schiller. Schiller was of course a major voice for political freedom and the brotherhood of man in the eighteenth century, and his poetry and drama express this. But his philosophy of art, put forward in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind also probes in the most striking ways connections between artistic creativity and freedom. The animals, Schiller claims, are chained to the facts of their material reality. But a revolution has taken place by the time we come to the highest of animals, for man is capable of what Schiller calls (following Kant) “a disinterested and unconditional appreciation of pure semblance.” When human beings begin to take an interest in embellishment over practical function — where the carved handle becomes more important than the knife itself — they have entered a higher level of existence. When, moreover, they begin to prefer the any semblance of reality over brute material reality itself, then they have made a breach with their animal existence, and are “on a path to which there is no end.” Men have become at last truly human.

This is the “aesthetic-play drive,” and it involves the free association of ideas in fantasy and imagination. It is what comes to the fore in human life when material needs have been satisfied, and glimmers of it can be detected, says Schiller, even among the lower animals. What does the lion do, Schiller asks, when he is no longer gnawed by hunger? He roars, filling the desert with echoes of his vitality: “his exuberant energy enjoys its self in purposeless display.” Warming to his topic, Schiller exclaims, “With what enjoyment of life to insects swarm in a shaft of sunlight; and it is certainly not the cry of desire that we hear in the melodious warbling of the songbird.” I’m afraid that Charles Darwin did a lot to rob these passages of their romantic charm — the songbird, modern science tells us, probably is crying its birdish desire, just as the lion may be merely establishing a territory. Nevertheless, we can appreciate Schiller’s essential point: that art belongs not to the realm of material necessity, but is the ultimate expression of human freedom, the free play of the human spirit.

Whatever else one can say about Schiller’s philosophy of art — that it is romantic, or idealistic, or naive, or one-sided — there is one respect in which it comes as a breath of fresh air. Set over against philosophies of art such as Plato’s (or Lev Tolstoy’s) which stress the potentially helpful or damaging effects of art on the social man, on morality, and on society at large, it is salutary to be reminded of the power of art to free the human mind from base material constraints and to enlarge our sense of the unrealised possibilities of human existence. Plato worried about art because free imagination had the capacity to take us away from truth and reality. Since in his republic Plato has purportedly given us a perfect society, one which makes possible the highest human fulfillment, there is no need to broaden people’s imaginative horizons with strange ideas, and hence no need for free imaginative play. In fact, it may threaten the stability of the utopia. In taking this point of view, Plato is surely correct: if ever there is established on earth a perfect human society, there will be at that moment no longer any need for an art that expands the human imagination. Of course, the perfect society may include mere entertainment art (and the citizens of the republic were to be provided with state-approved entertainment), but it will have no place for an art which calls into question current human social arrangements. And why should it?

Schiller, on the other hand, keenly aware that his world was a long way from utopia, praised the imaginative freedom of art precisely because of its capacity to reveal new truth to us, to show us hitherto unrecognized aspects of reality. This is brought out in the contrasting attitudes of Plato and Schiller toward authority. For Plato, the authority of the philosopher-kings was absolute: as sole possessors of true knowledge, it was up to them to dictate the style and content of art. According on the other hand to Schiller, “No privilege, no autocracy of any kind, is tolerated where taste rules, and the realm of aesthetic semblance extends its sway.” Taste for Schiller, as for Kant, is a universal human faculty, and in the “Aesthetic State” we are every one of us a free citizen, “having equal right with the noblest.” In the democratic realm of art, there can be no authorities to decree values to us; every man and every woman is a judge of equal authority. In other areas of science, Schiller suggests, there might be a place for a monopoly of experts, but in the case of art and matters of taste, such authoritative monopolies are transformed into “the common possession of human society as a whole.” If you want a proper diagnosis for your disease, go to the doctor; if you need to repair a television set or place a satellite in orbit, there are experts to be consulted. There are even experts who can give authoritative interpretations of theological texts, if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you want to know whether a play is a good one, you must go see it yourself.  

