A reader writes, apropos of my posting about Alan Gilbert:
Regarding your comments about Alan Gilbert and classic music: I truly think that the classical music age gap is a symptom of the increasing “juvenilization” of our culture. Young people no longer want to grow up, expand their horizons, and become sophisticated. They no longer “graduate” from rock-and-roll to classical music, just as they don’t graduate from collecting Star Wars memorabilia to collecting fine etchings and engravings. (Can you imagine Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, or Cary Grant dressing up as Darth Vader to attend a Star Wars convention?!?!?! And can you picture Irene Dunne, Ingrid Bergman, or Hedy Lamarr in costumes to match them?)
I have mixed feelings about this e-mail. Mind you, I think there’s a considerable amount of truth in it–I don’t have much use for the sort of “grown” man who wears a reversed baseball cap. But I also think it’s important not to take the process of cultural maturation for granted. Yes, Mozart is an incomparably great composer, but merely being exposed to his music does not (alas) ensure immediate recognition and acceptance of its greatness, least of all when the exposer makes it clear that he expects the exposee to like what he’s hearing on pain of being dismissed as stupid. This is part of what I have in mind when I speak of the “entitlement mentality” that has long prevented our high-culture institutions from coming to grips with the urgent problem of audience development. Would that it weren’t necessary to sell Mozart, but it is, and Alan Gilbert will have to do so if he wants to succeed at the New York Philharmonic.
I’m also uncomfortable with the notion that pop culture is ever and always inferior to high culture. Lest we forget, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant were Hollywood stars, not graduates of RADA. If any of them ever got around to playing Hamlet, the fact has hitherto escaped my attention–and I don’t have a problem with that. By the same token, I don’t think it necessary to “graduate” from rock to classical music (or, for that matter, jazz) in order to become a full-fledged grownup. One can like both, and take both seriously.
As I wrote a few weeks ago:
I yield to no one in my disdain for the spoiled fruits of modernity, but I’ve been listening to rock for 40 years without any obvious ill effects–and with no diminishment of my appreciation for what Alec Wilder referred to as “the professional tradition” in American songwriting….
I love the great pre-rock songwriters with all my heart, and I’ve never had much use for hip-hop or grunge, either. But their work, wonderful though it was, is neither the beginning nor the end of American popular music, and to suppose otherwise is to sentence yourself to the same aesthetic prison that Evelyn Waugh inhabited. “His strongest tastes were negative,” Waugh wrote of himself (more or less) in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. “He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz–everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.” To be disgusted and bored with the world as it is may be an appropriate response to things as they are, but it isn’t much fun, nor is it a good way to get anything done.
No, I don’t collect Star Wars memorabilia, but I do have a Tom & Jerry cel set-up hanging on my wall, I watch WKRP in Cincinnati reruns, and I’m totally into Erin McKeown. And I am such a highbrow–not to mention an adult.
If I may quote myself again:
I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
I’ll stand by that.
UPDATE: A younger reader writes:
Most of the young people I know desperately wish to “expand their horizons and become sophisticated,” but they have no idea how to go about it. And they’re not getting much guidance from the wider culture, alas.
The real problem with the national cutback of arts coverage–not just in newspapers but throughout the public sphere, including education–is that it cuts today’s young people off from a genuine appreciation of arts, music, drama, dance, cinema, &c. I get the sense that it wasn’t always thus, that in the old days there were a number of extremely wealthy capitalists–like Duncan Phillips, for instance–who possessed genuine connoisseurship and shared their love of the arts with the public at large.
I suspect that the one great public service the arts provide is to remind us that there’s more to living well than money and politics. Perhaps that’s the reason the arts are so neglected today.
The important thing about the middlebrow moment of which I have written so frequently in this space and elsewhere was that it provided just such guidance to anyone who wanted it. I did, and I grabbed it with both hands. I hope Alan Gilbert proves to be a first-rate conductor, but I’m more interested in seeing whether he understands that he needs to be supplying that kind of guidance, not just from time to time but on a regular, week-to-week basis.