In a flurry of gavel banging, hissing and desk tapping, the Yale Political Union met Tuesday evening for a debate on the ties between art and government.
The debate began with a speech in favor of the separation of art and state by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a leading libertarian think tank. Over 120 members of the YPU filed into Street Hall to hear Boaz’s speech, which was followed by remarks from members of the Independent Party, Tory Party and Party of the Right.
Boaz, who chose the night’s topic, was invited to headline the debate because of his renowned oratorical skills, YPU President April Lawson ’09 said.
“Tonight we had the kind of speaker who excites our style of philosophical arguing the best,” Lawson said.
As a libertarian, Boaz argued for the protection of individual freedoms, and he asserted that when the government funds the arts, they are in danger of being limited by specific guidelines.
“The federal leviathan concerns itself with every nook and cranny of our lives, and the arts have not escaped the tender stifling of its embrace,” he said.
Boaz went on to draw parallels between the separation of church and state and the separation of art and state.
“America’s founders thought that religion should be left to civil society precisely because it was so important to each individual,” Boaz said.
He contended that, like religion, individuality is essential to the interpretation of art. Therefore, Boaz said, art deserves to be given the same respect as religion and kept entirely separate from government.
Boaz’s comments were followed by a brief question-and-answer session and speeches by members of the YPU.
Rachel Bayefsky ’09, who spoke on behalf of the Independent Party, agreed with Boaz’s remarks.
“The government’s support [of art] is an imposition of private values,” Bayefsky said. “I don’t think that we should accept the government coming in and telling us what we should care about.”
But Alexander Dominitz ’09 of the Tory Party disputed Boaz’s claims, saying that art is a key element of culture and requires the support of government to survive.
Party of the Right member Helen Rittelmeyer ’08 echoed this sentiment, saying that pulling government funding for the arts would send a message that the arts do not matter.
“By saying that the federal government should eliminate all arts funding, Mr. Boaz has reduced the arts to the cultural equivalent of stamp collecting,” Rittelmeyer said.
Boaz is hardly the most famous person to grace the YPU dais in the past year; recent speakers have included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Democratic National Committee chair and former presidential candidate Howard Dean ’71, and William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, who is often credited with starting the modern conservative movement.
Still, student reaction to the debate was positive on the whole, and multiple attendees praised Boaz for his clear style of argument.
“Often debates on more obscure topics with less well-known speakers are the finest ones of the year,” said Matt Shaffer ’10, a member of the Party of the Right.
While a number of freshmen expressed enthusiasm about the organization, some hoped that there would be more opportunities for them to speak publicly.
“If it is really about being able to represent all sides of the issue, you are not getting a full spectrum if only a few people are allowed to talk,” Mike Educate ’11 said.
The next YPU debate will be held on Sept. 24 and will feature guest speaker Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times. The debate will ask whether it is journalists’ duty to expose government secrets.