I have raised the name of Schiller here for two reasons. First, he is a great champion of freedom generally and the freedom-giving potentialities of art specifically. In this respect, he represents a line in aesthetic history which sees art as both requiring freedom and making freedom possible: it requires freedom from censors, dictators, and other forms of human authority in the form of persons or institutions, and it further frees us by opening us to moral, political, and practical possibilities we may not have considered or understood. This is again something that Schiller shares with his older contemporary, Kant: that the work of art is a relatively autonomous object, something which as much as possible ought to be treated independently from other human values. And this in turn brings us to another element which sets Schiller apart not only from the spirit of Plato, but from many other aestheticians as well: his stress on the concept of play. In contrast to the “fearful kingdom of forces” (natural forces) and the “sacred kingdom of laws” (human morality) there exists “a third joyous kingdom of play and of semblance,” a realm which, imaginatively at any rate, releases man from all constraints, physical and moral. I find the idea of art as a deep human play a potent one, and it raises profound questions about the theatre and its place in our lives. Particularly so, because in the charged moral and political atmosphere of today, many people have lost sight of the importance and meaning of the free-play element that is required for the creation and flourishing of art. Furthermore, it is not only art that suffers in the current climate, but all of us in our social, moral, and political lives as well, for we miss what art might have to offer us either by not taking art seriously enough, or, alternatively, by taking it all too seriously, taking it in a misguided spirit of seriousness.

If there is a potentially negative effect which might tend to come from seeing art as essentially a kind of play, it would be to incline us to view it as mere entertainment. The concept of play implies an activity undertaken purely for its own sake, and so construed art might be reduced to mere amusement, a way to pass the time. In this respect, we might imagine that Schiller’s idea of art as play is antithetical to the concept of a theatre of ideas, a theatre which treats important social or political issues. And indeed, a theatre of ideas could hardly exist in a milieu in which all art was produced merely in order to be consumed as entertainment.

This is not something to be considered only from the side of the producers of art. The trivialization of art which results from seeing it as meaningless amusement or entertainment (or as a merely commercial enterprise) is not exclusively a matter of the produced content or presentation of art. It can also result from the attitude of an audience that is conditioned to treat all art as mere entertainment. The audience for art in Plato’s republic is described as one which, like an audience of small children at a puppet show, treats everything set before it with intense seriousness. At the opposite extreme from this — on some descriptions, anyway — is the audience for modern commercial television (in the capitalist countries), which is so inured to drama (including erotic passion, violence, etc.) that it is barely affected by any dramatic experience. One of the most persistent complaints about commercial television in the West is the way that it trivializes the most serious subjects by fragmenting them and by juxtaposing them against toothpaste advertisements and comedy programmes. For me this was epitomized by a recent concert performance televised from East Berlin to celebrate the opening of the Berlin Wall. Television New Zealand broadcast this emotional event but placed ice cream, dish-washing soap, and automobile advertisements — with musical jingles — between every movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony! This is a uniquely grotesque example, but it does point to a problem. If commercial television does present serious drama, it too is liable to be interrupted by advertisements, and if it is not, then it will be preceded and followed by commercials and other programmes of painful banality and triviality. In this atmosphere — which is not yet the atmosphere of Soviet television, and is avoided by noncommercial networks in the West — audiences are conditioned never to take anything too seriously, because no matter how important it may be, every programme tends to be framed and presented as entertainment.

And this complaint is not limited to television, but can be seen in the banalization and trivialization of the arts generally in what is deemed the “postmodern” moment in art. For at its worst, it looks sometimes as though the whole art world of the West is being swallowed up in sneering pessimism, a cynicism in which nothing is to be taken seriously and every art form is reduced to entertainment. It is a world in which we have moved from the eighteenth-century view of the artist as genius to a contemporary view of the artist as media celebrity. Of course, I describe this contemporary condition of the arts in an exaggerated manner, but nevertheless, there is something to be said about the general trivialization of all art in the television culture.

