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Don't let war cries silence the arts

When people lose their tempers with each other, normal, rational communication breaks down. And on the international scale, when two major powers threaten confrontation over an Afghanistan, the more-than-ever needed lines of cultural communication are almost automatically severed.

Sooner or later, people facing conflict learn communication's crucial uses -- including at best the luminous speech of the arts. In this age, it seems to me, any country which methodically silences that speech has some urgent learning to do. Especially a country committed to freedom of speech.

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Systematic communications developed historically in service to the military, to enable one group of fighting men to outmaneuver another, and so to "win" a battle. As we all should know (but in the heat of chauvinistic indignation so easily forget), in today's shooting battles, everybody loses.

On the largest scale, the simplistic communication of battle-boasts can of course encircle and threaten the world, as with Hitler's in the late thirties, culminating in World War II. But for real size, how about two other Germans, Schiller and Beethoven, saying through words and heaven-excavating music, "Seid umschlungen, Millionen!" "Be embraced, ye millions. . . . Above the stars must live a loving Father." And how about an American, Marianne Moore, proposing at the heart of a poem, "There never was a war that was/ not inward; I must/ fight till I have conquered in myself what causes war. . . ."

Art, at its best, reaches from inwardness to inwardness, and it lifts, widens , and deepens the range and veracity of communication. Certain images in Edward Steichen's great photographic assemblage of the fifties, "The Family of Man," stick in the mind so as to answer a New York disc jockey I heard a few weeks ago deploring the Soviet presence at the Lake Placid Olympics: "We've gotta get those Russians outta the country!"

Steichen's internationally gathered pictures left the viewer no other "country" to send anyone off to; the family tree, with all its varied foliage, seemed to grow out of one ground. His "millionen" were wholly "umschlungen." And they all stood for one simple question: Who speaks for man?

The best art does. Instances come to mind to join Steichen's own: Sviatoslav Richter playing Beethoven and Prokofiev to American audiences; the Moscow Art Theater doing Chekhov in New York; the Robert Shaw Chorale singing spirituals and Russian folk songs on tour in the Soviet Union -- all of them magnificently contradicting that earlier cold war.

As Washington now hastens in the traditional way to break off cultural contacts, to stamp out root communications exactly when they are most crucially needed, it is punishing everybody, including Americans, as indiscriminately as war does. And of course it is promoting war. Not victory. Just war.

The arts do speak for man, with infinitely more point than the multi-billions already spent worldwide in the huckstering of "security." This is the time not for diminishing but for amplifying that voice for man, for taking maybe a few million and exploring internationally -- through UNESCO? -- ways of extending and empowering its reach. For finding out what more productive meaning "security" can have than the capacity for preemptive self-demolition. For fighting to conquer in all of ourselves "what causes war."

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The dancer Jose Limon, a man of deep international conscience, was convinced, as he once put it to me, that "in the arts man is part angel." I don't think his point was that artists are necessarily better than anyone else, but rather that like angels their work is to communicate, and so to bless humanity, to help us all find our way past the threats and counterthreats.

Facing this way is Carl Sandburg's well-known dialogue in "The People, Yes," in which a little girl listens to her father's explanation of what soldiers are for and then decides: "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."

Need we be helpless to fulfill that prophecy? Not, I think, if some tiny fraction of the escalating gun money can bring the world family together, through its United Nations, in the vehement, patient, art-amplified study of how to join in refusing to be "they."

Why else are we all here on this one world?


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