This is not a happy state of affairs in the West, but as a great Russian novelist might have said, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, and I suspect that the situation in theSoviet Union is in some respects at the present moment closer to the other extreme, at least with regard to theatre. This struck me recently when I read some remarks by Anatoly Smelyansky, writing in Moscow News about a production of Pavel I at the Central Theatre of the Soviet Army. At the conclusion of his review, Smelyansky remarks:

A time which has been politicized to monstrous dimensions, as ours has, is dangerous to art. The theatre of our days feels this. The audience is obsessed not so much by the acting and not even by the plot as by the associations. And how can you escape them when it’s a question of Russian history? (Moscow News, 22 October 1989)

This seems to me to point up an important difficulty facing anyone who wants to develop a truly free theatre of ideas. For even after you have gotten rid of the censors and in that sense you have free expression, it may be that the politicized attitude of the theatre audience, its intense preoccupation with politics, creates its own inhibiting atmosphere. Smelyansky does not complain about censors, but about the obsession of the Soviet audience to look at every detail of the play in terms of its associations with current political questions. Even where there are no longer any censors, such an atmosphere discourages the free expression of ideas in the theatre. Let us consider how this atmosphere of inhibition develops.

First, there is the nagging insistence that every work of art or literature, and certainly every piece of drama, must have some kind of moral message for us. It is not just critics who sometimes demand that we find a moral message in art, but audiences as well. Of course, much art does have moral messages (needless to say, Socialist Realism aside, Russian literature in particular is full of examples, long before the likes of Tolstoy), but there is no reason to demand that we find a moral or political message everywhere in art. In fact, when we require that there is always some ideological message buried in the heart every work of art, however innocent it may seem, we align ourselves with the stream of aesthetics which has its source in Plato and which I personally believe flows through Christianity and right up to the cultural policies of the two Josefs — Goebbels and Stalin. But the notion that there is always something beneath the surface of the work, would deny the possibility of a truly experimental theatre of ideas, a theatre that sets out to explore moral ideas or the complexities of human relationships, without always determining to find some message the the end. and why must there always be a message? In the first place, events in life don’t always have clear moral or political meanings imbedded in them and to that extent events in art ought not always to have them either. Moreover, it is also possibly true that in some human situations no one knows or understands the moral dimension enough to place it in a “message.” Propagandistic art, art bound to a political ideology, never honestly explored anything, because it always knows in advance what it will “discover” — in that sense it never discovers anything at all. True exploratory art cannot know in advance what it may reveal. And that is part of what should be meant by the idea of experimental theatre: it experiments not only in its dramatic forms, modes of presentation, and theatrical techniques, but also in what it might find out about the human condition. It is part of the essence of what an experiment is (as opposed to a mere demonstration) that you don’t know for certain how it will turn out.

Second, it is worth noting that the philosophy of art of that great modern moralist, Lev Tolstoy, included an element which conflicts with the main direction of his theory. Tolstoy thought that moral teaching (resulting in the union of mankind) ought to be the ultimate goal of art, and he gave three criteria for works which are likely to achieve this aim: they must have clarity, sincerity, and individuality. The first two, clarity and sincerity, are perfectly compatible with art having a merely moral message, but the last, individuality, is problematic in this regard. There is no doubt that Tolstoy is correct in demanding that art possess some sort of individuality. This point was indirectly made by Aristotle. In his answer to Plato’s theory of art, Aristotle has outlined the characteristics of a good tragedy. Audiences, Aristotle suggests, are not eager to see on stage either wholly good, angelic, saintly characters, nor are they much interested in completely evil ones. The most fascinating kind of character in Greek drama is the great and good man or woman who nonetheless has some sort of tragic flaw. Aristotle is implying that we are not interested in seeing characters who illustrate simple moral qualities, but in characters who complicate and deepen our sense of the problems of morality, either in themselves (Oedipus) or in the situations and dilemmas they confront (Antigone). This then is exactly Tolstoy’s problem, and it is the problem faced by anyone who wants to present a purely moralistic literature. The teachings of morality must come to us in terms of general rules, or formulae, preferably the simpler the better. Literature, including drama, must give us concrete individuals, and the most interesting characters to audiences are, whether moral theorists like it or not, flawed and imperfect characters who do not exemplify pure goodness or evil. Morality demands simple schema; drama and literature frequently insist on increasing and deepening complexity. That kind of dramatic or literary individuality is not normally compatible with Tolstoy’s demand for simple moral messages which can be grasped by either prince or peasant.

This issue stands not merely a problem but also an opportunity for literature and drama. Because if the function of a theatre of ideas were merely to provide illustration and examples for philosophical theories, it is dispensable indeed: we might as well be satisfied with philosophers’ made-up examples, about “X who promised to return Y’s book.” Part of the delight of literature and drama, however, is ways in which it reflects the mysterious complexity of lived experience. To the extent that it has a theoretical or philosophical dimension, the theatre of ideas must express something that can be formulated in terms of generalization; but it is still theatre, which by its very nature — concerned with the unique individuality of action and experience — tends to defy philosophical abstraction. This intrinsic tension is precisely what makes the theatre of ideas so important. It shows us not only how we might apply philosophical abstractions to our lives, but what the limitations of those abstractions might be. The theatre of ideas is in its spirit at the same time both involved with philosophy and at the same time anti-philosophical; it is attracted to politics, but dubious of universal political theories; it tells us about morality but does not necessarily endorse any general ethical philosophy.

This then would be a theatre of ideas based in the Schillerian tradition of art as play — in this case, the play of ideas. In this sense the theatre of ideas does not exist merely to express ideas or to represent them, but to inquire into ideas, to question and examine ideas. In this sense, theatre would be open to what might be termed “philosophical experiments” by playwrights and producers. (We might say that the novel and theatre stand to moral and social philosophy as the laboratory stands to chemistry.) Such a theatre requires creative artists willing to enter into production in a spirit of freedom and openness. But it also requires an audience willing to enter the theatre in a similar spirit of freedom and openness. Furthermore, just as the theatre — and the experience of all representational art — requires the “willing suspension of disbelief,” so does the theatre of ideas require the temporary willingness to suspend intellectual and social commitments.

There are many ways to define and understand philosophy; I will confess that my favored definition of philosophy is “uncommitted inquiry.” At least it can be said that ideally philosophy should be that inquiry most willing and able to question the ultimate nature and character of its commitments. In parallel fashion, the true theatre of ideas, a free theatre in the spirit that I think Schiller advocated, would be a theatre willing fearlessly to question any of commitments — social, political, moral, philosophical — of society at large or even of its own audience. This requires playwrights of courage, but it also requires audiences (and critics) who are willing to allow their values to be called into question, who are able to allow the theatre to express its true self as a stage for semblance and play. In this respect, I agree with Anatoly Smelyansky that the politicization of life is a threat to art, because it is a threat to the free exercise of imagination, even in the absence of official censorship.

I want now to extend the examination of play in narrative art to one of the most vexed issues of theatrical aesthetics: the question of historical drama. This problem arises when two opposite points of view confront each other. The first point of view holds that history and literature are separate realms, that history deals with truth about the past, however engaging or dull that may be. Fiction and drama, on the other hand, are imaginative exercises which, though they may be generally “true to” human nature or the human condition, must never pretend to historical truth. To mix history and fiction, so this position holds, is to invite confusion and falsehood. The other, opposite, standpoint is frequently voiced, I suspect, from people like me who tended to yawn over their history textbooks in school. History can be quite boring, so this position goes, and can give us nothing but the external description and chronology of events. Novels and theatre are so much more interesting because they express the lived experience of human beings. So why don’t we get novelists and dramatists to write history for us? Historical novels and historical theatre can bring history to life.

The opposition of these views connects with the issues I have raised here. How free can a free theatre be when it tries to deal with historical facts and personalities? One approach might be to deny that there is any conflict. For example, P.N. Fedoseev of the Academy of Science, in his concluding remarks for the symposium, “Vital Questions of History and Literature,” held in 1988 and published in Voprosy istorii (No. 6, 1988), asks, “what is literature and what is art? Is it an understanding or an ideology? .... I must say that there is no major contradiction here.” Not for Fedoseev, there isn’t. He simply says, “Science, art, and literature are all reflections of reality.” Nevertheless, he admits that art can reflect reality “sometimes objectively, sometimes open-mindedly, sometimes partially, and sometimes incorrectly. So we cannot completely identify literature and art as science. The essence of science and literature, however, is one: the comprehension of the world and of mankind. But there is, and should be, an ideological aspect to science as well as to literature. We must not oppose ideology to art. We should evaluate all works from the point of view of both artistic criteria and ideological and class positions....”

This is confusing. First we are told that art and science simply reflect reality, and that art might sometimes be incorrect. But science can be incorrect too, I would have thought. Most of us think incorrect science should be corrected. But should incorrect art be corrected? And by whom? Fedoseev does not tell us, but he does go on to say that ideology isn’t really opposed to art and that we should evaluate works of art both from an artistic and ideological point of view. Hold on: this is the very contradiction — between ideology and art — the whole symposium was about. To assure is that there “is no major contradiction here” is too much to swallow. One gathers from Fedoseev’s remarks that the relevant opposition is not between two factors, artistic independence and objective truth, but is rather a three-way tug-of-war between artistic, objective factual (i.e., scientific), and ideological demands. And it is clear that the “solution” to the problem — if it is a problem — is for some theorists that ideology must tell artists what they can write and what not, what is “correct” and what not.

This idea is very much the position of Plato. And again, we all must admit that Plato is right: if ever we find an ideology which enables us to construct a perfect society, a successful utopia with complete and ultimate happiness for all, then at that moment there will no longer be any need for art which does not flow directly from that ideology, and art which refuses to serve ideology ought perhaps to be censored. Of course, what is true of art might be said of historical science as well. As Iuri Afanas’ev remarked in the same symposium where Fedoseev spoke, the regime established by Stalin “did not need history as a science. It needed history as a servant of propaganda....” Afanas’ev reminds us that “the Stalin epoch created a monopoly that we must overcome, a monopoly on the truth, on new words, on the right to the first reading of a historical document.” Now my position is this: if the historian Afanas’ev is justified to complain of the idea that any historian, or school of historians, or historical ideology might have a monopoly on truth, how much more must we as artists, as audiences, and as aestheticians condemn the idea that artistic works should be “corrected” by the representatives or spokesmen for ideology, or for ideologically-based history. Ideological criticism is something anybody ought to be free to carry out; but ideological “correction” is quite another matter. This issue arises most obviously when artists — novelists and playwrights — take on historical topics.

Consider, for example, the plays of Mikhail Shatrov. Shatrov fills his stage with characters not merely from his own fertile imagination, but from Soviet history, and I would never wish to deny that anyone has the right to criticize his work. Starting at the most primitive, mundane level, he may, for example, be “incorrect” in factual details: for instance, exactly where Lenin might have been on, say, the night of October 24, 1917. Or he might be guilty of some technical error of the kind that S.P. Zalygin says Boris Pasternak is guilty of for having Dr. Zhivago ride on horseback from his farmstead to the city 30 miles every day — and without a good road! And what, Zalygin asks, did this remarkable horse eat in the city? Zalygin’s point, with which I totally agree, is that Pasternak is not a horseman and has no interest in this sort of technical detail: his concern was a deeper truth about human reality and the general character of historical times. No one reads Dr. Zhivago in order to learn how to ride. And certainly any creative writer — Pasternak, Shatrov, anybody — can be open to the kind of correction of errors of specific historical detail or technical knowledge. (In fact, Plato himself already complained some 2500 years ago about poets who write about horsemanship with pseudo-expertise, since they have never been on a horse in their lives.)

But how about the states of mind of historical characters portrayed in historical fiction or theatre? If a character is purely fictional, a product of a writer’s imagination, then there should be no objections from historians. (Of course, the ideology police might complain, should they discover a character having the wrong kind of ideas for his class.) The real problem is how a creative artist is to portray the inner life, feeling, and experience of an historical person. We may note, for instance, the objections voiced by D.M. Urnov (Senior Editor of Problems of Literature) to Shatrov’s portrayal of Lenin in Dal’she...Dal’she...Dal’she!. Urnov writes in the symposium “History and Literature” that “Lenin did not have those intellectual doubts or fears which are attributed to him in the play,” and he has other complaints about Shatrov’s Lenin. Now these objections by Urnov are quite possibly valid, and it is certainly not for someone like me to decide exactly what doubts, if any, the historical V.I. Lenin had on October 24, 1917 or any other date. I can, however, insist on this: if a playwright cannot experiment with the inner life of an historical character, cannot explore imaginatively what might have been the inner experience of a real, historical person, then there can be no reason to have historical theatre or historical fiction at all — except as propaganda, “hymns to the gods and praises of noble people,” as Plato put it. As I remarked earlier, we desire to have historical drama precisely because it can give us what an historical chronology seems unable to supply — a sense of the lived human experience of historical events. Whether we ultimately come to accept Carl Sandburg’s (or Gore Vidal’s) Lincoln, Rolf Hochhuth’s Churchill, or Mikhail Shatrov’s Lenin is a decision we will arrive at in light of everything we can come to know about these historical people, the context of their lives, and everything else we can know about the condition of being human. There is much uncertainty in this realm, but we surely must not in these matters simply allow ourselves to be dictated to by historians. In the question of the private, inner life of a human being there are no qualified experts with degrees who can be relied upon to guide us. In fact, for such insights the best people we have are novelists, poets, and dramatists. Historians? Please, no.

Incidentally, it is interesting that part of the Shatrov controversy should revolve around the question of an historical figure who feels (or does not feel) doubts and fears. Recall that Aristotle said that it is impossible to produce great drama about a protagonist who is unqualifiedly good; Aristotle would have been put to sleep by medieval religious plays which portrayed the progress of Jesus or a saint, just as he would have been by the propaganda allowed in Plato’s ideal state. Pure, unalloyed goodness makes for dull theatre. The doubts and fears of Oedipus or Hamlet are what people want to see. A small part of the reason for this might be morbid fascination with human unhappiness, but surely it is primarily that we all know that having doubts and fears is very much a part of being human. Adversity overcome by a completely confident, fearless character, even if one could be found in reality, would not make for effective drama. A flawed, agonized hero is always more real and more appealing to an audience than a simple, good one. And I suspect this applies as much to the theatrical portrayal of Lenin as of Hamlet.

I have not treated Plato fairly in this talk, because he was of course himself a great imaginative artist as well as being an immortal philosopher. It is not clear that he would have in every respect wished to bring about in the world the state he makes a fictional Socrates describe in the Republic. In that sense, the Republic is itself a magnificent experiment of the philosophical imagination. But if Plato’s experiment is to be trusted, it apparently demonstrates that any utopian state would be undermined by a theatre of ideas, a theatre which explored in an experimental fashion philosophical, moral, and political ideals as they might be lived in practice. Such a theatre would tend to make people think, and thought is unhealthy for effective dictatorships, even if they are benevolent in their intentions. This, on the other hand, is why art understood as an essential form of human play was so enthusiastically endorsed by the Enlightenment democrat, Schiller. Why do we have a theatre? Precisely, one might say in the spirit of Schiller, in order to have a domain which is not always responsible to mundane, pedantic criteria of “truth” or “historical accuracy.” Such an institution allows us a place to play with ideas. The reason for maintaining the autonomy and integrity of the theatre of ideas — for protecting its freedom from censorship and political control — is to enable it to continue to carry out its own experiments with every aspect of human life: moral, political, historical, religious, or erotic. We must in that sense reserve the right to say of a fictional or theatrical piece, even one which treats history, that “It’s only a work of art — we needn’t take it so very seriously!” A healthy society needs a forum where it can suspend for the moment its political or moral beliefs and commitments, and like the philosophy seminar, the theatre of ideas can be such a place. To allow this kind of free play of ideas need not trivialize art, it simply liberates it to explore whatever territory it wishes. Some might interpret this as a license for artistic irresponsibility. In a sense, I agree, but I would also say that virtually every call for “responsibility” from artists which I have ever heard was really a call for political correctness, a demand that art bow down to power and authority.

For Schiller, as for Kant, the autonomy of art, its democratic freedom from authority, was part of its essential value. In this respect, these champions of freedom distinguished themselves from Plato, for whom art was important because it could persuade people —  manipulate them — to think the correct or right thoughts. The spirit of Schiller and Kant would view the purpose of a free theatre of ideas not as a force to make people think the right thoughts, but to provoke them think for themselves. No wonder dictators everywhere fear it.